I went off WhatsApp, then the second wave of COVID-19 hit.

Towards the end of December 2020, I decided to cut out the noise. We had just begun to step out after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and restrictions had eased, meet a few friends again – albeit socially distanced, and take walks in parks (Delhi affords us this luxury). I wanted to enjoy all this, without being bombarded by messages from groups outraged at something or the other, forwards from family, or PR pitches from brands. As a journalist, I am often inundated with the last.

I had found I was picking up my phone much too often, to the point of distraction – even addiction. Each time I was halfway through something, I would turn to my phone and open WhatsApp. Sometimes, I couldn’t tell why – it was never that I was waiting for an important message.

The easiest thing to do to free up time and space on my phone was to delete the app. Ironically, this was also the period when people began to have privacy concerns around WhatsApp’s then-new policy, and it resulted in many other people opting out. It was inconvenient for family, of course, who had to shift to speak to me on Signal.

I did not find Signal addictive at all. I’m not sure whether the WhatsApp user experience got me hooked, or if it’s just that I don’t have many people on Signal, but I wasn’t constantly going back to it.

About once in two weeks, I would have to reinstall WhatsApp when an international call had to be made, but I would simply delete it again. It was wonderfully quiet. Only those who really wanted to chat would call me.

And then COVID came back, its intensity many times greater than last year. There was an outpouring of messages and emotions, of help being pleaded for, food and care being offered. There were stories to tell of people suffering, grieving. I came back to the app to stay for a while. This time, there is no noise – the cries for help are raw and real.

Collective grief is a responsibility – not to carry the burden of, but to represent it as best we can to anyone who will listen. As a journalist, it’s my job to broadcast it as widely as possible, so people around the world will hear, will help, and that hopefully in time, we will all be held accountable.

Ironically, even as we have been declared a sunset industry, newspapers and magazines have told stories through their photographs and their words: of a family who has not told their COVID positive mother that their father is dead, of another who all turned up for oxygen at a langar service, and of overwhelmed hospital wards where people simply fall down dead.  

For me now, WhatsApp is a tool – to ask friends and colleagues if they are well, to keep in touch with people who call to tell their stories – some to be published, some just because they want to be heard. I am not on WhatsApp anymore because of FOMO.

When I got back to it, I first purged everything I did not want, even exiting certain groups and deleting old messages. I have requested PR professionals to email rather than pitch their brands on WhatsApp, and I trail through group messages to see if there’s some way I can help.

Mostly though, I am on the app today because it is the most convenient, the quickest mode of communication, not the dalliance it was from a life before the pandemic.

Sunalini Mathew

Is a senior journalist with The Hindu and writes on culture, health, fitness and nutrition.

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