by Manaswi Madichetty
I lost the concept of having a comfortable or a friendly place on March 6, 2020 when distance learning was announced. The StartupSBA office in the School of Business Administration at the American University of Sharjah had been my friendly space this year, and I no longer had access to it. Every day, from almost 9am in the morning to 7pm in the evening, I would spend all my free time in that very secluded office. Now with no access to my office and not feeling comfortable at home, I no longer had a friendly space to work and lacked inspiration.
What finally made me snap out of it? A 120-hour work sprint that my startup cofounding team (Tera, an initiative working to provide media and tech solutions for mental well-being in the MENASA region) and I decided to put ourselves through via WebEx Meet. The moment our work sprint ended and I woke up from a well-deserved nap, I realized that once again, my friendly place had originated around the work that I do but this time virtually. During any unfortunate situation that we may be stuck in, such as our current quarantine, it is essential to take care of our minds. Our mental health is extremely sensitive during such periods, and isolation could leave us with permanent scars that may be difficult to erase. To find your own comfortable space at home or online is one of the only ways to keep the mind from deteriorating. I had subconsciously created this comfortable place for myself with my friends on web conferencing applications, but I had never realized it. There have been times where my mother was concerned that I did not completely lash out or break down because of the quarantine, and I did not know that my healthier state of mind was because of my subconscious effort to develop my virtual comfortable space online.
No matter how comfortable, it is rather difficult to feel safe on the Internet. I owe my fear of the Internet to all the episodes of Black Mirror, a collection of episodes examining a scenario of technology manipulating human behavior, that I binged on Netflix. Regardless of how scary something is, humans always manipulate their resources to match their requirements and feel comfortable, and that is exactly what I did over the past month. It started off with all of my meetings transitioning online. Attending a minimum of three meetings per day had become part of my daily routine and seeing so many faces even on a screen, made me feel closer to the real world. The Internet became the core of every operation in all my team’s project plans, and we tried to make it the most accessible place to be in. We started using online productivity tools such as Slack and Asana and Zoom’s “share screen” and “remote control” features made it an easy platform to work with. Thousands of webinars were now being produced with experts from all around the world, and I found myself learning more than I had ever learned before. Regardless of how unfortunate the situation was, accessibility to all of the best resources in the world was increasing, with Zoom providing unlimited minutes, experts providing free online certifications, Bloomberg providing three months of free access to their news for students, the Balance application providing a free one-year subscription, and our dynamic professors digitizing every aspect of our courses. Although the world was already on a sprint towards a technological transformation, the COVID-19 accelerated the process for the better.
Although I did successfully create my friendly place amongst all the wonderful online resources and my workspace at home, I had a constant feeling of emptiness because of all the unfortunate circumstances that people outside of my home were facing. The unemployment crisis had led to many families being locked in their homes with their pets and children but with no food at all. My urge to offer community help in some way was strong, but the process for obtaining an NGO license required to legalize any institution that transfers resources or funds to people in need, is complicated and restrictive here in the UAE. To my surprise, my AIESEC team, an international youth-run NGO & NPO generating leadership experiences through cross cultural exchange, was approached by the UAE Relief Initiative, a group of young people connecting those in need to individual donors willing to help a family out. As there was no direct transfer of any resource being conducted by the team, this organization did not require a license. Once again, everything was being run on the Internet; from surveys for people in need, to WhatsApp groups of people willing to help out to online grocery applications transferred directly to them, the Internet was everyone’s savior. With no hesitation, I jumped in as a project manager and found myself working with others to call those who desperately needed resources and connected them with donors on the WhatsApp group. During this ongoing process, we help out more than 30 families every day and receive heartwarming videos of their children expressing gratitude for the resources provided. I am still working to make the process as streamlined as possible and increase the pool of resources, but I do feel complete now that I was able to help out great masses from the comfort of my room. During this time, I can offer help even though I am stuck at home, thanks to the web’s limitless opportunities.
Through the wild space of the Internet, we now have access to every nook and corner of the world, and it is up to all of us to derive the best possible utility out of it. The situation of the pandemic was most definitely a high-pressure one, but I can confidently say that I will come out of it having learned more than I could have imagined from the comfort of my queen-sized bed. The Internet has allowed me to stay in touch with all my friends, create virtual workspaces, help people in need, and even taught me some crazy dance moves (TikTok is fun). My StartupSBA ofice was long gone, but I can have access to everything in that office and more. As I continue to navigate my way through this wonderful web, I hope that the people around me feel as safe as I do on the Internet. I know it is extremely bleak out here, but you can always choose to visit my food blog, make that 2-minute mug brownie recipe and get on a group call with your dearest friends and family to find your friendly place in this world of unfriendly misfortunes.