By Sandipan Deb, May 31, 2021 17:00
It has been more than a year since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the world’s largest lockdown. For everyone in India, whether a billionaire or migrant labourer, this has been a year like no other we have experienced. It can also be asserted safely that most of us will possibly never be the same again, at least not the way we were when 2020 began. For many, the year has simply been a haze, when Sundays and Tuesdays—and all other days—just became “yesterday" and “tomorrow", or “one more day". It has been a time of paranoia, dread and the sudden overturning of many assumptions on which we based our lives.
Fear breeds fake news and theories—both doomsday warnings and false elixirs and assurances. Depending on our innate natures and circumstances, we have chosen to believe what we wanted to, and spread these beliefs far and wide. We are still doing so, and almost all governments have displayed jerky knees. The latest example of this is many countries in Europe suspending use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine because a few dozen people out of millions vaccinated developed blood clots, even though no definite link between the jab and those clots has been established. However, later on, the European Medicines Agency deemed the vaccine “safe and effective".
But at its deepest and most subtle level, the covid pandemic has affected our perceptions of reality. We now have a billion versions, each of them true to its beholder: versions of the big world we live in, and versions of our small individual existences. Most of us have possibly had more time to ourselves than before the lockdown, and whether we’re aware of it or not, we have introspected. Some of us may have even come to know ourselves and the people close to us better. And that is not necessarily a good thing.
In Andrei Tarkovsky’s mystical science fiction film Stalker, a few seekers try to travel to the centre of the mysterious Zone, where one’s deepest desires are granted. Trouble is, the Zone knows your deepest desire more precisely than you yourself might comprehend, and when you look at that honest and pitilessly neutral mirror, your dearest truths could shatter. In these months of the plague, some of us may have reflected and sought meaning and sense, and the conclusions may not have been what we had hoped for.
Yet, the large majority of us will most likely come out of covid-19’s material and psychological trauma more or less intact, even though we may choose to wear masks in public places for the rest of our lives. But little seems to have been said about those who have been affected and scarred the most profoundly. The children.
Children have now spent a year cooped up at home, unable to go out and meet friends, deprived of freedom, sports, fisticuffs. They have not sat in classrooms, engaged in pranks, burst into collective laughter, exchanged and traded stuff, or rushed out happily at end of school, looking forward to coming back the next day and continuing from where they left off.
A schoolteacher friend pointed out a key shortcoming of virtual classrooms that had not occurred to me. The unrehearsed humour and banter that are an integral part of the physical classroom, which both teachers and students share during lessons, and which often make education fun, can never be replicated on Zoom. These are automatic offshoots of physical group interaction and a wide sensory awareness—especially visual. Imagine watching a cricket match telecast alone, one that shows only the bowler and nothing else, and you’ll get a sense of how a home-bound child experiences school.
Various studies have definitively shown that covid has impacted the mental well-being of many children. The loss of peer group support at this stage of life when peer interaction is important for brain development, self-concept construction and ultimately mental health, has led to dangerous feelings of loneliness and often depression. High-school students are worried about the academic pressure they may face once schools go back to business as usual and they have to play catch-up. They are more worried about their careers and futures than ever before. Their sense of safety and stability, essential for a healthy childhood, has been damaged.
Now think of the youngest school children. Kindergarten teaches them socialization and some basic values and life skills. And they have nothing to compare the pandemic environment with, since they have no memory of what was once instinctively deemed normal. If anything, a nameless uncertainty coupled with strict regimentation will be hard-coded into them. This could colour their world-view forever.
Most older kids may bounce back after the restrictions are lifted, for children are the most resilient of human beings, but what about the little people who have known no other reality and will enter physical classrooms for the first time burdened by an anxiety that would have been unimaginable for any other generation?
It is the fundamental duty of every parent, teacher and indeed fully-adult being to heal the children. For, if we let those who need us the most today grow up with dread in their hearts and a diminished view of all that the world promises, we would have let the virus and pessimism win. Mankind does not deserve that.
Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines.