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No Touching, Please: Is Coronavirus Killing Romance for Indians?

Image for representation. Credits: Reuters.

Image for representation. Credits: Reuters.

'I don’t expect people to take known risk if they don’t have to, but I also think the desire for love will outpace an epidemic.' For some long-distance couples, the pandemic means a little extra time together.

A week ago, 88-year-old Dorothy Campbell stood outside a window, at the Life Care Center of Kirkland in Washington, looking at her husband Gene, 89, and talking to him on the phone. Dorothy and Gene, married for 60 years, have been separated because of a virus-- a novel coronavirus that causes an illness known as COVID-19 that has now been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The photograph of Dorothy and Gene broke a million hearts. But, no one knows the story of Dorothy and Gene. How did they meet? How did they fall in love? And now, how difficult it is to not be able to hold each other's hands after 60 years?

Back in India, a comedian from Gujarat just cancelled his first date after their telephone conversation. "She was coughing a lot, I didn't want to take a chance," he says.

D, 28, whose bio on Bumble reads: "I am a writer. I take myself very seriously and you should, too" says that if his date has a runny nose or any symptoms of Coronavirus, he will excuse himself to use the washroom and never come back. "Like those fathers from the 90s," he adds. He was referencing to fathers in American movies in the 90s. "Dads would go out for a pack of cigarettes and never come back. These were young guys, early twenties. I would do the same," he says.

On any other day, Priyanka*, a 33-year-old musician from Kolkata, would be thrilled to have reconnected with who she describes as a 'sweet boy', from Singapore on Bumble. They had first swiped right on each other on Tinder five years ago. But, this wasn't any other day. "The first time I had flaked because I was being me. This time I’ve flaked because of Coronavirus," she says.

"I swiped left on two Italian men. Both very cute. Both rejected," she says.

The total number of cases in Italy, the European country hit hardest by the virus, rose to 15,113 from a previous 12,462 in the last 24 hours. The death toll is now at 1,016.

"I will regret rejecting them at some point," she adds.

While this may seem like a bit of paranoia, a 29-year-old Indian man, who lives in New York, believes that it's going to be "practically impossible to meet anyone new till this settles". 'This' is the outbreak of COVID--19, a coronavirus-caused illness that originated in Wuhan, China, and has since spread to most of the world. It is one of the most serious public health crises in decades and has already spread far wider than Ebola did in 2014.

As of March 11, there have been more than 125,000 reported cases, more than 4,600 deaths worldwide, and more than 1,200 reported cases. In India alone, there are 73 cases already. The numbers are escalating rapidly. The first death in a case of Coronavirus was reported on Tuesday when a 76-year old man from Karnataka died. The man had recently returned from Saudi Arabia.

In the capital city, coronavirus has been declared an epidemic and the state government has announced that all schools, colleges and cinema halls will remain shut till March 31.

The 'Delhi boy' who now lives in New York was going to meet his date for a movie screening. "It was our first date. Then she got paranoid about being in a crowded, confined space while I made jokes about wearing hazmat suits. Eventually, we cancelled the date," the 29-year-old narrates. They have agreed to meet when the "apocalypse is over".

However, Clarissa Silva, behavioural scientist and relationship coach, believes, "When it comes to dating and the desire to find love, people are more apt to take risks."

In her study, exploring the idea of dating in the times of Coronavirus, she found that people who are looking to date can be categorised in two groups based on risk tolerance. "For those that felt the risk would impact others (child or family) or had a chronic illness, they abstained from dating. For those who felt that they were not at risk themselves, they continue to date online and IRL."

In Delhi, that has recorded six Coronavirus cases so far, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has announced disinfecting all public places, including government and private offices and shopping malls, has been made compulsory.

Meanwhile, a 30-year-old woman in Delhi is excited to meet her ex who's travelling from Geneva, Switzerland but she says, she is equally 'paranoid'. "I asked him to send his screening results over WhatsApp before I decide to passively flirt out of sheer habit". She's not taking any chances. "I cancelled on a date because of the Coronavirus fear," but, she says she's also using this as an "excuse to not meet some people".

