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Ruma Sikka, a realtor in Washington D.C., is using Zoom and Facetime to show her homes virtually on Open House days, ever since COVID-19 shuttered her city in March.
“Surprisingly,” she says, “I’m busier than I’ve been before. Since real estate has been declared an essential business, we are open – we just can’t show houses the traditional way.”
Doing things the traditional way is fast becoming a thing of the past as the coronavirus changes how society goes about the daily business of life.
Past pandemics left the societies they visited transformed forever. As we cope with Covid-19, the invisible microscopic monster circling our cities and homes in real-time like its 13th and 20th-century cousins, major social changes are already being seeded.
The Black Death that raged through 13th century Europe and Asia took a human toll but also sparked enormous social unrest. Historians trace a direct trajectory between the impact of the plague and the destruction of feudalism in Europe, leading to the Age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance. The Spanish Flu of the early 20tht century crippled economic activity, leading historians to speculate that the economic misery in its wake paved the way for fascism and authoritarian dictators like Hitler and Mussolini.
Today, in the first quarter of the 21st century, a global pandemic is visiting mankind again. It’s been identified and sourced and we even have a DNA profile and snapshot of the perpetrator. The world is at its mercy, practicing social distancing and shelter-in-place while fending off infection with masks, gloves, and ventilators.
In this new dystopian reality that has become our lives, Ruma represents the resourcefulness with which many professions are adapting to the needs of the moment.
As the COVID quarantine encircles daily lives and workplaces, regular folk are adopting new norms – many of which could become permanent social transformations as we battle the beast together.
For Deepa Chakrapani at the World Bank in Washington D.C., teleworking is proving to be a phenomenon that is a lot more productive and viable than expected.
“There are no scheduling conflicts. Everyone is in quarantine so no excuses! We are a lot more focused and…. we are beginning to realize how much we can get done without meeting in person.
She predicts that telework which has been undervalued for years (being reserved for illness or pregnancy), will be reassessed as an alternative to costly travel. It’s a view echoed by strategy consultant Natasha Marwaha, who finds working from her home office more efficient, collaborative, and productive. “I think, going forward, telework will not be scorned as working-lite!”
A real boon is the hours saved on her commute adds Deepa. “Apart from more time at home with my teenagers (who are captive audiences now), it’s given me an opportunity to volunteer as block captain in my neighborhood. I check up on neighbors, especially elderly ones, and make sure they are doing alright.”
“I feel we are living through a social experiment,” says Deepa, “and its product will be a greater sense of community—I think there will be more awareness of the contribution of everyone, in whatever profession or situation, to society’s well being.”
Perhaps this awareness is nature’s antidote to the ‘social pollution’ affecting society. Consultant Rahul Prakash coined the term to describe “…the rise in competitiveness and a constant outward focus towards more” that has accompanied the rise in prosperity in the last decade. The explosion of social media”, he says, “has created a FOMO mode for our lives – more wealth, more travel, more friends, more visibility.”
Rahul, who has worked in Private Equity for 25 years and advises companies in the Mergers and Acquisitions space, says his particular business has stalled due to the economic uncertainty. But the pandemic has pushed a pause button. “We are being forced to disengage from all that extra noise and activity that comes with social excess, and concentrate on essentials, on the essence of life and family.” There is a benefit to the isolation and down time everyone is experiencing.
“It’s hard to predict the economic fallout from this pandemic,” he muses. “Though, I doubt it’ll be a V- shaped recovery.” But one of the more significant economic effects of this pandemic will be how recovery money is distributed, he feels. “The social and economic are all very intertwined in our current economic shutdown.”
Recovery from the pandemic however, will take more than contributions from the federal stimulus package or government handouts. Ordinary citizens are stepping up to help and make a difference, volunteering with food deliveries, sewing masks and donating supplies.
Jason, a medical resident on the front line of the crisis treating COVID patients every day, is Natasha Marwaha ‘s son. His mother worries about him all the time.
“I haven’t seen him in weeks. He’s staying away because he doesn’t want to expose us,” says Natasha. “Everyone is working diligently in his hospital.”
