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Thursday, August 06, 2020

Viral Trap: Remembering the human stories behind the coronavirus news

Even as we're forced to consume news about the pandemic, we must not forget those who don't have our protection and privileges.

Written by Nishant Shah | New Delhi | Published: April 4, 2020 6:00:54 pm
coronavirus, covid-19, pandemic, social distancing, Nishant Shah, covid 19 The surfeit of news on corona must not make us oblivious to those fading into the darkness.

I woke up the other day with a strange feeling that I am losing my memory. As I was going through the morning rituals of scrolling through news feeds and social media updates, I felt that I could not remember the world before corona — BC, if you will. It was a strange feeling. I am almost certain that three weeks ago, before the pandemic was announced, before the shutdowns were implemented, before social distancing and physical isolation became the bywords, there must have been other things that were on my mind and in my information streams. Try as I might, I could only come up with vague recollections about events, people, places, and plans that must have occupied my attention.
The feeling of preternatural amnesia was complemented through the rhythms of the day. At “work”, I sat at my desk in a dress-shirt and pyjamas, making an attempt to make only the camera-visible parts of me work-presentable. We joked how we have forgotten to wear work clothes. The virus had rendered us sartorially catatonic. The news feed was making me sick because the news channels were concentrating on the state of befuddled buffoonery in global governance of this pandemic. So, I shifted to other channels, only to find that they, too, were talking about everything in the context of corona: dating, mating, eating, meeting, cooking, creating, house-keeping and pet-keeping, all in the times of corona.

Unable to take this contagious onslaught, I moved to Netflix to watch a reality TV show, but had to stop mid-way through the first episode because every time I saw people touch, hug, or sit close to each other, my spidey senses tingled. My newfound pathology of touch and space could not tolerate these people existing in a pre-corona world, vegetating in one another’s germy exudation.

It is understandable that with such a global threat to our species, a lot of our attention is being taken by the emerging calisthenics of epidemiology as new epicentres of contagion emerge. However, our single-handed focus and viral information stream of the virus has trapped us. When our physical universe shrank, at least for those who could afford it, the reassurance was that digital access will liberate us from our isolation. Instead, we found and are practising digital shrinkage, where our entire informational universe is being shaped and concentrated on just this one factor that binds and restricts us. Before we got infected and immobilised by this virus, we had already been bound and bagged by the information circles of the virus — where endless WhatsApp groups and never-ending news cycles keep us immersed only in this one landscape, ignoring the other critical, curious, and creative things that make us human.

There are two alarming consequences of this information saturation of the corona crisis. One, it takes its toll on our collective well-being, where we get addicted to the updates which give us a constant stream of traffic without giving us any new information. It intensifies our feelings of being trapped, amplifying our isolation as the only defining condition so that we let it deepen our sense of precariousness and danger even when it is not materially warranted. This would account for people, who can afford to work from home, flooding the interweb with memes, dark humour, political pontification and social commentary, about their tough negotiations with reformulating their lives.

The second, more sinister consequence of this informational cloistering is that we turn the focus of our existence only on ourselves. Now that we all experience a threat that is only reflected in all our informational practices, we get so ensconced in our over-exaggerated inconveniences that we forget to recognise those who are going to suffer the most in this changing world order. Our filter bubbles are going to ensure that we worry about where we will find our favourite brand of olives or cans of pet food, and stock pile on groceries, while millions are going to be left to fend for their rights to life and security. We will meme in the darkness of the darkness, not paying attention to those who shall fade into it.

While the media attention cycles will continue to force corona stories down our throat, it is up to us to develop a new information hygiene routine, where we do not let this landscape of alarm and breaking news immobilise our emotional and social landscapes. Just as we practise social distancing and hand hygiene in the physical world, we need to develop new routines of informational distancing from the corona-centric stories and offer our helping hands to those who do not have the privileges and protections that you and I, and everybody else reading this column, can take for granted.

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