Surbhi Shrivastava By: Surbhi Shrivastava
PhD Student in Sociology
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13 Aug 2020 : The Different Frames of Distance

I read an article about how loneliness rewires the human brain to perceive all relationships the same - friends, acquaintances and celebrities all become 'people around me but not with me'. (The article by Satviki Sanjay in Vice)

This explained a few things I'd been feeling since the start of the pandemic but couldn't articulate. I realised that 'physical distancing' was not the only form of distance I was performing. I live alone and away from my family, in a long-distance relationship with my partner, and I'm an incoming PhD student in a distance-learning program for the Fall semester. A lot of my professional work during the pandemic has been solitary and from my home on the 12th floor, where I see a lot more of the clouds in the sky than of people on the ground. So to my mind, COVID-19 has brought different frames of distancing, which compound each other’s effects in a manner that produces a collective and insidious detachment from human connection.

It took me three months to answer the question of why in this day and age, when I can see and talk to literally anyone in the world, do I not spend more time on video calls. And on the contrary, after having spent weeks alone in my apartment, why do I crave it even more. When I put it in the perspective of this article, I found a plausible, scientific rationale for having as much interest in speaking to my family about my day as I do in speaking to Kim Kardashian about world peace. I found a tangible clarity about a phase of deep asocial sentiment. While I continue to live in a world distanced by more ways than one, having this knowledge has helped me look for other ways of fostering closeness.

The time I spent volunteering for Santokba Premkorba Charitable Trust in Mumbai to provide ration kits to migrant workers was ironically a mix of bad and good parts of the lockdown. I would make an average of 20 phone calls a day - to daily wage workers, contractual workers, people laid off due to the pandemic - so we could provide their families with ration to last 10 days, all in hopes of the government having figured out a system of either allowing them to return to their hometowns or of sustaining their survival in the city. As imagined, 10 days turned into two months, where we expanded to locations across Bangalore, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, and reached 2800 families with temporary means of survival.

While these phone calls were dominated by stories of despair, it was also a prominent time in the pandemic where I felt solidarity and human connection. There was a network of ground-level workers and civil-society organisations that rose to the challenge of plugging stark gaps in the state’s response to the loss of lives and livelihoods, albeit temporarily till the funds allowed. Although the volunteer work has since stopped and the migrant workers have returned to their homes, that period reminds me that a sense of closeness in the most unfortunate times may be evasive, but extant nevertheless.

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