Silva says trying to slow the spread of disease will be the primary messaging for governments since the virus possesses so many unknowns for scientists. "When we have concerns about an epidemic coupled with media coverage and misinformation in the public, people will at first have fear and the need to quell that fear." She says there was similar messaging during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. "Once public fear was quelled as science progressed, people who placed themselves in a low-risk category started resuming usual activities," she adds.

Mihir*, who lives in Singapore, met a woman from China in January through a dating app. A day after their second date, the woman, who works in a tech company there, left for China. By the time she returned two weeks later, the Singapore government had imposed compulsory self-quarantine for those returning from China. "She stayed at home for 14 days. We decided it’s best to not meet," he says. However, when they met again, Mihir says he didn't invite her back to his place. "I was comfortable with holding hands, but didn't kiss her," he says. His only worry about Coronavirus, he says, is-- "We might friend zone each other, lose interest and drift away".

The difficulties of intimacy are not just between couples who recently met. "We have stopped touching each other's face," says Urvashi*, a film critic, who lives in New York, talking about her partner of three years. Kissing, she says, is rare.

Not everyone is deciding to give up on intimacy, just as yet. A couple who recently got married had a honeymoon trip planned to Indonesia. Sitting in Bali now, Vishant says, "I was a bit paranoid through the trip, but once you get here, you tend to forget." "We had booked everything and so far ahead-- most of it was non-refundable. We decided we cannot not go for our honeymoon."

Meanwhile, for some long-distance couples, the pandemic means a little extra time together. Mr Shetty, who lives in the US, will be spending three weeks more than his planned stay with Ms Singh in Bangalore. "He extended his trip to April 15 following the outbreak of Coronavirus in the US. It worked out for me," she says.

Dating apps realised that they should step in after noticing a considerable rise in the number of mentions of the virus in profiles. In many countries, an interstitial screen pops up on Tinder, warning users of the risks of meeting in person. "Wash hands, carry hand-sanitiser, avoid touching face, and maintain social distance in public gatherings," are some of the advice from Tinder's pop-up ad.

OkCupid asked users to fill in detailed questionnaires, matching them with others who gave similar answers. It then sent a push alert to every user asking them an additional question: “Does coronavirus affect your dating life?”

Their survey results showed that 74% of respondents in India would be willing to go out on dates. This is much lower than the global average of 88%.

Hinge's awareness efforts has, so far, been limited to one tweet: “Wash your hands before you steal your Hinge date’s fries. It’s okay to ‘share’ fries, but not germs.”

But with all the fears and paranoia, will ghosting now become literal, extending to even in real-life situations-- just how D wants to do to his date with a 'runny nose'? "Ghosting was prevalent prior to Covid-19 and I anticipate it will remain, prevalent independent of quarantine periods," she says.

However, Silva doesn't feel love is going to be killed. "In the midst of global quarantine, I predict greater use of video and communication in dating apps," she says. In fact, she points out that there has been a surge in video use in communication since the outbreak of Covid-19.

"I don’t expect people to take a known risk if they don’t have to, but I also think the desire for love will outpace an epidemic," she adds.

Long back, in a short story called 'Happiness', Guy de Maupassant had written about a young girl, beautiful and rich, Suzanne de Sirmont, who had been "carried off" by a sergeant in the regiment that her father commanded.

"He was a handsome boy, the son of peasants, but looking good in his dress uniform, this soldier who had seduced the daughter of his colonel. No doubt she had seen him, noticed him, fell in love with him while watching the troops march by. But how had he spoken to her, how had they been able to see each other, to talk? How had she dared to make him understand that she loved him? No one ever knew."

Perhaps, love in the times of Coronavirus is somewhat going to be like that. Love is not going to die; it's just going to be slightly different.

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.