19 May, 2021 – Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Sunila Galappatti

The last thing I did before going back into lockdown was to swim in the sea.  The rising sun was hot on my face; the water clear green and gentle early in the morning, a pale moon still lingered above.  My husband and children were still asleep, the baby just fed. No one need feel my absence – I could, in theory, be free.  I tried to summon the old abandon, but inside me was a knot of grief and anxiety, this time about what was happening in India and whatever was on its way here.  When the rest of the family woke up, we would have breakfast and drive back across the island, heading home to the isolation we had only recently, gingerly, unlocked.

Today, my husband and I swap notes.  We know it before we say it out loud but we agree, we are finding year two much harder.  In this part of the world, there is a thought that brings us very close to madness:  we had a whole year to prepare and we didn’t.  Last year, we watched heart-in-mouth as Europe was caught completely off guard; our own lockdowns were pre-emptive, what they offered above all was time to learn and prepare. Instead, within a few months, our leaders boasted of success in conquering ‘waves’ that had perhaps not been waves at all; we raised money for COVID preparedness but apparently did not spend it; we did a lot of policing, arresting, oppressing but never enough testing nor truth telling.  The list is long, the negligence profound, we try not to think about it all at once.  We just feel our heads and our limbs are heavier as we try to get ourselves and two small children through each day.

We ask ourselves what the hell is wrong with us – we know we’re amongst the luckiest.  We’ve had the luxury of prioritising our sanity – staying in our spacious treetop flat, working from home, getting our groceries delivered and only going out on isolated runs to the park or the beach or, a handful of times, to see friends.  We’d have to admit that despite worrying for everyone on Earth, we’ve had good lockdowns.  So why are we faltering now? But we are. 

Our nearly-four-year-old is restless.  As a nearly-three-year-old he thoughtfully processed the things we told him about the quarantine and the curfew and his greatest rebellion was occasionally threatening to “go in people’s houses”. Now he’s familiar with the ropes and bargains with us – can we not go to see so-and-so if we stand far away from them?  Unlike our leaden limbs, his seem to pulse with the need to run much further than the bounds of our home.    

Our house itself is a mess of stranded jigsaw pieces we can never seem to tidy up.  We feel we don’t get anything else done either, beyond the treadmill of cooking, washing up, feeding and bathing children, and putting them to bed.  We make up our working days in half hours here and there. As if to emphasise the point, our clothes have begun to tear, old fabric giving way after too many washes.  Two days ago, our bed-sheet ripped right down the middle.

I wonder whether this is why by turns I crave frivolities that have never mattered to me before. I would like to have a haircut.  I whisper to myself a promise that when the pandemic is over I will always be clean and well-dressed.  I used to be young and scornful about people being obsessed with repairs and home-improvements.  Now, because we have put on hold everything that is not essential, I keep noticing curtains that need to be replaced, or even the binding of an old book that it would be good to repair.  Maybe I’m distracting myself.  Or maybe minute, non-essential, tasks add up to more life than I’d realised.  Perhaps even repairs offer tiny glimpses of the future, a future that now feels permanently obscured by the storm-front on the horizon.

But amid our gloom we get news of better weather.  We read that England, on my other island, has had its first new day without any COVID death.  Friends my age are vaccinated en masse, people are meeting outside pubs.  They sound cheerful, laughter is reported.   I feel simultaneously lifted by joy and gripped by fear.  This may yet end, I think.  But they may forget us, I think. As the powerful of the world understandably wish to put the pandemic behind them, will they remember that we are still in it? I mean even our friends; it’s not like the record was that good before.  Then more anger comes that we took a curious rapprochement – the whole world explicitly affected by the same virus – and let it only deepen our divided geopolitics.  Now there will be better excuses for border-control. 

Sri Lanka has just reached the 1000 death mark; reports are the hospitals are nearly full.  We are currently 600,000 doses short of the AstraZeneca vaccine, for those who received their first dose in the early months of this year — millions short for those who have never come close. Sri Lankan authorities have again passed eggregious bills in Parliament, again stopped people from marking a devastating anniversary.  Gaza is being bombed worse than ever, if that is possible.  With today’s announcement from the Serum Institute in India, expected though it was, prospects are bleaker everywhere. This afternoon, my husband receives a wrong-number call.  The person at the other end asks repeatedly if he isn’t the husband of Sarani (name changed) from a particular garment factory in a nearby district.  He works out before they explain further, that she must have tested positive and this is a contact-tracing call.  We try to imagine the rest of the story.

And then the baby laughs – our younger son, who joined us so recently in this world.  And we – his father, mother and brother – gather round, willing him to do it again and again.