The current times we are living in are uncertain and completely unprecedented. Each and everyone of us has been affected deeply by the situation  - some more than others. For the first time, the world is experiencing a collective crisis together.  

As observers and analysts of cultural change, at Plum, we’re embarking upon this self-funded study to attempt to understand people’s individual and collective responses to this pandemic across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent.Over the course of the next few weeks, we’re speaking to people from different walks of life to understand their individual stories, emotions and responses to the situation. The objective is to come up with commentary on the pulse of the nation to help diverse actors shape their responses in ways that are resonant with people’s human needs.

We have with us four professionals from diverse fields - a doctor, a lawyer, a mental health advocate and an comedian/ advertising professional. Apart from their everyday lives being affected by this lockdown, they are each at a unique vantage point to comment on how this is affecting the lives of people, businesses and institutions around them in real and personal ways.

The objective is to have a free flowing, casual dialogue on your responses and observations of people’s response to the pandemic.

Q) This is an open question to everyone:  How has your life changed in the last few days? How has the current situation affected you and your profession?

A) Dr. Renu: Doctors are being called frontline warriors in the media today. There is a lot of professional pressure to perform because we are dealing with very precious lives. We are working towards fighting the virus with a lot of hope.

A) Sukhnidh:  I can speak from the point of view of a student. Students are in a very precarious situation. In the recent past, there has been a lot of political and social upheaval in India (i.e. CAA). Now, there is a transition from one type of grief to another. There is a lot of uncertainty, especially at our age. When we are just getting up our feet, there is a huge disruption. In the mental health sphere, we are under a lot of pressure. For therapists, their burden has increased considerably.

A) Deep: From an advertising, culture and comedy point of view, these are very interesting times for us. I have realized that we are overcommunicating. That is the only option that brands have. Brands live as people. Brands have gone through recessions but not been in a situation like this. This is a situation that no brand has tackled and they are suddenly being forced to be docile, to be empathetic and to see people as people.

A) Nikita: I don't think it has ever happened in the history of independent India, apart from the emergency where all three tiers of the judiciary have come to a standstill. It is a confusing time as we are still understanding this. The judiciary that protects human rights has been completely disrupted and is dysfunctional. The high courts and supreme court are hearing urgent matters. But lower courts which are district courts and are our first point of access to the judiciary have  completely shut down. This is a system that has worked largely on pen and paper. The IT boom has come to the judiciary quite late. Now you see the Supreme Court and High Courts are hearing matters through video conferencing, we need to move beyond bureaucratic red tapism and incorporate technology in the judiciary. The judicial system needs to stay updated with the changing times.

Q) Dr Renu, have you observed a change in the mindsets or health behaviours of patients?

A) There are three kinds of patients - the proactive, positive ones who listen to doctors and do everything. The reactive kind - who are usually in denial and suddenly, they start following everyone. The third is the inactive group who don’t take anything seriously. They could be a threat to others, especially the elderly. However ,as time passes and the situation progresses, more people are going from the inactive and reactive to the proactive group. Patients have slowly moved from denial to acceptance.

Q) Sukhnidh, what are the different ways in which people are coming together online? What are their motivations?

A) The digital world has spearheaded a conversation around accountability. In India, especially, we experience the pandemic in the context of our unique problems. There are communal issues, stigma, caste, class, gender issues that exist in India that are highteneing during the pandemic. The internet begins to serve as an important tool for public accountability. The internet democratizes narratives of lay people and makes them accessible.

Gen Z politics revolves a lot around identity politics and owning one’s own narrative but the pandemic has forced us to look outward. Doctors are demanding safety equipment, journalists are demanding transparency. The general public is demanding numbers and social activism for the economically disadvantaged. There is interaction between experts and the general public - between the victims and those unaffected. Everyone needs to work in tandem, and the internet gives us the opportunity to do that. It gives us a sense of humanity and that everyone is in this together. Social media truly influences us and we are finding creative ways to say the same things like “wash your hands”.

There is also the aspect of productivity, leisure and humour. A crisis of such proportions becomes existential and human bonding becomes a way of survival. In Australia, whether you are a banker or a grocery store owner, you are still fighting over the same roll of toilet paper. In India - the divide is much worse. We are not understanding the lived experiences of migrant workers but within social classes there is heightened unity online. There is a display of community spirit by discussing the Junta curfew etc.

‘Meme-ing’ has become a vital aspect of community spirit.

Memes are inside jokes - 1. they legitimise the absurdity of the situation 2. They give Coronavirus a fathomable persona and identity and make it palatable 3. They give you an opportunity to laugh at the situation together. Right now there is a breakdown of social norms. We are challenging simple things like: How should I be spending my free time? What place productivity, work rest and leisure have in my life? Do we need to go to the office every morning? Why do we pay the unorganised sector so little that one disaster puts them on the brink of death. On social media, by talking about dolphins, peacocks etc we are going through a realisation of how much we have destroyed the planet. People are processing things together and the internet makes the anxiety and grief easier.

Q) Some of your work is in the mental health space. Could you share something more about it?

