Life In The Age Of Corona: Flags, Territories And People
Her heart raced as she waited for him outside the international arrivals gate of New York, JFK airport. It has always been draining to go through the US immigration process, especially since 9/11, but this time it was not the fear of the terrorists, although there were similarities; it was the fear of the ‘unknown’, it was the fear of the ‘foreign’ which, after all, was the ‘other’. Her apprehensions increased with each passing moment as she thought about the passenger’s screening of the Chinese virus – yes, this is how the orange president had decided to call it, neither by its genetic make-up nor medical nomenclature, as it was important for him to assign a race and ethnicity to the virus. After all, it is 2020, a world where everything is political, everywhere, whether it is the process of assignment of gender to an individual or the process of assignment of identity to a virus.
As people started to come out of the gate, her eyes chased the airline tags on their luggage to assess the passengers of the flight for whose status she had been staring at the information screen for the last half an hour like an anxious farmer looking at the summer sky waiting for monsoon rains on his dry fields.
Meanwhile, people dragged their fully loaded trolleys in the waiting area towards their receivers. The lounge was filled with the spirit of reunion as people welcomed their loved ones with fresh flowers wrapped in plastic, enchanted smiles behind the face masks, passionate virtual hugs and cautious teary eyes. The spirit of the reunion was dampened by many conflicting emotions. There was hope for the future and despair for what was left behind; there was satisfaction for being with somebody but also the worry for those far away; there were desires to look forward to, coming chapters of life with the loved ones, but those desires were haunted by the fear of death that the same loved ones might bring to other loved ones.
The whole planet happens to have landed into the age of Corona through a red-eye-flight. A time and age that is completely unheard of. Nobody has ever experienced anything like this before. A realm with no experts and no practitioners but only fighters and victims.
She was a frequent traveler herself and as much as she loved to travel, she had a persistent discomfort with the chronotopes of travel. She had written in her daily journal once, “All transit stations such as airports, piers, railway platforms, and subway stops are like life…. always changing. People come and go, take different paths, strangers become friends and disappear the next moment, long lost people accidentally bump into each other. There are times when these places are overcrowded and loud and at times they are empty and silent. Flights take-off and ships sail on their schedules…regardless. Trains stop only for a limited time and only those can board who stand alert. Newcomers have a hard time finding their way while oldies have a hard time leaving it. People are so loaded with their physical and emotional baggage but are only there for transition…. just like life which is a temporary phase between birth and death”.
In an attempt to distract herself from thinking about what might be happening to the passengers on the other side of the wall that separated the immigration counters and the waiting lounge, she started to scroll through her Instagram. “Dear world, how is the curfew? Kashmir”, a post in her feed said. Is it okay to compare a human-induced disaster with a demon of nature? It might be an effective way to evoke the feelings of empathy for the occupation victims but at the same time, it glosses over the irony that what is happening in Kashmir, Yemen, and Syria is not the wrath of nature, nor the fear of the unknown, and not irrevocable by any means. The comparisons of Corona lockdowns with violent occupations of international territories are again an attempt to give voice to the silenced by the very act of speaking on their behalf as self-appointed advocates. Did anyone ask Kashmiris or Yemenis before they were separated from their loved ones and were put in the lockdowns with nothing but their painful wounds? Were they given an option to go to their chosen safe havens before borders were closed on them? Did the world come to their aid? Did their governments provide them with relief packages due to the circumstances they were made to live in? If the answer to all these questions is negative, why are these comparisons even being made?
She juggled through these thoughts while keeping a careful eye on the gate as she was impatiently waiting to see him walk out of that door. And suddenly, she felt the butterflies in her stomach, her breath froze and her wide-open eyes finally blinked after ages as they encountered a familiar face – a face that calmed her heart and the soul the moment it appeared on the horizon of her vision. They walked towards each other with a burning desire to hold each other in the arms but they knew this had to wait until they had washed away everything they had collected on their respective journeys to this moment. It was not wise to respect love, emotions, feelings, and passions as the foremost thing in the time they are going through. They are in the age of Corona that has superseded all the practices and protocols of life.
Instead of the normal exchange of greetings, she resorted to ‘I hope your immigration was smooth’. ‘Of course. I was not travelling from a level-three country, nor have I been to one in the last couple of weeks. Probably, it was the first time in my life when I felt advantaged by the green color of my passport as many in the immigration aisles were worried only because of the color of their passport’, he replied. This differential treatment of border control forces and the immigration anxieties of the travelers are not some novel phenomena. However, the basis of differentiation has changed, though variables are still the same – nationality, race and ethnicity. But this time the constant had changed. This time, it was not the people but the virus. ‘We are going back to our home but life is not the same, maybe the places are the same but time has changed; the world has changed’ she said.
The author is a doctoral candidate at Stanford University and a cultural and political analyst.