Lessons from the Pandemic Loneliness

R. Sreejith Varma

(India)

Of late, I find myself thinking a lot about time. Perhaps it’s a visceral reaction to the books I am reading. Leafing through the tales of resource extraction and environmental pollution in fictional works like The Living Mountain by Amitav Ghosh and How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue makes me go off on a tangent of human time versus geological time. Scientists say we are going through the sixth mass extinction at an unprecedented rate. The consensus is that the current extinction is human-induced. The noted American biologist, naturalist, ecologist, and Harvard emeritus professor E.O. Wilson tellingly called this epoch ‘Eremocene’ the ‘Age of Loneliness’; an age defined by wilful destruction of biodiversity that’s making humanity lonelier by the day. The vocabulary of Eremocene is important as it aptly acknowledges nonhuman value and agency typically elided in the Anthropocene narrative (Danta 48) [i].  I believe the imaginative construction of the current epoch as the ‘Age of Loneliness’, in an oxymoronic way, further humanises the environmental issue as it renders visible the entanglement of the ecological and the affective in our mediation of the material world.    It challenges the normative assumptions that position the human as the massive, impervious force and accentuates the registers of interdependence, vulnerability, isolation, and grief. The species loneliness that Eremocene suggests is, in fact, acutely personal as it diminishes our experiential engagement with the Earth. As Conrad Scott puts it, ‘Eremocene . . . points in some way to the fact that the loss is not only imminent but immanent’ (Scott 221) [ii].  In a world undergoing cataclysmic changes, it is essential to not just take stock of our affective, relational, and material losses, but also ‘find ways of recording and memorializing what is being lost’ (Bradley) [iii].

I started engaging with the topics of loneliness, loss, and our precarious selves in 2020, during the initial wave of the pandemic. (To think that it was four years ago stuns me into silence, prompting me down again into the rabbit hole of thoughts about the passage of time!) The new virus had emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, casting a sweeping pall of isolation over us all. It was the middle of the winter semester at the university where I teach in Vellore in Tamil Nadu. The first COVID-19 case in India was reported on January 30, 2020 in Thrissur, about 500 kilometres away in Kerala, my home state. Given that Kerala had recently weathered an outbreak of the Nipah virus disease (NiV), and contained the epidemic in just about a month, the news, at first, didn’t sound too formidable. However, soon educational institutions started closing down, evoking a sense of trepidation. My university closed its operations on March 19, 2020. Faculty were given the option to choose between ‘work from home’ and an early summer vacation. On March 24, 2020, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nationwide lockdown, urging people to stay wherever they were at the moment. 

I chose to stay where I work, with the hope that in a month, when the lockdown was lifted, I would be able to go home in time for the April Vishu festival in Kerala. However, the lockdowns kept getting extended and I didn’t visit home again until September 2020. 

I had been staying alone at my flat as I wasn’t married then. The first five months of the pandemic were a period of loneliness that felt contrived, as it was an imposition. Our changing world looked straight out of a dystopian cli-fi narrative. Shops were open only on predetermined days, and venturing outside posed a survival threat. I distinctly remember walking along the road, masked up, with my breath slightly fogging my glasses, on my way to my university campus. I discovered that  all the restaurants and ‘non-essential’ shops were shuttered, enveloping the area in  an eerie silence. The astringent air combined with the summer heat mercilessly pounded on my head.   I realised  the invisible virus had turned  the place into a ghost town.   As the new possibilities of the digital world opened up overnight, I conducted my classes and quizzes online. Teaching turned into a sedentary job bereft of the walks between the buildings, up and down the stairs, and within the classroom. Though voices and visuals traversed geographical borders, the teacher-student relationship, which is nurtured organically in moments outside the classroom, seemed constrained. 

While the pandemic persisted, I discovered the distinction between ‘solitude’ and ‘loneliness’ which people often think of as fungible. As an aspiring writer, I had often craved and revelled in solitude, finding the world too noisome and inconducive to creativity. While there is a kernel of truth in that perspective, the pandemic reminded me that creativity is nourished by the writer’s sustained engagement with the world. Although I was able to write academic papers during the lockdown, it was as if my creative juices were drained. For a poet known to gripe about being time-strapped, I found that during the lockdown, my creative sessions were literally spent watching the clock.  I realised that  sporadic moments of isolation are key to focused work while large swathes of detached time, especially when the endpoints are out of sight, are detrimental to creative production. ‘Solitude’ suggests an intentional period of alone time while ‘loneliness’ refers to a state foisted upon us. The pandemic served as a wake-up call to value connections both between individuals and between humans and nonhumans.

While the human world came to a standstill, the animal world was becoming fearlessly peripatetic. Animals like wild boars, deer, peahens, and elephants were sighted walking on the streets during the lockdown. It demonstrated the extent to which the human movement had been circumscribing the rights of nonhuman life to explore the world. I thought the pandemic accentuated the fundamental egalitarianism of ecology. With fewer people using vehicles to move around, the air quality of New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in India, and other towns was reported to have improved. A microscopic pathogen unseated humans from the hubristic throne of the Earth’s masters and imparted valuable lessons of humility into our collective consciousness. The zoonotic pandemic also made abundantly clear the embeddedness of humans in the broader ecology and the immediate repercussions of habitat loss and other acts of ecocides committed by humans. 

Whilst the adventures of nonhumans are bioregionally constrained, globalised humans expand their ecological footprint by travelling in aeroplanes and other greenhouse-emitting vehicles, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred us to re-examine travel and our attitudes towards it. An open letter signed by environmental humanities academics published in 2020 on Bifrost Online urged environmentally-oriented scholars to ‘limit . . .  flying to conferences’ [iv]. The letter conceived the pandemic as a momentous juncture that necessitated extending our ecological convictions to praxis.  It argued the pandemic had demonstrated that most work-related travels are not essential to get the work done. The unavailability of travel options, following the shutting down of airports and railway stations during the pandemic, compelled the otherwise technosceptic workforce to learn the basics of hopping on conference calls, Zoom and other digital meetings. The pandemic presented a particularly opportune moment to collaborate on organising an international virtual conference on ‘Contagion Narratives: Society, Culture and Ecology of the Global South’, which took place in August 2020. The keynote speaker was Prof. Karen Laura Thornber from Harvard University. The conference was the first virtual conference organised by the department of English at my university and it was attended by participants and paper presenters from across the world. The conference stimulated discussions on infectious diseases from the perspectives of history, sociology, philosophy, literary studies, and film studies, and culminated in a co-edited book published by Routledge/Taylor and Francis in December 2022.  Positioning the COVID-19 pandemic in a continuum of contagions involving the Calcutta plague, cholera in colonial Bengal, and AIDS in South Africa, the project discussed disparate ecocultural vectors that calibrate our engagement with infectious diseases. The conference’s interdisciplinary schema facilitated productive academic transgressions and I felt it turned into a collective act of meaning-making as we trudged through the indeterminacies of the pandemic. Throughout and following the pandemic, I continued to leverage various videoconferencing apps to deliver numerous invited talks, aiming to reduce my ecological footprint. 

Marcel Proust famously stated, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes’. The new constraints to travel prompted people to pay closer attention to their immediate environment and be more aware of their bioregion. I developed a habit of spending some time, usually post-lunch, lounging on my verandah observing ants, squirrels, birds, and trees. I have kept this habit and find that it puts my human existence in perspective and reminds me, ontically, that I share this earth with these nonhuman lives. Discovering community in the bioregion is, perhaps, the most significant lesson the pandemic imparted to me. The community is interspecies and heterarchical, requiring the ability to forge connections beyond the symbolic-discursive structures. Valuing nonhuman worth and fostering interspecies connections can alleviate our loneliness and suture our affective wounds. Eminent ecocritic Timothy Morton avers, ‘Existence is coexistence’. [v] One of the challenges of the ‘new normal’, I believe, is refusing to let our amnesiac culture forget this pandemic epiphany. Our efforts to mitigate ecological problems may as well leverage our collective experience of loneliness during the pandemic and cognise the affective component that underpins our experience of species extinction and climate change.

During the pandemic, many people picked up new hobbies, such as gardening and birdwatching. Children learned the names of the plants and trees in their neighbourhood. As life slowed down, people seemed to find beauty in and derive pleasure from the local environment. Environmental wisdom teaches us that you take care of the place you love. I believe the COVID-19 lockdowns may have nurtured in us a sense of belonging and rootedness. I hope this made us more environmentally sensitive. It certainly helped me feel less lonely. 

 

Endnotes

[i] Danta, Chris. ‘Scaling down our imagination of the human: Ted Chiang and the fable of extinction’. Transcultural Ecocriticism: Global, Romantic and Decolonial Perspectives edited by Stuart Cooke and Peter Denney, Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, 41-62.

[ii] Scott, Conrad. ‘Post-Anthropocenic Undying Futures’. The Anthropocene and the Undead: Cultural Anxieties in the Contemporary Popular Imagination edited by Simon Bacon, Lexington Books, 2022, 211-26. 

[iii] Bradley, James. ‘Writing on the Precipice’, Sydney Review of Books, 21 Feb. 2017. <https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/writing-on-the-precipice-climate-change/> Accessed 21 March 2024.

[iv] ‘An Environmental Humanities Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Open Letter’, Bifrost Online, <https://bifrostonline.org/environmental-humanities-response-to-covid-19/> Accessed 21 March 2024.

[v] Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard UP, 2010, 4.

R. Sreejith Varma

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

R. Sreejith Varma is an assistant professor at the Department of English, Vellore Institute of Technology, India. He earned his Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 2018. He is the author of Reading Contemporary Environmental Justice: Narratives from Kerala (Routledge, 2023) and the co-editor of Contagion Narratives: The Society, Culture and Ecology of the Global South (Routledge, 2022). Along with Swarnalatha Rangarajan, he is the translator of Mayilamma: The Life of a Tribal Eco-Warrior, which chronicles the life of Mayilamma, the tribal leader of the anti-Coca-Cola campaign in Plachimada, Kerala.

Loading...

Pin It on Pinterest