COVIDian Reflections – Behavioral Changes

A fine morning during the Corona lockdown! The secretary of a housing society of around 70 people in Cochin, Kerala, India, sent a message to the society’s WhatsApp group, telling those who needed vegetables to list out their requirements. A steady stream of messages from the members followed, which the secretary quickly tabulated and forwarded to a nearby supermarket that delivered the goods the very next day. Then, followed a reverse messaging: the secretary informing the members about the arrival of the ordered goods to be picked up. In another occasion, a woman member asked if there was anyone doing errands so that she could club her requirements with that person and avoid going out. What are we seeing here? Behaviours are changing or rather being forced to change and that man is left with no option but to accept and adapt to the new reality that neighbourhood and interdependence are patently inherent in man’s social-genetics. No more self-assuring declaration that “I can do it all myself.” This is a new normal.

The virus teaches us that public hygiene is as important as personal hygiene and that personal hygiene is not just taking showers daily or dressing up well but much more than that. “Which part of your body needs to be kept the cleanest?” Today, the unambiguous answer is hands. But the answer was always hands though we were not sensitised about it in the midst of busy routines. Besides welcoming people with a warm handshake, our hands literally touches every part of our body, so our physique is only as clean as our hands. The virus is, hence, merely but firmly telling us to keep our hands clean and hygienic ALWAYS not only as a social responsibility but also to keep ourselves clean. We are left with no option but to change our behaviour to accommodate this advisory command.

One unpalatable habit that is common in Asia, especially in the Indian subcontinent is spitting in public spaces. This is further accentuated by the habit of using Paan — Google: a preparation combining betel leaf with areca nut widely consumed throughout Southeast Asia, East Asia (mainly Taiwan), and the Indian subcontinent. Now, man is forced to correct this behavioural anomaly of salival contamination of public spaces.

Do we maintain minimum decorum while sneezing, especially at public places? Many never did! We sneeze with our nose uncovered and release enough droplets possibly carrying disease-causing pathogens. This habit of open and uncovered sneezing is no longer acceptable to the virus. The virus spreads through sneezing, so it would love to propagate. Sneezing is akin to providing a travel visa to the virus, so man is forced to change this careless habit.

We waste food because we do not finish our plates! It is estimated that wealthy countries waste around 222 million tonnes of food from their dining tables every year, and that is almost equivalent to the food production by sub-Saharan Africa. Do a quick introspection and see for yourself how much food you and your family members waste at your home! You do. Right? Why do you waste food? Because you buy more food than you can consume. Now, the virus turned your ((dining) tables — the virus has trimmed our menu as there is not much to buy in the markets; your fridges are not full; your dining tables have only the essentials; and you fill your plates with only as much as you can eat. You are now acutely aware that every morsel is valuable. You have become or made to become responsible in consuming food that nature produces to not waste but to fill the stomachs of all — according to the United Nations, there are more than 200 million people who go to bed on an empty stomach everyday. The virus tells you to mind this number before you dump food from your plates to waste baskets.

One of my colleagues told me that he celebrated his son’s birthday with a small -cake cutting function and with only his family present. He also told me he brought in more planning on how he spent money, striking out all extravagant ways of spending. What he is basically telling is that he started to live based on his needs without succumbing too much into wishes and within the budget, with a plan for rainy days. When wishes replace needs, it will lead to demands if you have money to support your wishes. Having a TV at home is a need, but wishing to have a 50” TV because my neighbour bought a 49” TV is a case where wish is replacing need, leading to a demand that is financed either by one’s own pockets or borrowing. My colleague says that the virus taught him to change his behavior of going after wishes and demands but going with needs with a plan for future.

Why are youngsters more daring than the elders? Why do the youth take risks that the aged won’t? Biologists give an explanation that Adrenalin-pumping is higher in younger lot. But, ultimately, it is something else. Everyone will die one day, and on an average, we have a lifespan of 60-70 years. So the youngsters’ natural distance to death is much longer than that of the elders. This ‘NATURAL’ assurance makes them more daring and fearless. But, today nature had temporarily withdrawn this life insurance policy for the youngsters and made the distance to death almost equal for both the youngsters and elders. All, including youngsters, are afraid of the virus and are not willing to take any risk with the virus.

Face is the part of man’s body that he wants to keep as the most beautiful, and he uses the hands for it. Today, he can not do it without the fear of death. Is COVID-19 teaching us that it is not face but mind and heart that are the most beautiful parts — empathy for and compassion toward the fellow beings and nature?

“Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” ~ Ralph Waldo EmersonAs Ralph says, behaviour is a set of habits that become part of a person over a period of time through his actions linked to his thinking. Hence, effecting behavioral changes in people means effecting changes in the way people think. This is a Herculean task, if not superhuman, because “old habits die hard” — very difficult to change conditioned-ways-of. So if COVID-19 is able to make behavioural changes in people, implied is that people had been made to think differently than the ways that they were used to be, then it must be superhuman.

The story of the housing society that I briefed in the beginning is real, and it is my society, Westfort Gardens, in Cochin, Kerala, and the efficient secretary who is leading the fight against the virus is Ramesh Krishnan. In our WhatsApp group, someone had used ‘my wish list’ when he/she was putting the list of vegetables and fruits needed. Till the recent past, our wish-list included iPhones and gadgets, the latest designer wear etc. Our priorities have changed and rightly so. The difficulty in procuring vegetables and fruits have also heightened our awareness of its importance. We wouldn’t spare a thought when we picked and chose veggies and fruits at supermarkets.

One day, we will be free of COVID-19. Then, will the society’s WhatsApp group hear something like this? I plan to drive to the city centre tomorrow and that there is space for three people in my car, please let me know who wishes to carpool with me. Hope we would!

Westfort Gardens

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