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In togetherness, lies survival!

Published : Saturday, 28 March, 2020 at 12:00 AM  Count : 263

Nazarul Islam

Nazarul Islam

Will shocks and wonders ever cease? A microscopic, mutant virus has created global havoc, leading the way to greater panic....and beyond. Has the corona virus not undermined our most basic concepts about community and, in particular, urban life? Many of us who live in mega cities in the Western Hemisphere, can draw their lessons from history books.

We found out the hard way--the cities which had emerged thousands of years ago, for economic and industrial reasons--technological leaps here, had produced a surplus of agricultural goods, which meant not everyone had to keep working the land.

Whatever the primary reasons, cities across our planet grew, perhaps less tangibly, out of our deeply human, social and spiritual needs. The very notion of streets, shared housing and public spaces have stemmed from and fostered a kind of collective affirmation, a sense that people are in this--together!

I have a feeling that pandemics imitate life, as though they are aware of human vulnerabilities. Consequently, they are likely to prey on this basic truth, quite relentlessly. And one may easily imagine that the biblical diseases of plague, flu Swine Flu, Ebola, are all anti-urban. These phenomena have exploited our impulse to congregate.

And our response so far--social distancing--not only runs up against our fundamental desires to interact, but also against the ways we have built our cities and plazas, motorways, subways and skyscrapers. These are all designed to be occupied and animated collectively. I strongly believe that, for many urban systems to work properly, density must the objective, the goal--not the enemy!

It's becoming harder by the hour to find the new normal. We need each other in a global crisis like this, but then, we rightly fear congestion. France and Spain have both ordered that all cafes and restaurants must shut down. In New York, it's the same, with museums and Broadway theatres placed on operational bind. Mosques have closed in several countries, churches have cancelled masses, and the pontiff prohibited the public from Holy Week celebrations.

Traditionally, we have sought solace in religion, sports, entertainment and in the promise that modern science and societies shall provide all the tools needed to solve our problems. Of course, we now have initiated the practice of teleconferencing and an abundance of social media and other forms of remote, digital interaction. Already, urban living had focused our attention to drift towards a kind of social distancing, by living increasingly with our hand held devices, and in virtual communities. Netflix in the urban domain, has shaped into a medium to lift our spirits, hurling us into the virtual societies, we are slowly drifting.

On a reciprocal basis, our technology today has increasingly consumed us, for good or for ill. It is escalating our anxieties with unending access to information and misinformation alike. But technology is also allowing many of us to carry on with certain kinds of businesses and enables them to act globally in ways we couldn't have imagined, a generation or two ago.
But then, do we not need one other, just about, even as we drift into virtual living? Whoever among us, may have raised the prospect of causing 'social distancing', has obviously caused the collapse in social contact that is particularly hard on the general populations; most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness--older adults and people with disabilities or pre-existing health conditions.

There is evidence for this. If you care, you may read the works of Eric Klinenberg a sociologist at New York University. He wrote a book about a heat wave in Chicago in 1995, during which 739 people had unfortunately died. That event proved lethal among elderly Chicagoans living in poor, segregated neighbourhoods that afforded residents little social contact.

But older residents of Chicago and suburbs, who live in similarly poor, crime-ridden communities who had access to what Mr Klinenberg called a robust 'social infrastructure'--a network of 'sidewalks, stores, public facilities and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbours--simply died its natural death!

Now those new, Emery forms of social interaction have put people at greater risk. That is one reason why affluent New Yorkers with second homes in the countryside have been leaving the city in recent days--like medieval characters in Boccaccio's book, facing the Black Death. During the last century, millions of urban-dwelling Americans fled to the suburbs. Cities cleared old neighbourhoods and replaced them with giant housing projects in vast empty spaces, arguing that crowded urban slums had become petri dishes for disease.

Paradoxically, people have also been moving back into cities even as technology has created myriad new ways of connecting remotely. Cities have become epicentres of new capital, finance, culture and creativity, because proximity breeds serendipity and strength, from which new ideas and opportunities must arise.

Economists have talked about this urban migration in terms of dollars and cents. But the human value of shared space is ultimately incalculable. After 9/11, I cared to visit the Islamic galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, where crowds never stopped congregating. I asked an absorbed woman there what had brought her to this particular museum.

The response was quick. She wanted to remind herself of life and beauty and tolerance, and to seek strength in one another. During the blitz of London, in World War II, the British Home Office ordered all theatres, concerts halls, movie houses and other public gathering spots shut, leaving residents to meditate on their grim fate at home.

I once read in the History journal that one such exception was London's National Gallery, whose director was able to persuade authorities to let him keep one painting on public view (the picture was periodically changed, so people had reason to return). The gallery also organized a series of lunchtime classical music concerts.

Going out had meant risking life and limb. But Londoners waited in lines that stretched out the front door of the gallery and across Trafalgar Square, hoping for seats. When a German munition fell on the gallery shortly before one concert, the audience and musicians relocated across the square to South Africa House.

A few days later, when a 1,000-pound unexploded bomb was discovered in some rubble outside the gallery, the event was moved to a distant room and no one budged when the device was detonated during a Beethoven quartet. The last great war had shaken the confidence of free and open democracies, to survive a grave global threat. Modest though they were, those concerts gave Londoners hope, reminding them why they lived there and remained 'together'.
And our present day threat is altogether another sort of challenge to solidarity and our way of life. It is not a heat wave or a blitz. It can't be mitigated by going to concerts or museums. It requires isolation, particularly in the context of epidemic or pandemics.

Therefore, the next question remains: do we need to figure out a different approach, towards together? Our priorities in the urban context have changed over time, our focus on the games of life have altered completely. And, justifiably so!

Thank you dear readers, for your patience in going through this piece!

The writer is former educator based in Chicago

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