People maintain distance among themselves as they stand in a queue to collect passes for essential services during Day-2 of the nationwide lock-down, at Tirupati in Chittoor. - Caption of a photograph on ‘The Hitavada’ front page.
WHAT a positive impression does that picture make! A picture of social decency, of social respect, of social distancing! The scene ran counter to the overall social scene in the country -- with people jamming into one another in queues, impatiently pushing one another, fighting, shouting, showing utter disrespect to everybody else. And such used to be the condition everywhere -- in queues to pay up bills, to buy cinema tickets, in hospitals, in social gatherings, in weddings, in schools and colleges, at funerals ...!
Then coronavirus hit us!
The Government -- Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi himself -- appealed for self-imposed public curfew, social distancing, getting locked-up in our own homes, and general national lock-down amid efforts to introduce higher standards of collective personal hygiene and greater medicare!
But nothing seemed to work. For, the larger Indian society had never learned its lessons in civic sense properly. Some sections did follow some wise social and individual norms, but most others only looked at those only as sophisticated nonsense of the elite.
In big numbers, people in general continued ignoring Government appeals -- and even strict policing. In countless places across the country, complaints against police mounted -- for their so-called highhandedness (which actually was nothing more than mild efforts of disciplining the people). The cops stood out in the open, ready and easy targets for the deadly infection to hit them. Yet, they were blamed -- for doing duty!
Let us not be unnecessarily harsh on ourselves. Large numbers among us followed the new norms of social distancing religiously. Most of us were traumatised by restrictions plus by dangerous possibilities of infection hitting us. Yet, we are following the norms. We are abiding by new rules.
Yet, the habit of good numbers among us starting hurting us -- those numbers loved to rush, to jostle, to stand close, to breathe into other’s faces, to sneeze with mouths and noses uncovered, of coughing anywhere, of spitting anywhere, or not maintaining good standards of hygiene!
The picture of people standing within squares drawn on the road with white chalk certainly represented a new effort. In a way, it also looked funny, to say the least!
Such squares and circles now appear in front of shops as well as people stand apart at medical stores and daily needs shops and vegetable markets. Seen from a little distance, the scene has a happy tinge. But from close quarters, the trouble is writ large on people’s faces. For, as is obvious, the members of larger Indian society had rarely trained themselves in proper conduct in public places.
Today, as the people grapple with the new norms, a culture-change appears in the offing. If this is continued for a reasonable length of time, then not just the coronavirus but also other evils could be brought under control soon, inviting happier times socially.
To that extent, we must thank the current crisis that has brought for us new norms of social conduct. If we are in a position to carry on with the new habits -- howsoever forced -- we will give rise to a new and welcome culture, to a new way of conducting ourselves in public places. And that will also help us to attain better standards of medical and social hygiene.
Let us hope that this good faith in ourselves finds firmer moorings in our society.
But here is one troubling question that is traumatising many, many, many among us: Did we need coronavirus to teach us basic social norms?
Nobody will ever confess, ‘yes we did need it’. Factually, however, we would never have learned those basic norms of socially correct conduct.
By that standard, some of us may say that coronavirus was an (ugly) opportunity to mend some of our cultural flaws, no matter how bad and wrong and improper it is actually to be saying so!
Let us not miss the trauma on Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi’s face as he addressed the nation twice in just a few days. He urged people to understand things, he cajoled them, he appealed to their good sense -- and finally with moist eyes, he folded his hands and requested people to follow social distancing most strictly -- almost in the manner of a curfew. By that action, the Prime Minister presented a picture of extreme grace under pressure -- yet also of certain sensed of helplessness. His words were calm, yet sensitive people could feel a touch of trauma in those sentences.
There is no doubt that the current crisis will be over in a few weeks. It may claim some lives and may leave certain deep scars on the society and the economy. And some of those scars will be in the zone of our failed civic sense collectively. In fact, a mature society should have behaved differently and more responsibly. But quite many sections among us refused to do so. They thronged the markets. They crowded the streets for prayers, they indulged in political protests regardless of warnings and cautions from the administration.
But let us hope that all those were only aberrations that would one day vanish from our midst. Let us pray that the larger Indian society will behave with a greater sense of discipline and responsibility in times of crisis -- any crisis.
If that happens, it will be a dream society of New India!