24 March, Ballarat, Victoria Australia

By Madhavi Srinivasan Johnson

I watch a video clip of my just born grandson Leo for the tenth time as I sip masala tea, sitting in my home in Ballarat. Images of Leo sent via WhatsApp by my son-in-law. Leo was born in Cardiff on the day the UK entered lockdown. These images are the closest I can come to cuddle him. I do not know when we will actually be able to touch and feel him. My husband and I have cause for celebrating life in this moment of global confusion and panic. We give each other an elbow pump and a pretend high five. We are happy that our daughter and the baby are alright and will be back home soon.

The Premier of the State of Victoria, where Ballarat is located, has announced a locked down. Essential services and supermarkets will be open, but schools and cafes will close from today. We have run out of toilet rolls. We leave for the supermarket and stroll nonchalantly past empty shelves marked toilet paper, alongside a few other lost souls. We maintain social distancing. People do not make eye contact and veer away from each other out of instinct rather than intent. We do not spot a single toilet roll in the first three supermarkets. We are lucky as my husband chances upon a toilet paper pack of 20 in the fourth one. For the next six weeks, we are in the clear, and if we are frugal, they could even last for two more weeks! It is reason enough for another mini-celebration.

In Ballarat, a regional town overshadowed by its proximity to Melbourne, social distancing is easily practised even at ‘normal’ times. Having moved here from New York last year, I have had a hard time adjusting to the town’s quietness. Now, my husband and I are grateful that we are here, as we watch CNN. The virus is in New York City. We lived and commuted within New York City for several years. We used rat-infested and grimy subways and witnessed homeless and mentally ill people wandering the streets of the Big Apple. We wonder what is going to happen to them and the countless immigrants who are the driving force behind the city’s energy and economy. Many of them are undocumented. Who will provide them care if the virus enters them?

My husband defaulted on borrowing a mower from the local community group last week. With the lockdown, we would not be able to go there anytime soon. I am obsessing over the possibility of an overgrown yard. I decide to snip grass in my front yard using a pair of scissors. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I cover a large patch of grass, bent down kneeling on the ground, cropping the green grass back to a certain precise height with my scissors and clearing the area of weeds. I am also trying to enhance my zen this way. I had read that a monk, as a young boy, used to snip grass for hours as punishment for being naughty. Snipping grass had given him ample perspective on life and the time to calm down his hyperactivity.

I take a break after an hour and a half, with a mild feeling of accomplishment and focus!

Our friends David and Julie have messaged and asked us to come to the front of our house. They have been cycling and stop in front of our garage, safely a metre and a half away. We take part in a ‘shouting’ match across our front fence. Julie shares tips on how to grow herbs in our back yard while I share news about baby Leo. David and Robert talk about the Federal government’s economic package in response to the coronavirus. We promise to have a video chat on Zoom once a week. We used to be able to meet them for a coffee, share a hug and a chat, until last week. Julie is diabetic, and Robert has had triple by-pass. Three of the four of us are in our seventies. We decide to err on the side of caution and just wave to each other.

My feeling of aimlessness has reduced somewhat. I prepare dinner, paneer masala, roti, and rice consciously using less of the onions, the paneer, and rice. We don’t know how long this lockdown will last. I reach out for my mobile to watch Leo again. I feel a huge weight of responsibility.

Thoughts of my daughter living alone in Chennai niggle at the back of the head. I have seen the announcement of a lockdown in India and images of people crowding into pharmacies and shops to do panic buying. No one has assured them things will be under control. There is no social distancing. Sitting far away, I see my country going into free-fall. My constant voyage into twitter and news channels is not helping me. I message her and call her for the umpteenth time to find out how she is coping. I counsel myself – she is an adult, she has an extensive network of friends, she is capable of looking after herself.

Over the years, I have accepted that I can never be in the same town as my family for any length of time. Now with the coronavirus, I do not know when I will be able to see them and hug them. Six months? One year? Or until the world finds a vaccine?

I try to wrap my head around this, just as millions of others are doing the world over. It is not only the physical threat of the virus. It is about the psychological danger of an imagined enemy. How can we come to terms with that?

As country after country announces lockdown, I snip grass with a pair of scissors in my garden. I will have to wait for it to grow a few inches before I start again.