• September 30, 2020 2:45 pm

Reporting From Delhi

The balcony spirit

ByMihir Srivastava

Apr 10, 2020

​Not just in India but in places all over the world–London, New York, Rome–people came to their balconies and doors to clap, light candles, sing songs and play music swaying their arms, even dancing to express solidarity with the health workers in the fight against Coronavirus 

There has been criticism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, unlike other world leaders, amidst this crisis of enormous proportion, is indulging in tokenism and gestures. On March 22, at 5 pm, the Prime Minister invited ‘we the people’ to come out of their houses, stand in their balconies or at the doors or next to windows, clap, bang on metal plates or ring bells to express solidarity for doctors, nurses, paramedics, municipal staff and airport workers for their invaluable services in these testing times. 

Two weeks later, on 5 April, Modi asked citizens of the country to switch off lights and light a diya or candle at 9 pm to demonstrate their resolve to fight the pandemic that has thrown normal life out of gear. 

Sceptics, however, were quick to slam the move. Shashi Tharoor famously tweeted, “Clapping doesn’t kill Corona.” Despite the criticism on social media, primarily by the segments of intelligentsia described by the Establishment as ‘Urban Naxals’, the call was a resounding success. Even leaders of opposition parties joined people at large, lighting candles and beating plates in solidarity with people working to provide healthcare and other essential services, while we are cocooned within the safety of our homes. 

Some of the participants were more than enthusiastic. Kshitij Narain, 21, an engineering student who lives in Noida’s Sector 92, described the whole experience as ‘uplifting’. “It felt like a collective resolve to fight a common threat. Though we are all locked inside our homes and isolated from the rest of the world, we are together in facing this crisis. We all owe it to the brave people who are working day in and day out, beyond the call of duty, risking their lives to keep us safe. They need all the encouragement and support, and should know that each one of us is there for them and grateful for everything, for saving our lives.” 

Tokenism has its limitations. It keeps people in a fool’s paradise when situations on the ground require stringent measures. The PM was advised by the opposition that he should be more concerned about the fate of daily wage workers, who are out on the streets facing imminent starvation. “India is simply not testing enough the Covid-19 virus…Making people clap and shining torches isn’t going to solve the problem,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted a few days ago.  

However, people around the world don’t seem to agree, not even experts. In these unprecedented times, when normal life has come to a standstill, it’s not going to be easy. Apart from the economic fallout, a recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet titled The Psychological Impact of Quarantine and How to Reduce it: Rapid Review of the Evidence says, “Depriving people of their liberty for the wider public good is often contentious and needs to be handled carefully. If quarantine is essential, then our results suggest that officials should take every measure to ensure that this experience is as tolerable as possible for people. This can be achieved by telling people what is happening and why, explaining how long it will continue, providing meaningful activities for them to do while in quarantine, providing clear communication, ensuring basic supplies…and reinforcing the sense of altruism that people should, rightly, be feeling.” 

Such initiatives have a way to reinforce a sense of altruism and spirit of camaraderie–that we are together in this. Perhaps this is the reason that this practice was adopted by many countries across the globe. On 28 March, people across Bermuda Island united in a massive show of support for essential workers in what was described as the ‘clap session’ that lasted a few minutes. The locals came out with pots and pans and air horns and it was so loud that a local describing it said: “Our ears were ringing.” 

A day earlier, in New York, at 7 pm lasting several minutes. “The applause erupted from all over the city” as people “leaned out their windows and flooded their balconies with two minutes of applause for essential workers,” reports CNN. 

The same happened in Madrid when people “stood on balconies and leaned out of windows to clap and cheer doctors and healthcare workers” reported The Guardian. This was “following a campaign launched on social media to show appreciation after the Spanish government declared a state of emergency over the Coronavirus.”

Not just in London but in England as a whole, it happened many times, A host of celebrities including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Elton John, Daniel Craig, Sir Paul McCartney, Stormzy and Ricky Gervais were among those who showed solidarity by joining the ‘Clap for our Carers’ as the show of support swept the country for the second Thursday (April 2) in a row,” reported Sky News. “At 8 pm, thousands took to their doorsteps, gardens and balconies to show their appreciation for NHS workers… there were rounds of applause, cheering and a general racket usi/ ng whatever people could get their hands on including pots, pans, and drums.” UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who’s now hospitalised, ten days after testing positive for Covid-19, was also seen clapping at the doorway of No. 10 Downing Street.

This loud demonstration of solidarity perhaps started in Italy on 19 March when people in Rome, Milan and other cities came out to their balconies, not just to clap but sing a song, play musical instruments, swayed their arms, even danced to thank workers in the fight against Coronavirus. This was dubbed the ‘balcony spirit’.  

This display of ‘balcony spirit’ embodies our collective resolve to deal with the pandemic–all over the world. While there’s no denying the fact that stringent measures are required, it’s equally imperative that we keep in good spirits if we are to contain the Coronavirus. Mass rituals like clapping and lighting lamps binds people isolated by the requirement of social distancing, together towards a common cause of fighting its impact.