Covid 19 Focus Front Page

The Handwashing Syndrome: Coronavirus, Ph.D., and Life

Two sisters tell us about how COVID-19 has affected their lives.

By Rituparna Patgiri and Ritwika Patgiri

When China had first found out about the novel coronavirus case on 17th November 2019, little did we know how it was going to change all our worlds, that too exactly three months later. We never knew that the meanings of one little cough or one little sneeze would change forever. It was on a flight from Bangalore to Delhi on 30th January 2020 that we were reading a New York Times article about the novel Coronavirus, and how it was leading to new definitions of racism based on food habits. At that time we had little clue about how the globalized world was going to change our lives two months later. 

We had made the same mistake everyone did, we had underestimated the interconnectedness of the globalized economy. We had thought that a disease in China would not reach us in Delhi. But we have been proved wrong. The impact of the novel coronavirus has been devastating world-wide. It was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11th March 2020 and has taken the lives of thousands of people, with several more infected. The worst is not even remotely over and most of the world is facing lockdowns in their countries. India, too, has announced a nationwide lockdown on 25th March 2020.

This article is a first-person account of two Ph.D. researchers, albeit at different stages of their journey, on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on our lives. How do two Ph.D. researchers deal with a global pandemic? What are the levels of anxiety that can grip young people? While answering these questions, we also acknowledge that we are very much privileged to be able to sit at home and write this article in the face of a lockdown that disrupts normal lives. 

It would be an understatement to say that coronavirus has had an impact on our mental health. Checking the statistical impact of the virus on the website of The Hindu has become a regular affair. Needless to say, our anxieties increase as we see the numbers rise in that small red button on the website. As we finish writing this article on 26th March 2020, there have been 712 reported cases in India. 

As Delhi reported its first case on 1st March 2020, both of us became petrified and decided to be more careful. Ritwika had to commute to South Asian University (SAU) and Jamia Millia Islamia University (JMI) for her Ph.D. and French classes respectively. Since my roommate was not in Delhi, she was staying in the Ganga hostel of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as a guest. Generally, she uses the metro to travel to classes but the reporting of the first case in Delhi had scared us.  

Ritwika began using Uber cabs. It must be, however, acknowledged that we had the privilege to make this decision. But despite our privilege, cabs are expensive compared to the metro and having to spend more on travel was an issue in itself. What also increased our anxiety was reading about cab drivers getting infected with the virus.

Talking about coronavirus before we went to sleep every night became a ritual. Sometimes, it would get as late as four in the morning. The fear of getting infected by coronavirus was slowly taking over our lives. Many times we joked that we don’t remember what we talked about before this deadly outbreak! All the increasing number of deaths and new cases would give us both panic attacks. One night, it became particularly hard as I could not breathe properly and thus both of us were extremely terrified. Thankfully, we had an inhaler with us and it saved the day. 

The idea that we have to avoid public places became deep-rooted in our minds. The very thought of going to a hospital was especially scary. Therefore, when I had a fall in the department, instead of immediately rushing to the university health centre or a nearby hospital, I decided to wait. But because the pain was too much, with the help of two friends, we had to rush to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). Out of the four-five hours that all of us had spent in the hospital, one-two hours must have been spent on applying hand sanitizer! Such is the anxiety that coronavirus has created that I opened the plaster cast at home by myself. 

Communicable diseases have their problems. After all, human beings are social beings. Both of us love going out, and have made it a habit to enjoy the arrival of early spring every year amidst the fine blossoming flowers. But we understand that this year we are not in a position to be complaining about missing out on ‘spring’ when mere survival has become a chance of tremendous luck. 

This unprecedented spread of the novel Coronavirus has altered the definitions of ‘public space’ for us. Any mass gathering is seen with absolute scepticism, any place which is crowded is to be avoided at all costs.  

The fear of catching or getting infected by the virus was real. The ‘going-home’ that we so eagerly look forward to, became an anxiety-inducing journey. The very thought of going through airport checks was enough to fill our minds with fear. In our hearts, we knew that corona had managed to do the impossible – make us sceptical about going back home! 

Apart from changing the meaning of ‘public spaces’, coronavirus has also affected our food habits. People started avoiding meat assuming that coronavirus is a ‘meat’ based disease. What is disheartening is how such notions have shattered the Indian poultry sector.

Nothing is more disastrous than a global disaster in the times of fake news, at an age when information has become so easily accessible, thanks to social media. But access to information does not necessarily mean access to the ‘right’ information. How do you combat a disaster with so much information available coming from all sorts of sources with no idea which is right and which is not? 

Coronavirus has triggered the vulnerabilities of not just the capitalist society but also one that is so susceptible to ‘fake news’. From hoarding sanitizers to hoarding vegetables foreseeing a lockdown, we have all become ‘victims’ of this hoarding mentality. 

Hoarding of sanitizers and masks has meant that we had to check online if they were available as nearby grocery shops and pharmacies had run out of them. 

Apart from influencing our mental health and everyday practices, the coronavirus outbreak has also had an impact on our academic pursuits. I had planned to submit my Ph.D. in March 2020 but now it is all uncertain. This uncertainty that has grasped us makes me question if all the hard work that I had put into will be in vain. 

The challenges that both of us face are different. While I am on the verge of submission, Ritwika is at the beginning stage. 

Ritwika was supposed to start her fieldwork in Delhi for her Ph.D. coursework which has come to a halt. Her pursuit of learning French has also been disturbed. How does one learn a new language from a distance without constant practice? 

The case of Jamia Millia Islamia where she is pursuing her Diploma in French is tragic in itself. It was one of the universities which were hit by the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests that took the entire nation by storm. Classes had been cancelled since December 2019 and it was only in early February of 2020 that classes had resumed. 

After a mere one and a half months of normalcy, the University is forced to shut down yet again. There are no gainers from this, the pain of the final year students of the University is not hard to imagine – they have lost an entire session to violence and a global pandemic. Exams were postponed from December 2019 and were finally held in February 2020. The students of Jamia are certainly facing an unimaginable loss. But attending classes is a privilege in itself in the current scenario. 

Both the present and the future seem uncertain, but what is sure is that our definition of many things in life has changed. We can only hope that we recover from this and no more lives are lost.


About the authors

Rituparna Patgiri from Guwahati, Assam is a doctoral student in The Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled ‘Bhyrmoman Natak in Assam: A Study of Publics. She has almost nine years of academic training and professional experience in exploring inter-linkages between issues of culture, gender, health, and the public domain through qualitative research. She has previously worked in organizations like Oxford Policy Management, North East Network (NEN), Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Development Solutions Inc., Karvy Insights and Outline India on various projects dealing with issues of culture, gender, health, and the public sphere.


Ritwika Patgiri from Guwahati, Assam is a 1 st Year doctoral student in the Faculty of Economics of the South Asian University, New Delhi. She has a Masters in Economics from Jamia Millia Islamia University and a BA in Economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. She is also part of The Himalaya Collective, an open-source platform for people working in the Himalayan Region. She has experience of working as a research intern with organizations like Rashtriya Grameen Vikas Nidhi (RGVN), Sambodhi Research and Communications, Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development (OKDISCD), SDG Society and Femme First Foundation on areas of poverty, micro-finance, education, sustainable development goals and gender in politics.

1 comment on “The Handwashing Syndrome: Coronavirus, Ph.D., and Life

  1. Pingback: COVID19 – Live Blog

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