The year 2020 has gone by like a nightmare, some may say, and so 2021 arrives unawares. Has a year gone by?
We had so much to adjust to in 2020 when we lost the comforting routine of time and space. No need for deep philosophical thinking on ‘time’ and ‘space’.
Quite simply, we can’t go out easily so we have to make a ‘world’ of our home, that space we return to each day after work. What is that home space like under the movement control order (MCO)? Comforting or plain prison-like?
As for time, how does it feel to work from home and have no clear time routine except when you have Zoom meetings or whatnot via IT? “Lunch time already, ah?” someone asks, lifting his eyes from the laptop at long last.
Any change in societal or personal lives is influenced by gender, social class, race, culture, age and other variables. I can only speak as a 73-year-old woman, former academic, Christian and Malaysian-Chinese, and post-polio person. Each facet of our multi-layered identity will be affected in different degrees by this season of Covid-19.
Even so, we do share common experiences. But how can one talk of ‘gains’ in a season of such pain, suffering, death and uncertainty? I will not romanticise, neither will I promote cynicism. Balance is all, says Confucius echoed by Chaucer, who wisely tells us “to measure out a mean”.
Human beings are sociable creatures, and so the first topsy-turvy aspect is not being able to spontaneously socialise. It is no fun chatting with ourselves or our plants daily. We need the magical, delicious exchange of vibes and speech when we meet in the flesh.
And if we were honest, we would also say that our Ego needs the supportive boost of our fellows when they like our views or simply enjoy our presence. So, do we get this kind of magical exchange via IT, Zoom, video apps or what-have-you? Not exactly. Nevertheless, some connection is better than none.
The gain for a senior citizen like me, not at all savvy with technology, is new learning. It was not easy and I am still not totally sure of internet banking and have strangely amusing nightmares about it. Do I just refuse to learn IT steps or do I take it as a life-enhancing challenge?
Mercifully, now I know that there is no need to be over-fearful. The mind is the key to a good or a bad attitude in facing this digital challenge. New patience, a new letting go of anxiety is such a boon at any age, even more so in our 70s. Something can be gained after all.
Even as I write this, I am reminded that not everyone can afford IT tools. This leads me to the enhanced awareness of inequity or uneven advantages in any society which the Covid season brings us. Don’t talk about IT when some people don’t even have food on the table, so no point parading one’s new svelte figure from dieting(?) as someone did digitally. Laughable and yet not totally amusing.
I have become more aware than ever of being fortunate in quite a few ways. With admiration, I look at the cleaners and security guards in our condo complex and see them with kinder eyes. Why does it have to take a pandemic to make us kinder?
In my earlier essay “Living Under the MCO” in April 2020, I had mentioned such service providers and the garbage disposal frontline workers in our society. Suffice it here for me to say that many of us have come to value these hitherto ‘invisible’ service providers. To some people, this may seem too ‘romantic’.
There are many in our society who just see these workers as unwelcome migrant labour or carriers of viruses. Do viruses care about social class differences or whether somebody is a migrant or a Malaysian? If clusters have been found in factories, then the rapacious employers and shareholders, all out for profit, are the villains of the tragedy by providing appalling accommodations for workers and for neglecting standard operating procedures.
Pandemics enforce a relook at ourselves, at our relationships with family and friends and beyond. When I teach students how to analyse a character in any literary text, I make them draw concentric circles surrounding the character, radiating out from that character to family and friends, next to the village or town, then to the wider world, to Nature and onwards (the last circle has to do with the spiritual or the ‘numinous’, whether the character has a religion or lack of one). It may be helpful for us, in this Covid pandemic, to reflect on these connections.
Does enforced being at home make us value family members more – or does it heighten irritability and so make us pick on every little fault? Each of us will have to answer this question to our own conscience.
I myself have found that it is easy to be grumpy, but it is also totally possible to observe, with generosity and graciousness, that every family member has his or her vulnerability. You can either be very unforgiving or you can value each other’s physical, mental and spiritual health so dearly in this time of Covid that you will care deeply.
I don’t want to sound preachy, but I will not shy away from saying that one must let go of pride and enshrine self-control. Not at all easy at any age, yet well worth the effort.
On this matter of pride, I was fascinated reading recently from a Singapore newspaper of a brilliant young orchestra conductor who had earned accolades internationally, returning home to find that there is no job. Concerts halls both in Singapore and abroad have closed. Forty job applications and rejections later, he was dejected and anxious. So, he took a job as a food-deliverer.
I can imagine how hard it is to step down from the applause in renowned opera halls to deliver food. Yet he was able to let go of pride. In refusing to wallow in despair, he says he even values the smiles that folk who got the delivered food gave him. And here in Malaysia, we have seen many very well-qualified people adapt to jobs deemed lowly. Covid is a great leveller. I personally tabek or salute such people.
There is a valuable lesson here for parents too. Teach your child resilience, adaptability, compassion and humility instead of a mere chasing after big bucks if they are to survive future catastrophes which may come.
But I don’t want to end on a pessimistic note. I want to record the kindness of family, neighbours and friends who have brought me groceries, delicious home-cooked food and tempting desserts, and warmly kept in regular touch. They know that my post-polio syndrome means I need more rest on some days.
In historical recall of pandemics, we can see the dark acts of some people who profited from other people’s suffering. If this dark side is all there is, we would rightly despair.
But human beings have also revealed themselves to be decent beings. I read on the internet of a food deliverer who gave drinks to a woman and child he met as they walked in exhaustion in the afternoon heat even though they had no money to pay him. He must have paid for the food himself.
Then there is the instance of a senior police officer who did not put on record the details of a woman who took some Panadol and instant noodles for her children without paying. He not only paid for her but started an initiative to help such people in his district.
As I write this, the Covid vaccination campaign has begun in Malaysia and will progress apace. I do like the cliché, “Hope springs eternal in the human heart”, which I had once dismissed as too sentimental.
But besides hope, what should spring up eternally is compassion, tolerance, humility and other qualities that would unite us in this beloved land no matter what our ethnic or religious affiliations. Then the long, dark months of Covid, which have given us so much fatigue and anxiety, even tears for those who lost loved ones, will not rob us of the light at the end of that Covid tunnel.