Quite expectedly, the direct flight from New Delhi to New York is totally sold out after the easing of Covid-19 restrictions. Though it's a long, non-stop flight of over sixteen hours, there’s not much service to speak of. In the economy class, if you want a hot beverage, you must trudge back to the galley at the back of the plane and carry your tea or coffee back to your seat.
Decent victuals, especially for vegetarians, are also hard to come by, with only two sparse meals to take you through. It is almost as if you have to learn how to survive long-haul international flights all over again.
After a gap of two years, however, it feels good to be back in the US. Newark Liberty International Airport, better known by its acronym EWR, is — surprise — not only spotless but spankingly sanitised. Immigration and customs are a breeze, no long and serpentine lines, or rude officials.
The weather is bracing
No electronic fingerprinting or filling out arrival cards either. Visa checked, you are asked your business, photographed, and let in. Once outside, if you have enough currency or credit, the world belongs to you. You are, after all, supposedly in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In the greater New York area, the weather is bracing. Though mostly sunny, the last couple of days, it has also rained, with lovely snow flurries swirling about yesterday. Walking outside, you feel the chill as you suck in the cold air spiked with gasoline fumes of oversized vehicles speeding by on the expressway.
Spring seems to be in the air, even though the trees are still bare. In Manhattan, the traffic is thinner as are the crowds. Evidently, people still prefer to stay indoors, so used to working from home that they’d rather not commute.
Life is limping back
Even on weekdays, there seems to be a holiday feel to the city. The cafés and sidewalks are sparsely peopled. Far from the bustling and busy metropolis that is world-famous for its frenetic pace and electric energy. Entertainment and theatre are limping back too, with one or two acclaimed new shows, such Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” featuring Australian star Hugh Jackman, better known as Logan in the Wolverine franchise.
What is wonderful, though, is that the subway is so much cleaner, with riders who are polite and, yes, masked — well, mostly. It is the law, though unevenly upheld. Taxi drivers will, however, insist on a face shield.
I ask myself what has changed. The answer can be summed up in a two words — social relations. There is a markedly new sociality in America after Covid-19. People’s sense of space and community seems to have been shaken, though not lost.
The feeling of isolation and being being isolated is much greater, especially among the elderly. During the winter, many seniors haven’t even left their homes, except for groceries or an occasional family gathering.
Visitors are welcome
Economic prosperity, so cherished and vaunted, no longer seems sufficient for self-worth or well-being. People now seek social prosperity. The company of loved ones. Visitors from distant places are welcome. At last, someone to talk to or just listen. Relationships have assumed greater importance. No surprise that enforced and extended stays at home made people think much more about what they really valued.
Youngsters have learnt to work around the house, help out rather than hang out with their friends outside their homes most of the time. There is also so much talk of giving and philanthropy among the very well off. What’s the point of dying with so much, they say; let’s spread it around.
Perhaps, someone, somewhere, will benefit. Even the not so rich, reflecting on the end of days, made wills and left instructions on how they wanted their last rites to be performed.
Despite the huge influx of liquidity, with easy money and loan write-offs, millions of Americans experienced some form of economic distress. Job losses, wage reductions, layoffs, closures of shops and small businesses — all these were par for the course. The rich, of course, made loads of money, but many also lost fortunes, with sectors, such as travel, tourism, and real estate hit quite hard.
Anxious for well-being
But life slowed down, too, bringing family and friends closer, whether really or virtually. Those who had relatives in other countries were also anxious for their safety and well-being, not being able travel or visit. Life, love, longing — all these were digitised as never before, with much more time spent in the metaverse.
It is to be expected that human behaviour will return pretty much to pre-pandemic patterns in most parts of the world. But, here in the US, there is a new sense of modesty, if not humility.
Everyone knows that the world is far from being unipolar or even bi-polar, with the possibility of a new Cold War not ruled out if not in the offing or already begun. Instead, there is a definite sense that times have changed. Everyone, everywhere, must contend with not just multi- but heteropolarity.
The old verities and certitudes no longer hold. The world is a much more uncertain and confusing place. Very few seem to know what is really going on. While life goes on, slowly limping back to normal, there is also a low-level, all-pervasive anxiety and loss of coordinates. Few know what to make of the news or headlines, let alone the continuous bombardment of information.
Distance affords a much-needed perspective or corrective when it comes to one’s own concerns and preoccupations. But one thing emerges with greater clarity than ever before.
The world is one, if we only blink and refocus again. Post-pandemic, what beckons to us with renewed urgency is the ideal of human unity and solidarity. East or West, we must reawaken to this possibility.