So we’re just about coming around to the one-year anniversary for when the entire world got affected by the coronavirus. We’ve learned a lot, waited a lot, and we’ve also got many reasons to be optimistic, as numerous vaccines make their way through the global population. Here’s hoping the variants don’t catch up. But alongside the global pandemic, another virus has seemingly creeped its way into our bloodstreams — anger. Pandemic anger, or “panger” as some have referred to it as, is a specific form of anger where individuals are unable to manage their emotions when seeing loved ones, friends, or others deliberately failing to follow the rules or abide by the scientific guidelines recommended. In a country like India where temperatures are already high (from our cooking to our emotions), it’s no surprise this kind of rage has also been slowly seeping into many folks. Sadly, or rather more frighteningly, I would absolutely include myself as one of those suffering from it.
As an immunocompromised individual, I’ve spent years at end protecting myself from many things that most folks took for granted. I’ve not really suffered any kind of mask/ face shield or sanitiser/cleanliness fatigue. Even quarantines and lockdowns haven’t phased me the same way as it has most folks. I’ve always had to stay one step ahead, be it in my travels or in my day-to-day errands, to make sure I was both comfortable and safe. I’ve seen the repercussions of not following such a lifestyle. And so, imagine my level of anxiety now when speaking to loved ones or friends, and seeing how nonchalantly they behave during Covid.
The other day, I had gone to my hospital in Kochi. It was a long day as I had to fast for certain tests, and then I had booked back-toback appointments with different departments to minimise the number of trips I’d need to make there. I got hungry, and I wanted to find a safe space where I could remove the gloves, the mask, and face shield, and have enough space to be calm and eat. Thankfully, the hospital has a large self-service restaurant, which mostly adheres to all the same safety guidelines as the hospital. The tables are socially distant, all the employees are gloved and wear masks, and there is even a total count done of the number of guests in the restaurant at any given time.
Nearly 99 per cent of the guests (doctors, nurses, and support staff) wore masks till they’d order, pay, and then sit down at the tables to eat. But on that day, a young bloke, not more than 25, came strolling in with a woman — without a mask. They didn’t stop to sanitise their hands, and sat down at an empty table. She had a mask on, and continued to keep her mask on while he went to the service counter. He walked over to a queue, and waited till he could place his order. During his walk, he passed about five tables. I noticed at least three tables see his behaviour and quickly, mid-chew, mask up again. No one seemed to feel the need to utter a word, but clearly his action prompted an instant reaction.
Thankfully, I was at the other end of the restaurant, still in all my gear, but I gestured to the server that this was going on. He listened, and similar to my loved ones, he also said, “What can I do?”. All of a sudden, I saw the bloke walking my way, he was using a shortcut to go to the washroom. I immediately stood up, and politely asked him why isn’t he wearing his mask. He said he was eating. I told him “No, you haven’t started to eat yet”. His companion too, (mind you, still in her mask) repeated what he said, “We’re eating.” I told them that many other guests are concerned and not able to eat in peace because of his moving around. He told me to “chill”, and thankfully all the years of learning how to stow away my “canger” (my cancer anger)” flashed before me, and I just let them be. I didn’t yell or scream (even though every bone in my body wanted to) and instead I told him that some of us are patients here, we need a safe space to eat, and need him to mask up till he’s socially distant, and in one place. He finally nodded, and the server told them to sit down as their food was ready. I didn’t see any change in his behaviour. I didn’t see him feel any remorse. Perhaps hers was hidden behind her mask but his, well, maybe he just wasn’t getting it? I decided against eating there, and ended up leaving the restaurant. The “panger” persisted a bit longer as I stood just near the entrance and watched the two of them. He got up three times during the meal, to order more food (where he coughed, twice), to wash his hands, and then to talk to the server.
I kept imagining what this man would have done if the server was without a mask. What if someone had coughed near him or worse, his companion? Then I wondered why am I the only person bothered by his behaviour? Even the restaurant manager did nothing. Doctors and nurses didn’t seem to care too. Was I the only one carrying “panger”? This is just 1 of 1,000 stories I could share, and I’m sure many of us have had to deal with in the past year. But, he was a stranger. I did the most I could do. But what about our friends and loved ones? What happens when they are that person? What happens when they aren’t that person, but the ones sitting down and eating while this guy walks right past them? It’s scary, but my mind often goes into a spiral of what ifs, and each situation progressively gets worse as my “panger” increases.
Of course “panger” isn’t the only anger I’m carrying. Everyone is angrier these days. Having restrictions, changing lifestyle, losing loved ones, financial pressures, there’s a myriad of reasons for why our collective rage is growing. So, is there any light at the end of the Covid tunnel? I’d like to believe there is, but it’s not now, it’s not even going to be anytime soon. Living in a deluded state that things will return to what they were minimises the experience of what we’ve gone through. It also increases the likelihood that what we are experiencing is negative, and that there is nothing we can do in the moment to fix it. Meanwhile, thinking this is the “new normal” doesn’t allow acceptance of the new challenges we face. I get there are inconveniences, but why have we let the one per cent of the non-abiders (ok maybe it’s higher in some places, namely the United States) be the ones dictating our safety? Why are we letting those who are risking all of our collective lives feel like they are right by not calling them out? Shouldn’t we better educate them, or reprimand them, shame them? Is that possible?
If we all could unify and stand there in our balconies and outside of homes to bang our thalis, why can’t we throw them at those who are making the pandemic a crazier and much longer experience? Okay maybe not throw things at them, but at least say something? I know it’s difficult. This isn’t a country where “Karens” are recorded and shamed. This isn’t a country where the majority of essential workers have no real advocates for their safety outside of Twitter. But this is a country where if a waiter didn’t wear his mask, he’d be fired without any remorse. This is a country where if you had Rs.1,600 to exchange during demonetisation, you waited eight hours in a long line outside the bank, only to be told they only had new 2000-rupee notes, and you’d patiently wait back in a new line the next day, and the next day, until it was resolved.
I’m not even going to begin to understand the politics of all of this. What I will say is that “panger” is real, because the things that we wish to say can’t be said as the people we entrust to say them for us, fail to do so. Most of the time, they are the “Karen”s. For me, I meditate, I take deep breaths, I take a walk, but most importantly, I thank my privilege for keeping me safe. It’s also the thing that calms my “panger” more than anything I try. But not everyone is as lucky as I am. So until we all have the ability and safety to speak up and see what’s right prevail, things aren’t going to change in our favour. At the end of the day, the best way for us to all win The Panger Games, is by all of us having to play it with the same rules.