Anita sneezed. Not once, but twice.In the pre-Covid era, nobody would have given a damn, but today, every one of her dozen co-passengers in the Delhi Metro turned to look at her.

She had tried to stop herself from sneezing, but she had failed. The moment she had been alerted by the faint tickle in her nose, she had forgotten everything else and focused on stopping the arrival of that sneezed. She had clenched her knuckles, stopped her breath, and under her mask she had tightened her lips – but it wasn’t that tiny, wheezy kind of sneeze that gives up and slinks back; it the queen of all sneezes…formidable, unstoppable…

The sneeze had sneaked past all the barricades that she had raised in its path, and brought along her twin.

Suddenly she was a pariah in that compartment.

She had taken her two shots, and the serum test that she had taken before her flight out of the country had turned out to be negative. was The sneeze, she was sure, was the result of Delhi’s pollution…but she couldn’t explain that to her co-passengers.

If she did, they’d wonder why she had to…and assume that she was doing it because she had the virus. If she didn’t, they would sit there, uncomfortable, trying to stop themselves from breathing in.

The fear had gripped hold of the whole population was unnerving and even though she would have felt exactly the same had someone else sneezed, she couldn’t help feeling miserable.

It was their collective Behavioral Immune System trying to keep them safe.

According to Mark Schaller, The Behavioral Immune System is a collection of psychological mechanisms that have evolved to keep people safe. It is the “first line of defense.” During the pandemic, people have been thinking, listening, and talking about the pandemic and its devastating impact – and this had made them sensitive to everything that could indicate the presence of the virus. Anita’s sneeze resulted in affective (dislike,) cognitive (inquiry,) and corresponding behavioral  (stopping of breath and tensing of the neck muscles) responses, in her co-passengers.

She knew why it had happened, but she didn’t want it to happen again. She didn’t want to witness their collective disapproval again, and so she sat very still. She made a conscious effort to neither sniffle nor sneeze, until the train stopped at Golf Links. She stepped out and heaved a sigh of relief. She wondered if those inside the train did the same.

Outside the station, she quickened her step. A warm bath followed with a cup of hot coffee would help her wash away the dust that had settled on both her body and her mood. Her house was about half a mile from the metro station and within minutes, she could see it but there was something on the gate. A square poster with red text.

Closer up, the text became clear. It said, “Covid Zone.”

They were all there. Clad in the PPE. Her father handed her the RT-PCR report and said, “we’ve prepared your room.”

Hours later, confined in her room as she lay upon her bed, she crossed her fingers and prayed that the Behavioral Immune System had kept her co-passengers safe.

Image Credit: Photo by Peter Chirkov on Unsplash