A) Some professionals and I are working on an interactive website to help people with mental health issues. Across the board, there is a feeling of uncertainty, impending doom, people are unhappy (whether they are living with people or alone) and unsure of what they're doing. Humans have always been living at some base level of rational or irrational anxiety. This Covid heightens the baseline of rational anxiety, coupled with the social distancing makes us feel not in control. The only thing we can do is take charge of things that are in our control. We are starting to think about the norms we used to live by, like consumerism - do we really need it? We are realising that the rules and social norms we have been living by have been quite flimsy. For many people, mental health solutions are not at home and they have been forced back into these spaces. The lines between the workplace as a place of work and home as a place of rest have been blurred. There is an adjustment difficulty there. All the problems before the pandemic like relationship issues, domestic violence, being a part of a minority community - they don't go away, they are exacerbated.

Lastly, the news cycle is overwhelming and people are becoming desensitized. We did not enter the pandemic from a place of happiness - there was political unrest. Desensitization is also the brain’s coping mechanism. Mental health has become extremely important in these times.

Q) What are some of the coping mechanisms you have seen emerge during these times?

A) There is an acronym that mental health professionals are using “FACE COVID”.  You have to focus on the things in your control. Establish a routine, acknowledge your thoughts and feelings - don’t feel guilty for not feeling productive. At this baseline of anxiety, the lack of motivation to not work and procrastinating is simply a manifestation of the anxiety. We need to acknowledge that it’s okay to feel negative things. We need to focus on tried and tested coping mechanisms e.g. singing, drawing etc. Lastly “physical distancing but social closeness” and communicating that you are not in this alone is key.

Q) Deep, you work in the field of advertising and brands. How are brand activities and messaging changing?

A) It is very important to understand, brands either lift from culture or give back to it. No brand has foreseen this situation so far. Marketers don't know what to do and they have not been trained to deal with this.  Branding and marketing is neither art nor commerce but a mix of the two. At this time, brands cannot show weakness, be seen as anxious or oppressed - they can't say they're scared. But in fact they are because their factories are shutting down.

So, correct messaging is crucial. Brands should either be empathetic or say nothing at all. Dont say anything stupid or opportunistic because that is the last thing you want as a brand. Brands are opportunistic at heart, but they can't do that now - they can’t be seen as still trying to take your money.

So, the messaging has changed. Last week it was all about spreading information and talking about washing your hands. This week, it might be about giving hope and helping consumers stay productive by staying at home. For example, IKEA came up with a virtual reality app to change your virtual backgrounds. This is a fun, creative and helpful way to engage with people. Some students in New York put out spoilers of favorite Netflix shows on the streets. So, they didn’t say “Stay at Home” but they demonstrated it.

Q) What kind of a society/world do you think we will be living in, when the lockdown ends?

A) Covid has shown us the many ways in which governments can use surveillance. Data is not a boomerang - if you throw it, it doesn’t come back to you. If it is gone, it's just gone and you hope for the best.

In India, the Data Protection Bill will blur the lines of consent when it comes to what the government can do with your data. We saw that in Karnataka, those in quarantine where those in quarantine had to send a selfie to the government every hour and a list of all Covid patients was made public. Questions of surveillance are tough ones and the right to privacy is becoming an important ideological metter. Technology surveillance is going to become all the more prevalent. We need to curb the indiscriminate use of surveillance so that it does not impinge on our privacy.

Q) Any closing comments?

A) Struggle strengthens our character. I hope this pandemic teaches us to value the little things in our life.

A) A wise man once profoundly said “Go Karona Go”

Dr. Renu Gaggar: Dr Renu Gaggar is a Consultant in Internal Medicine, working in one of the leading hospitals in South Mumbai. After finishing her MBBS from Nagpur, she went to the United Kingdom and gained experience in various specialities for more than a decade. She has completed her post graduation from the UK and received the MRCP degree in Medicine. She is a mother of two teenagers, with interest in the vedanta meditation technique.

Sukhnidh Kaur: Sukhnidh Kaur utilizes digital media to drive community mobilization and belongingness among Indian millennials and gen z youth. Having been a part of socio-political moments and movements in the digital sphere over the years, she relies on her experience with social media and a keen interest in behavioural science to help build projects and communities that enable community empowerment. Her previous work includes creating platforms for gifted children, discussion circles for women to talk about sexual harassment, accessible public information on LGBTQ+ issues and political protests, and more.

She is now working with a team of designers and mental health practitioners to create an interactive website that provides tailored coping mechanisms to those facing difficulties with mental health in a time of COVID-19.

Deep Chhabria: Deep is a creative director and comedian. He works at BBH India and heads the creative mandate for Red Bull, Audi, Discovery, Tata Group and Marico. As a comic, he’s been performing for over 8 years and has done more than 700 shows in India and the US.

Nikita Sonavane: Nikita Sonavane is a lawyer and has worked as a legal researcher and an advocate for three years. She is the co-founder of the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project (CPA Project) a Bhopal based litigation and research intervention focused on building accountability against criminalisation of certain communities. Her research interests lie at the intersection of areas of law, caste, and gender. She has published articles in publications such as the Wire, Down to Earth, and the Hindustan Times.

Thank you for tuning into this podcast.

For more analysis on how COVID- 19 is changing people’s lived experience and forecasts on what this could mean to different industries, do tune into our upcoming podcasts, instagram posts and reports on the topic.