Viral Impact (Episode 2): The Existential Treadmill — Part 1

PART 1: Where we are at Now…

Episode 1: A Punch to the Psyche discussed how the lockdown phase feels like a period of mourning. Even for those not battling infection or dealing with death.

A time characterized by rueful fretting, grieving, reflection, loneliness, deprivation and anxiety before there is any resolution. While many people, especially middle and upper classes, started with an upbeat sense of “this is surprisingly not terrible,” there still is less dressing up, less celebrating and almost no social gathering — quintessential markers of being Indian during normal times.

: Berylitics Covid-19 Psyche study, 2020

Much of that initial “we’ll get through this” optimism and resolve of minimalism has since given way to graver concern. Businessmen like Rajiv Bajaj and Dilip Kapur (Hidesign) speaking candidly about economic damage and mishandling coupled with the news glut of closures, layoffs and actual loss of savings gives the sense of impending Socio-economic Armageddon.

Anxiety, depression and mental health are consistent themes that came through as deeper worries in the Berylitics Covid-19 Psyche Research (verbs below). In Episode 1 we saw that there’s a lot of worry for others and that’s an additional burden for people to carry.

Money. Being a freelancer, I get paid for the projects that see the light of day. If the lockdown continues till late this year, my work will suffer a lot. Economy in general. Health. If apart from corona there is any health issue to me or my family, it would be difficult to get help. Traveling. People unable to reach home or their loved ones worries me a lot. ~ Female, India, 30–49

Food and job security. ~Male, India, 30–49

Stories of migrant and domestic worker plight, with limited to no means to earn a living are common knowledge. Anxiety stories of the upper-middle and upper classes (who drive a significant section of the economy) reveal a sense of gratitude, but there is also deep fear that loss of income will change everything from their home to job prospects to being able to manage the education of their children. To assume that misery doesn’t attach to people above the BPL is a convenient default, but not fair or accurate.

The Confounding Case of India

Ideas of “we are all in this together” together with “the government is doing all it can” have characterized how many successful governments like South Korea, New Zealand and Germany tackled the crisis. While India started on the right perceptual foot, where it’s at now with rising numbers, random rules for exiting out of lockdown and the trail of economic loss casualties — is worrisome.

Aatish Bhatia’s Covid Trends shows how countries that have controlled the spread will demonstrate a radical, straight drop in weekly new confirmed cases. India finds itself in the dubious top-right corner of unstopped ascent with Brazil, Russia and the US. Now that each day reveals a “new high” in number of cases, there is diminishing hope that there will be any sense of control or normalcy in the near future.

Image: Aatish Bhatia Covidtrends

The Existential Treadmill

Loss of what was routine, not knowing what’s going to happen next and literal fear for one’s health and life are in play. People are thinking about wills and children dealing with “eventuality” when this was never mainstream conversation for Indians. The casualty of normalcy and certainty generates a sense of existential dread. Not just a crisis but something deeper, that sits heavy on the chest and seems to go on interminably, without going anywhere - like an Existential Treadmill.

Image: Berylitics

We’re trudging along but what are we doing and where are we headed? What happens to us all now? Will this ever be better? Will this ever end? Another lockdown….and another one…and another one…for what…

The Blindsiding Loss of Freedom

An unexpected casualty that followed the loss of normalcy and certainty was that of freedom. Indians don’t see freedom the way Americans do.

For them it’s about personal liberties and a set of ideals worth fighting for on a near daily, almost self-indulgent basis. For us it’s about a glorious past won against unjust, white oppressors and we won that battle already. To think of things like masks as curtailing freedom is unlikely to cross the mind of even the minority angsty liberal who has privacy concerns about Aarogya Setu or Aadhar. Sure, the average Indian may wear the mask as a chin strap and defeat the whole purpose, but we’ve also long done that by wearing helmets on our elbows. That’s not about defiance as much as it is a default Indian inability to be compliant in civic spaces.

Being forced into a universal lockdown triggered a sense of drudgery and imprisonment. The realization that they truly were unable to walk, talk and live freely. That we’re stuck in the same place.

Image: Twitter

This isn’t about Rabindranath Tagore’s version of Freedom where he wishes for open-mindedness from his people and for his country. This is about feeling like the walls are closing in on you. Even when people were actively trying to make the best of the situation, learn new skills, bond with their family and such — when they thought about what they missed and how they felt, the crushing sense of discomfort was hard to miss.

Image: Berylitics

Below are 100% verbatim, unedited responses from those who took the survey. A surprisingly large number made references to a loss of freedom when asked what they miss most.

Source: Berylitics Covid-19 Psyche Study (Verbatim Responses)

We generally have short memories and the desire to go back to how things were would be strong. But since Nimhans projections expect about 50% of the population to get Covid-19, we’re not out of this space even if we start visiting malls and attending Covid-compliant weddings again.

