I thought I knew myself, my needs, and my desires. I thought I understood people, and was a good judge of character. I thought that capitalism – for all its pitfalls – was still the best of the worst systems for running the world.
I was wrong.
If you had told me at the start of 2020 that I can stay in my room for months binge-reading books I did not have the time to read and binge-watch shows I should not have the time to watch, along with attending my classes online; I would have happily accepted the offer.
As someone who does not like the banalities of socialisation, I had always found solitude to be a pleasant, rewarding experience. But the last few weeks have completely changed my perception. I realise how naive I had been in taking social interactions in person for granted. Even for someone like me, who has never been the outgoing sort, there is – I have come to learn – no substitute for physical human presence. I have begun to miss the exchange of pleasantries with classmates, holding the door for a fellow customer at a cafe, watching a bunch of toddlers fiddling with their school bags, and other simple, mundane realities of the pre-COVID-19 world, which now feel so much more than internalised inanities.
Having so much time to myself has naturally led me down the delicate road of introspection. The consequence has been startling, as I have started to see the flaws in the choices and decisions I used to pride myself on. Why did a bustling friendship suddenly come to a screeching halt? Why could I never accept a particular failure in school? Why did I mistake a toxic dynamic for an indispensable relationship? With the perspective gained from being boxed in a room, I have finally found closure, if not outright answers, to these questions.
Set free from the humdrum business of reaching a particular place at a particular time for a particular action, I have had the freedom to delve into the finer recesses of my emotional self, discovering how I mistook obsession for passion, ego for resilience, and compulsion for commitment.
Last week I was taken by surprise to receive a notification on WhatsApp. It was a message from a friend I had not spoken to for four years. He had texted to check on my condition at this critical juncture and volunteered to help me with contacts of his relatives in England (where I am studying right now for my postgraduate degree) should I happen to require assistance.
I had always been under the assumption that this particular friend had never quite been a friend, more like a circumstantial acquaintance, someone who only spoke to me because we went to the same school for a couple of years. And yet, his sudden message filled me with joy and brought a smile to my face. I realised I might have been mistaken in my analysis of him. Perhaps he never became a good friend because I never let him, perhaps my reluctance to interact with him shaped my impression of him more than anything he said or did. We exchanged a few texts, and remarkably, the tension we used to feel in each other’s proximity had disappeared, melting away into the virtual wilderness, as we connected for the first time as people, despite being thousands of miles apart.
The last few weeks have also allowed me to re-establish old bonds that seemed to have acquired rust, with their twenty-something constituents hustling around all the time. Listening to the myriad issues people are encountering – from anxiety on account of a desperation to be creative to coping with an overload of academic deadlines to living with abusive parents and partners who reduce a lockdown to a state of captivity – I have begun to sympathise much more with the general human condition, which has strengthened my resolve to fight my own demons.
In the larger scheme of things, the ongoing lockdown has shattered a myth I had believed in for the best part of my adult life, ever since I gained reasonable intelligence to make sense of the world. This myth is the mendacity of capitalism and how it has supposedly made the globe a better place. I had never been a blind follower of the capitalist ideology, but managed to retain for several years a strong belief in the market as the most convenient equaliser for all of humanity’s troubles. But now, the menace of the invisible hand and its concomitant dangers are beginning to crystallise before my eyes.
Large-scale political and economic overhauls that seemed unimaginable a few months ago have come to fruition in the wake of the pandemic. Neo-liberal governments across Europe, known for their disdain for too much governance, are now revealing rescue packages that show how ill-equipped the social structure in capitalist settings had been to deal with a public crisis. Faced with an emergency, the wielders of power are being forced to do what should have been their duty under normal circumstances – ensuring that the most vulnerable in the most pivotal jobs are protected and secure.
The alarming healthcare shortages across India are laying bare the threadbare infrastructure in a country where privatisation has been given free rein in the most important sectors of public safety. While the coronavirus may not believe in discrimination, capitalism certainly does. The picture of migrants and daily wage workers helplessly trudging towards their villages has jolted me out of my complacency that a capitalist framework falsely premised on the equality of opportunity is doing a satisfactory job in gradually empowering the ones at the lowest rungs of the social order.
My new-found disillusionment with capitalism has led to a comprehension not only of the wider side-effects of an ideology where profit is the only principle, but also of the inherent mechanism underpinning capitalist endeavours. Extravagant advertisements, sprawling university buildings, state of the art shopping complexes are not the hallmarks of a developed society. Instead, the parameters for genuine development ought to be a robust dissemination of accurate information, decolonised and democratic education, along with universal healthcare facilities as part of a compact social net that cannot be stitched together by the extortionary motivations of the capitalist world order. COVID-19 has changed me from a selective apologist of capitalism to an outright critic, someone who now regards the establishment of a comprehensive welfare state as a prerequisite of a sustainable existence.
In 50 years’ time (should I happen to survive), I shall look back at my life and divide it into two neat stages – pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19. I do not know when the lockdown will end, and nor can I anticipate the other changes I shall be subject to in the coming weeks and months. But what I do know for certain is that when I head out once more into the grinding mill of “normal life”, I shall do as a different person – as one who is less presumptuous about people, more aware of how all of us crave to be cared for (but are consumed by craven capitalism) and as one who is determined to do his bit to build a healthier and fairer society.
Priyam Marik is a post-graduate student of journalism at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom.
Featured image credit: Sebastien Goldberg/Unsplash