Along with her family, Natasha has started a D.C. based charity to collect personal protective equipment like masks, for essential workers. “Early on in the pandemic, the shortage of PPE worried us, and we wanted to contribute, especially since my son is in the frontline.”
To date, they’ve raised more than their goal amount.
The pandemic is demanding the most of medical professionals like Jason, while changing how they manage their regular patient load.
“Dealing with COVID is like flying a plane while reading the manual,” says Dr. Narain Rajan, a cardiologist who practices in Washington D.C. “You simply don’t know when something you’re doing is going to be wrong, and disaster will hit.”
The crush is peaking at the hospital where he performs procedures in ICU’s filled with COVID patients. “I think we learnt from New York’s bitter lesson and created extra hospital capacity on time, so there’s no overwhelming of resources,” says Rajan, but he worries about going home every day and exposing his wife and children to COVID.
He shrugs off his frontline hero status. “I come home in my scrubs and then proceed to scrub myself thoroughly – we have to live with this risk, there’s no other option.”
It’s an option filled with “a sense of mission and urgency which makes every day rewarding, even while it’s heartbreaking,” says Vandna Kishore, a pharmacist at the FDA. “A couple of weeks ago I was on rotation for emergency authorizations for specific medicines which are needed to enroll patients in trials right away. I was struck by the influx of applications for teens, pregnant women, and young adults who need to be intubated and given these medicines. The applications for pregnant women are particularly hard, emotionally.”
“We are terribly busy at the Agency,” says Vandna. Response teams that include FDA employees have set up screening procedures and testing centers nationally, at critical locations, – some are even in parking lots. “We’ve also speeded up the process of the emergency authorization of the use of certain trial medicines for extremely sick patients, (medicines like hydroxychloroquine and remisdivir) and are fast tracking the process of reviewing how effective they are.”
Healthcare practitioners like her are juggling an enormous workload as they cope with the COVID crisis and its constantly changing landscape.
Vandna and her husband are teleworking as much as possible from home as does Dr. Rajan, who minimizes face-to-face contact with patients for non-emergencies, through online consultations via Zoom or WebX. “I’m shifting to a lot more telemedicine with my patients to limit physical contact. It’s working pretty well, so far, he says. “The new patient-centered approach requires patients to take some of their own vital signs which he monitors, and provides pre-emptive care to keep patients away from the hospital. “I used to have 15-20 patients in the office a day, and now we only see 1-2 of the serious cases.”
Dr. Rajan believes that telemedicine will begin to play a much bigger role in future patient care, since statistics will prove how effective it could be.
But unlike professionals in other fields who feel teleworking has opened new possibilities in the workplace, architect Madhur Khanna finds it cramps the creativity required in the architectural design world. “There’s something about face-to-face consultation when a design is being worked on, which is irreplaceable,” Khanna, who is part owner of her own consulting company still completing projects because construction is an ‘essential’ service.
There is a silver lining to her quarantined life, however. Khanna now takes a walk every afternoon, something which was unthinkable in the hectic schedule of her former life.
“I’ve started thinking a lot more about how we are ruining our planet and how we should go forward from this catastrophe to build sustainable environments in which viruses like COVID have no chance of entry. And I know many others are thinking along the same lines. That is the good I see, coming out of this nightmare.”
Building a sustainable practice is how Ruma Sikka views her future as a realtor, ever since the pandemic put an end to live showings.
At each viewing, she walks through the house with her phone and laptop, showing clients all the features on Zoom or Facetime. “We can even host walk-through groups on Twitch, with new interactive software.”
Ruma is brushing up on relevant technology and networking with other realtors.
The real estate community has rallied vigorously around this slump with webinars on virtual marketing and using technology to augment sales. “We are also trying to figure out guidelines for how we are eventually going to show homes, safely, to clients,” says Ruma.
“All our virtual marketing groundwork will bear fruit once the lockdown restrictions ease,” she declares. She remains extremely optimistic about the prospects of an early bounce back in the real estate market.
“There are many reasons to be hopeful,” she says. “We’ll get through this dark tunnel eventually, to the other side. But life will never be the same again.”
Jyoti Minocha is a DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents.