FRANCE CULTURE

Radio 2020: A Year For The Ages, Time Turned On Its Head

Worldcrunch's editor reflects on how we lived through - and covered - a year that we might have known was coming.

Disinfecting an Indonesian underpass last March
Disinfecting an Indonesian underpass last March
Jeff Israely

-Essay-

PARIS — I've always been a radio guy: for its ease of access and stripped-down delivery of the news, for the direct connection of the human voice and the serendipity that comes when programming lineups intersect with your own day's schedule.

Yet this past year (for all the obvious reasons when referring to this past year) I've finally picked up a podcast habit. The medium offers the control and convenience of choosing from what initially seems to be an infinite number of shows and subjects — and searching and finding a favorite comedian or a historical topic or an interview of a news industry maven has helped fill the extra alone time and respond to many shifting moods of these strange times. Whatever I want. Whenever I want.

Still, for the very fact that live radio decides the what and when, it remains the medium that can occasionally give me what I may actually need. That's especially true here in France, where a public broadcasting structure guarantees an eclectic mix of high-quality (and sometimes high-brow) programs that can carry me somewhere else.

And so it was this past Saturday afternoon that I turned on national broadcaster France Culture just as I was setting off for a weekend run. The host was returning on air from a station break: "We're back, speaking today about … time." Well, voilà!

The historian François Hartog was indeed the end-of-the-year radio guest we all need. His new book "Chronos" explores how contemporary society is grappling with a changing notion of time: caught between instantaneous information technology accelerating what he calls presentism (where all that matters is right now) and the growing apocalyptic angst generated by man-made risks for the planet. Call it: Real-time v. end times.

The programming, on the last Saturday of 2020, was of course intentional. Hartog had completed his book just before the arrival of the coronavirus, but had delayed publishing in order to add a commentary on how his theories hold up in light of the pandemic.

It's both momentous and somehow blank.

As we wrap up 2020, it can all appear both so momentous and somehow blank. It's also true that the year didn't exactly "fly by," as we so often remark in late December. Professor Hartog explained the difference between the Greek concepts of Khronos (ordinary "elusive" time) and Krisis, where the proverbial merde hits the fan. Instead, he says, the pandemic has left us somewhere in between, where "time is suspended"...

For those of us, like Worldcrunch, whose daily bread is delivering international news, there was plenty ostensibly disconnected from the pandemic to fill the time: from the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in early January to the global awakening of the Black Lives Matter movement to the final (final) deal on Brexit in late December.

Still, the year has essentially been in the hands of a microscopic virus that has criss-crossed the planet, killing more than 1.7 million people, shrinking life's confines and threatening livelihoods for billions of others, swaying national elections, changing individual habits at work and at home.

Faced with unprecedented circumstances and unrelenting reader demand, those of us delivering the news hustled to try to understand what was happening — and what was going to happen. The Italian news site Il Post recently chided fellow media outlets for inventing a new journalistic format: the draft, where reporters publish information they know is incomplete (or non-existent), expecting it to be revised or reversed soon after.

For Worldcrunch, the onus is less on time than on space, as we try to connect the dots from around the planet. Whether it was the spread of the virus or new lockdown rules, knowing what has happening elsewhere could feel empowering — especially earlier in the crisis.

This year taught us what we already knew.

In the U.S., my native country, the pandemic shaped the final year (and election loss) of President Donald Trump, a leader whose dictatorial tendencies threatened the world's oldest democracy. There was also the connection between the health crisis and the reckoning with centuries of racial injustice and newer tensions over the power of America's big tech companies and the impact of global warming which was blamed for a month when the entire West Coast seemed to be covered in flames. End times indeed, with cartoonist Barry Blitt drawing himself knocked over by the "news cyclones" arriving one after another.

Photo: Dan Gaken

Yes, it was a lot. But we might also look at 2020 as the year that taught us what we already knew. That starts with the risk of infectious disease itself, which experts had been warning us about for years. We've also learned (anew) that the immediate protection of human life supersedes economic concerns, but for only so long. We've learned (anew) about the fundamental weaknesses of liberal democracies, but continue to prefer them to the alternative. We learned in new ways how much the world is intimately intertwined, but that nations are ready to shut themselves off to protect their own. And finally, and most encouragingly, we learned that advances in scientific research, and a dose of global cooperation, can find cures in record time for the worst scourges we might imagine.

And finally, we learned that time is in fact not only measured in 24-hour news cycles, or 15 minutes of fame. "What disturbs us is that we have extra time that we can control, but we can't project ourselves into the future," France Marchand, a psychologist based in the French coastal city of Brest, told Le Monde in November. "Not being able to be sure of anything refers to ancestral fears...of emptiness, of missing, of dying."

So how will 2021 unfold? With infection and death rates hitting new highs just as the rollout has begun on an unprecedented mass global vaccination campaign, we can expect a different kind of anxiety in relation to time. Hopefully that will only last a few more months. Then, we are told, we will begin to emerge from our hives. We will start to travel again, and reunite with our loved ones. The economy may pick up or it may implode. Some old habits will return, others may not.

And as for the future of Khronos and Krisis ... and "time suspended"? Some of the finer philosophical points from that French radio show may have eluded me, but these final days of the year brought back some words I first heard a long time ago on an American station, from a different kind of philosopher: it's Willie Nelson singing "ain't it funny how time just slips away." Who could have known how much we'd miss the ordinary, bittersweet passage of life.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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