How Covid-19 Changed Our Relationships

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A fortnight after she completed one year at home, my child’s summer holidays began today. Once these months were marked by dusty road trips, boisterous family meet-ups, and big birthday parties. Now, happy birthday is sung over the ether and holidays are indistinguishable from other days.

How Covid-19 Changed Our Relationships

As the rise in Covid-19 cases across India is timed perfectly with a two-month school break, I can only hope the heat will inspire my daughter to be like her favourite four-legged streeties who retreat under the shade of trees for a snooze that lasts all day.

Dogs rest in the shade under a tree. (Photograph courtesy: Mia Bhat)
Dogs rest in the shade under a tree. (Photograph courtesy: Mia Bhat)

The pandemic left its Yeti-sized footprints all over our closest relationships. Our grief burned inside us as we were denied proper farewells to loved ones who passed away. Families separated by geography had to make do with virtual contact. Those stuck together struggled with privacy and monotony.

Our sex lives suffered as we cooked, stitched, nurtured new plants and pets, and mastered the art of WFH dressing. Those living alone craved a hug. As we watched the lives of millions of Indian workers collapse around us, we were forced to face our privilege.

Even in our reinforced panic rooms, our anxieties hit a peak, bars were emptied, our hair turned grey, something withered, died, and, in some cases, was reborn. Our possessions gathered dust. Fatigue set in. The video now stayed switched off on Zoom.

As public spaces were sealed, and we were forced to pick who we would spend the next few months with, we no longer had the luxury of ‘specialised’ friendships. Connections were stripped down to their basics.

My movie pal, my art-appreciation friend, my childhood dost, my exercise buddy all merged into one: my martini girlfriend.

She gamely stepped up to the challenge of playing all these parts. The flip side of this was that we could shrug off previously obligatory interactions with a simple, “I’m not meeting anyone in Covid.”

(Photograph courtesy: Natasha Badhwar)
(Photograph courtesy: Natasha Badhwar)

Many of us went back to flawed exes. “I’d rather work on an old connection, than start from scratch,” D told me. She reconnected with a man she had broken up with a few months before. “I felt it’s worth giving it another shot. It’s very difficult to get everything you want.” At a time when basic human contact was so difficult to come by, she also felt like she needed to fast-forward life. “If you like someone, why not just move in with each other?”

We did things that, in retrospect, seem almost dystopian. “K and I would meet at the roundabout in the middle of the street for five minutes,” said J. They lived close to each other but visitors were banned in both buildings. “She would make something extra and share it with me, we would buy medicines for each other.”

The real dystopia, of course, played out around us in a country battered with hate, Islamophobia, and a complete lack of concern for how the less privileged and frontline health workers were surviving. Even a global pandemic was not reason enough to heal and introspect.

Some couples posted my-perfect-life pictures on Instagram while struggling with the mental health issues of their teenage children and the anger of children who were poised to join college/their first job, their independence now on hold. Others were thrilled by the ‘bonus’ together time.

(Photograph courtesy: Natasha Badhwar)
(Photograph courtesy: Natasha Badhwar)

“Lots of extra time that is usually wasted in commuting and attending to others’ needs was suddenly available,” S, a long-married friend tells me. “We laughed, joked, had quiet drinks, made plans for the future, watched movies.”

“There was no distraction. We had each other’s full attention,” she added.

We weren’t in the same chill zone as S and her partner, but my spouse too became more important than ever, as I tried to visualise with who else I could possibly have survived this extended house arrest. Answer: Nobody.

Couples juggled children, housework, and seniors with their professional obligations.

“For a year, our bodies have remained in a state of hyper-vigilance, uncertainty, and a constant ‘doing mode’. There has been no time to repair, even rest,” says psychologist Sonali Gupta in Mint about how the blurred work-home boundaries eventually translated into burnout.

A man uses a smartphone while carrying a child in Mumbai, on Feb. 15, 2020. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
A man uses a smartphone while carrying a child in Mumbai, on Feb. 15, 2020. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Poetry played an important part as always. It disappeared from my writing but it also helped keep me sane. “I had a better connection with poetry, it spoke to me at that time,” said J. “It was harder to read longer stuff, little things would peep out.”

For some of us, new online rituals became a lifesaver. Two friends across cities connected daily for a quick video call every evening, cajoling others from their circle to join, as and when they could. Everyone spoke at the same time. J’s film group that was meant to last only a couple of months turned into something bigger—a safe space of empathetic, compassionate, and politically-aligned people who were living through this strange time together. A group of teachers used to working together, found a way out.

They organised a Zoom call every Thursday over drinks. “For anyone who is engaged in anything collective, the move online was relatively individualising. Casual banter, at the heart of anything collective, suddenly disappeared,” said G, a teacher. “The format was unstructured, like the casual conversations you have in corridors. The purpose was essentially exchanging ideas and staffroom commiseration.”

Soon they found that a standard free 45-minute Zoom session wasn’t enough and doubled the length of the call. “Our troubles could not be contained in one drink or 45 minutes,” added G, laughing.

As for my 10-year-old? She looked alarmed when her father warned her on the eve of her holidays, “You’ll have to stop your evening pavement football soon. Cases are rising.”

While a few of us don’t find another summer daunting, some of us might have run out of stamina.

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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