Man by nature is a social animal – so said Aristotle and indeed rightly so. Mankind since time immemorial has been living in what political thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau termed “social contract”, defined by close societal bonds and community living. Man’s sense organs of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch also aided him in community living. Each of the sense organs has played a vital part in development of the individual by allowing free expression and adaption to a close knit community life.
In fact such has been the importance attached to the sense organs of a human being that their full enjoyment has been considered a basic universal human right. The Supreme Court took note of the importance of social contact for prisoners in the celebrated prison reforms case of Sunil Batra (II) v. Delhi Administration (1980) 3 SCC 488 when it held:
“….Inflictions may take many protean forms, apart from physical assaults. Pushing the prisoner into a solitary cell, denial of a necessary amenity, and, more dreadful sometimes, transfer to a distant prison where visits or society of friends or relations may be snapped….. Every such affliction or abridgment is an infraction of liberty or life in its wider sense and cannot be sustained unless Article 21 is satisfied.”
Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India recognise the importance of social contact and community living, for example – freedom to assemble peaceably, form unions, etc, subject to reasonable restrictions on the enjoyment of individual rights for the greater good of the community.
All along with psychologists and medical professional repeatedly told us that physical contact amongst people and especially ailing persons was of utmost importance and fired up the human brain to a happy state and helped it relax, touch leads to better child development, better relationships, it is therapeutic, etc. A mother’s touch is touted as the panacea of all ills. There was in fact a recent article on the footballing great, Andres Iniesta, who while suffering from depression curled up on his parents’ bed as part of his get well routine and how this helped him overcome his illness. Something akin to our “Jadu ki Jhappi”.
The COVID pandemic has suddenly altered this reality for each one of us. Social distancing is the new norm. In fact our sense of touch – our interface between our bodies and the external world is the most affected by the Covid pandemic. The sensation of touch is fundamental to our interaction with our external world. It is primarily used to establish bonds amongst ourselves. Neurobiologist David J. Linden, John Hopkins University in his seminal work – Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind and his numerous talks has dwelt extensively on how the sense of touch is central to a unique human experience. He asserts that touch is apparently the first sense that is developed in the womb.
Touch in fact is most on display in team sports where it reinforces team spirit and kinsman ship and team building resulting in a better overall team performance. Cricket – a game every Indian is passionate about may have to change the practice of shining the cricket ball with spit in the wake of the Covid pandemic. In fact a discussion on this has already started!
Depending on what you are touching and its context, it can be deservedly unpleasant or extremely wonderful. William Shakespeare places it beautifully when he writes in Antony and Cleopatra Act V Scene II – of “The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch
Which hurts and is desired.”
However, with the COVID pandemic and social distancing norms in force, mankind is perforce compelled to curtail one of its most important sense organs; now touch can sound the death knell for a person. Covid has led to man shunning social contact and fellow beings. Restrictions have been put even on momentous social occasions such as gatherings for birth, marriage or death. In happiness and grief man is to live apart from his fellow humans. How this will impact society, social norms, and community till the time a cure is found for the pandemic only time will tell. Presently mankind is left to learn from his follies which resulted in this pandemic in the first place and take urgent remedial steps.
Covid has forced mankind to turn the old adage “no man is an island” (with due apologies to John Donne) on its head. Now in reality every man is an isolated Island – a living, walking touch me not !
(Th author is an Advocate-on-Record, Supreme Court of India, Additional Advocate General, Supreme Court of India for the State of Himachal Pradesh. Views expressed are personal)