Home: A Safe Space

India is a land of unapologetic chaos. While the average Indian home may not be a paragon of evolved aesthetics, for most residents it offers refuge from the insanity that reigns outside. It’s safe and familiar. It’s where you rest and recharge and then go out into the harsh world. It’s what one must absolutely strive to own even if it takes a good part of your life to get there.

Back in 2017, I did a Culture Code exercise which tells you what something like coffee or sportswear means at a sub-conscious, cultural level. A home doesn’t mean the same thing to an American vs. an Indian. The exercise revealed that to Indians, a home is about fortification. Like a vitamin — it makes you stronger from within. And it’s also what protects you from whatever could assault you from the outside. It’s where family is at and that strengthens you as well. This could also literally be a fortress where increasingly people close their homes to others, in contrast to previous generations where homes were open and welcomed visitors and guests 24/7. With Covid, lockdowns and social distancing in play, this need to buttress the fortress is even stronger.

A Quick Detour To Rajasthan

The average guide in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, will tell you stories of how the valiant, righteous, noble Rajputs were attacked by the evil, rapacious, marauding invaders of yore. They wouldn’t break down the impenetrable, protective fort. They’d just camp outside and wait for the Rajputs inside to run out of food and supplies. When supplies ran out, the gates had to be opened. Horrific deaths and jauhar would follow.

Chittorgarh Fort: Image Wikimedia Commons

In his telling of the story, this happened three times and each time the casualties increased exponentially. The guide’s version varied constantly but what stayed was how strongly he felt that imminent threat of attack on the “safe fort” he saw as his own ancestral home. Despite 3x evidence that the Fort wasn’t enough to keep them safe, the faith that they were safe within it remains undeterred. The idea of home and native city, where faith and family thrive, is a strong one for the average Indian and irrevocably linked to identity. All the more so when things are manic around you.

In migrant interviews this came up repeatedly — “Not that there are jobs there, but it’s home and our families want us back. We’ll do some simple farming. They say there is no corona there.” There are obviously people for whom home isn’t a safe space but broadly speaking, the idea of home is a positive one - a fort that keeps you safe if you stay on the inside.

Spruce Up the Grounded Battleship

Being forced to stay within and reflect upon that domain has a lot of people thinking about how they would fortify it. If there can be continued lockdowns, multiple waves, working from home, the need for quarantines etc, — it makes sense to prepare the home for battle. While the literal attack may be from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the consequential attack is on lifestyle. The loss of routine, freedom, celebration, maids etc.

Most people were ill-equipped to work long hours from home. While travel and eating out are missed, making their home a space that’s better suited for future lockdowns is a widespread need. Not a Panic Room, but a spruced up — even if grounded — battleship. A place from where they are armed to take on whatever 2020 throws at them next.

I’ve been sitting on my couch and working so long it now has a butt-shaped depression on it. When things open up, I need a new couch.” ~29–35, Female

We had an eight-hour global call. There’s no chair in my house where one can sit comfortably for that long! ~30–49, Male

From expensive appliances to replace missing maids to furniture and pretty décor to make the experience less unpleasant, people want to act on this. Good, comfortable office furniture and reliable Internet came up as a strong need. Unlike the residents of Chittorgarh in the guide’s story, there is a resolute need to make changes on the inside to feel “ready and prepared.”

Google, the company that always seems to stay ahead of most employers in ensuring their people have all they need to focus better on the work at hand, has even offered $1000 per employee to spruce up their in-home office space.

Decor, comfort and home automation were an uphill battle for brands in the home space. Even as some Millenials led the charge in using lived spaces to express their identities, this was not an easy game to play for the likes of Urban Ladder or Pepperfry. But right now, people are in that zone where it makes “practical” (not indulgent) sense to invest in safety (biosecurity), sprucing up (decor) and modern technology (appliances, home automation with less contact or touch) that will fortify that home and allow them to live well within it.

Below responses to an “Ammeter” question — the needle points to low spends in lockdown, but what they expect to spend MORE on when it lifts:

1. House renovation (when it is safe, and because it was overdue anyway) 2. Labour saving gadgets like dishwasher, fully automatic washing machine and breadmaker 3. Keep larger stocks of life saving and essential medicines 4. Home exercise machine (probably CrossFit) 5. Vegetable gardening in large trays in the driveway (Female, 30–49)

Local travel , home decor, new home wear. (Male, 30–49)

Getting People to Care About You

It’s hard to get people to hear you even when they’re open to what you have to say. Getting people to pay attention when they are distracted is going to be even more challenging. One way to get people to care is to know their Need States — more on that in Part 2 of this piece.

Nima is a Consumer Insights & Culture Specialist and the founder of Berylitics, a Boutique Insights Agency. Which is largely Linkedin speak for “listens to people, REALLY listens.” She can be reached at nima.srinivasan@berylitics.com

  • Since this article covered the sense of mental anxiety — if you feel a sustained sense of stress or depression that comes in waves or doesn’t seem to get better, please consider seeking help. Mindfit at Curefit (not a client) provides access to some fantastic, affordable therapists who can be reached online.

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