Pandemic or not, Valentine’s week must march on. At a mall in Kolkata, a giant red teddy with balloons marked Teddy Day while people took selfies in front of it just like old times except for the masks. Valentine’s Day cakes are on offer at bakeries and the soap operas have worked Rose Day into the storyline. But the pandemic has also taught us some hard lessons about love, sex and dhokha.
There was the United Kingdom’s top lockdown adviser Neil Ferguson who early in the pandemic warned that if the UK didn’t implement mass self-isolation it risked 500,000 deaths. Then, he got his married lover to travel across London from the home where she lived with her husband and children to come visit him. He claimed he thought he was “immune” to the illness because he had already tested positive. But accused of hypocrisy he had to resign from his post as the lockdown adviser anyway.
On the flip side, I know one Indian couple who were on the brink of breakup but found themselves stuck together during the lockdown. Instead of killing each other, they wisely seem to have decided if life gave you lemons you might as well have lemonade. Now every day, their Instagram feed has daily pictures of them doing couple things together.
A popular joke doing the rounds of WhatsApp groups was how the stringent lockdown had hurt a minority no one talked about—the nation’s mistresses (and whatever their male equivalents are called). I am sure for many the joke didn’t feel funny at all. WFH meant even the old excuse of “stuck at work” didn’t fly anymore.
But jokes aside, love in the time of pandemic felt like such uncharted territory that an entire portal was set up and called ‘Love in the Time of Covid’. It dealt with all kinds of issues. How were those who felt their biological clocks ticking dealing with a cancelled year? Could a relationship survive with both partners working from home and kids not going to school? How do you speed-date via Zoom? What’s the protocol for a Zoom wedding? More than 5,000 people from 57 countries shared their experiences.
No Philadelphia moment yet
During the AIDS epidemic, the very act of making love invited the spectre of disease. Elton John who wrote a book called Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS said, “The AIDS disease is caused by a virus, but the AIDS epidemic is not. The AIDS epidemic is fuelled by stigma, violence and indifference… Science can stop the disease but science alone can’t end the plague.” That’s because AIDS was a shame-based disease. Covid-19 does not carry the burden of that stigma. “Ours was a pandemic of rejects,” said English actor-author Rupert Everett about AIDS in an interview for the Jaipur Literature Festival. With Covid-19 there was a sense of the whole world being in it together, a sort of fraternal feeling while with AIDS, “looking at our friends with the disease was like looking into a terrible mirror about what could happen to yourself”.
But that horror also gave rise to powerful love stories that shattered preconceptions and prejudices. The world had to acknowledge the “angels in America” and the “longtime companions” of the hundreds of thousands dying before their time. Covid-19 has not had its Philadelphia moment as of yet. A Chinese woman and an Indian man’s February wedding in Madhya Pradesh last year had the health department in a tizzy. We hear about lovers who suddenly were stuck in different countries, unable to reach each other. The Dutch government even issued guidelines for single people seeking pandemic intimacy. They suggested meeting with the same person, a cuddle buddy, as long as both were free of illness. It seemed like Dutch excess, but after hearing endless rueful remarks from friends about how the pandemic had “re-virginized” them I was not so sure anymore.
Changing with times
The human mind being what it is found its own ways to deal with the pandemic hormones. Some discovered the pleasures of cybersex in virtual rooms of apps. Some decided to risk it. One friend said post-lockdown he had resumed hookups. “But I am having safe sex,” he insisted. “Don’t you kiss?” I asked. He seemed shocked. “How can I have sex without kissing?”
I understand his dilemma. It’s been a long dry year for too many. But perhaps there is something to be learned from the AIDS epidemic after all. Just as gay dating apps once carried an optional HIV status, we could look forward to a time when all dating apps can come with a Covid vaccination status. And even if we don’t get a Philadelphia, we can have our own love stories in the time of Covid.
“Covidshield or Covaxin?” She asked hesitantly as he poured her a glass of wine. “Pfizer of course, my sister lives in Manhattan,” he replied rolling his eyes ever so slightly. She sighed and relaxed. “You smell good,” he said softly as he handed her the glass. “It’s my new sanitizer,” she replied as she slowly loosened her mask.