19 December, Berlin, Germany

By Juliane Schumacher

A few days left till Christmas, and I am still not getting into the mood for it. Maybe because it is too warm – this morning in the park, the sun shining bright from a clear sky, it almost felt like spring. And maybe it is because of this crazy year that comes to an end without any sign if things will be better in the next one. Usually I love the weeks before Christmas, the season of Advent, as we call it.  It used to be I did a lot of things I didn’t find the time for the rest of the year: decorating the flat, baking, doing handicrafts with my kids. We’d light candles, make hot chocolate in the afternoon, spend more time inside. But none of this feels special this year. It is what we are have been doing most of the year.  

The season of lockdowns has started again. A ‘lockdown-light’ was announced beginning of November, and at first, I thought I would not be affected too much by it. Bars, restaurants and sport facilities had to close, but shops, schools and daycare facilities stayed open – too bad had been the experience with school closures in spring. My older sons have missed almost a year of Maths and English, and there is still no plan of how to catch this up.  We went swimming on the last Sunday before the new lockdown started. It was not very crowded and the atmosphere was very relaxed, all the families knowing that this would be their last visit to a swimming pool for a long time.  

The next day, when the ‘lockdown’ started, I had the feeling I couldn’t breathe. I was exhausted when I just took the few stairs up to our flat, felt too tired to work. When it did not get better after a few days, I went to the doctor. She examined me, made some tests and finally told me that everything was fine. I have a lot of people with these symptoms at the moment, the doctor told me, mostly young women. It’s the situation, all this insecurity.  

When I was back home I thought she might be right. I always considered myself a very flexible person, able to accommodate fast to changing conditions and unforeseen circumstances. But now I am longing for the ability to plan, to know what I will have to expect. Will infections numbers continue to rise? Will schools and kindergartens close within the next weeks? Will I be able to conduct fieldwork next year? Will my scholarship, ending in summer, be prolonged under these conditions? When will I be able to meet family, friends and colleagues again? What if friends or family members get infected? When will all this be over?  

A few days later, I was quite sure that the ‘lockdown light’ would not work. Unlike in spring, there were no deserted streets, no silence or birdsong in the city-center. People went to work, went shopping, met friends. At noon, workers were sitting on banks outside, eating their lunch in boxes from take-away restaurants. Just in the evening, it became unusually quiet in our street. With the bars and restaurants closed there was no reason to be outside in the dark November nights.  

I wondered why people were behaving differently this time. Was it because the government was reluctant to impose stricter measures? There have been demonstrations against the lockdown measures, movements of ‘Corona-deniers’ who believe the virus is just an invention of ill-meaning politicians or digital tycoons in their attempt to take over the world. But their presence in the media, it seems to me, is much bigger than their actual influence. I don’t know anybody who thinks the virus is just an invention. Still, people seem not to follow the rules as strictly as the last time.  Gradually, I reflected that in spring, people were not reducing their contacts because because the state told them to do so, but because they were afraid. The virus was completely new, nobody knew exactly how dangerous it was. Now we know more:  it is not less dangerous than half a year ago, but people have got used to it. It is one risk among others that people take every day, like the risk of having an accident when driving a car or a bike. People were willing not to meet their friends or family for a few weeks, but they are not willing – or able – to do so for months or years. It’s somehow human. We are social beings, not made for a life in isolation.    

Infection numbers stabilised for two weeks, then they started rising again. The representatives of the regional governments met again. Ten days before Christmas, they closed schools, kindergartens and shops. For the shops this was a catastrophe – they make one-third of their total sales of the year in the time around Christmas, up to one billion euro a day. Nobody knows how many of the shops will be gone when the lockdown is be lifted. And nobody knows when this will be. No one honestly believes it will end on the 10th of January, as has been said up to now.  

Still, there were no big complaints, not even by the shop owners. Everyone seemed to understand that something had to be done. Many hospitals operate at their limit – not because they don’t have enough beds, but because there is not enough staff. In some cases, half of the staff has to stay at home, either because they are ill or in quarantine. In the nine months since the first Covid-19-cases were registered, no long-term concept has been developed, no concept of how to protect the vulnerable, how to ensure contact-tracing is working, even when numbers are rising. So another lockdown seems the only measure available. And we start the new year the way we have spent so many months over the last one: in isolation. We stay at home, plan to celebrate Christmas with the only other household allowed, and hope the vaccination campaign starting next week will be the wonder we are hoping for.

10 December, Busan, South Korea

By Ahalya Arulnayagam

It’s 9 am in the morning. I’m on my bed, lying still, hands by my side.

 I hear the phone buzzing. It’s my lab manager informing me that she is shutting down the lab for one week until we hear from our supervisor. Since last week, Covid in Busan has hit a peak, so the city has raised its restrictions to the highest possible level. The lab manager mentions all the safety protocols, text by text, and ends the conversation with a Kakao emoticon. I wait for her to finish texting because I know she has to Google translate everything for me while texting.  Then I text back: “Thank you. Stay safe” — of course with another emoticon. I ask myself, so what now?

I don’t feel like working today but I would have to if I was in the lab. Now the idea of working from my dormitory has unleashed the lazy devil inside me.

I get up, plug my phone into the charger and make my own cup of coffee – a black Americano – and sit by my laptop to watch the news. South Korea is crazy these days. People have gone insane; they’re tired of being isolated for more than 10 months. The infection numbers per day are crazy. No wonder my lab is shut down. Working from home (dorm) isn’t that easy for researchers like me. I make a couple of calls to my home in Sri Lanka for a regular check-in. I think about cooking something new and make vegetable biryani, which has been on my wish list for longtime. I always feel good about myself after cooking sessions.

I am sure he’s never going to call me, yet I am peeping at my phone in between my chores. I feel lonely, like a widowed old man who waits all week for the post. I realise there is a subtle pain in not being checked-on constantly, not being asked mundane questions about how your day was.

I walk down by the breakwater intending to streamline my messy thoughts. Face masks have become a crucial body part, though they’re messing with my skin. Yet, I don’t want to be legally punished.  I look around me at the deserted street and feel remorseful about not being able to fly back home during such a crisis.

Suddenly, I am startled by the crescent moon.

I take my phone out of the jacket and start typing words, tons of words; with edits and backspaces. Then I delete all of them and send “I miss you, a lot” with a sad smiley.  A minute later I receive a voice note saying “I miss you too”. I stare at the phone screen and smile. 

28 November, Los Angeles, California, USA

By Ruth McKee

Typically, my neighbors give respect to each holiday, and wait to start decorating for the next one until the last one has passed. But this year, with us all still stuck in our homes, it seems no one could wait for Thanksgiving to pass before decorating for Christmas. Many people started hanging their lights weeks ago. In our house we waited, but this weekend, the minute Thanksgiving was over, we pulled out all the trimmings, including the extra things I bought last year when we hosted my husband’s whole family from Ohio. Lights, trees, stockings, all went up over the course of an afternoon, bedazzling our home in anticipation of the next break from routine.

The days are getting shorter. This evening, when I walk the dog before dinner, it is already pitch black outside. The streets are empty again, the way they were in April, but it’s not entirely clear whether people are starting to heed the new restrictions, or if it’s just the lull of the holiday weekend. This week we’ve seen a series of new measures come down in the city, as the virus surges out of control. First, restaurants were told to close their outdoor dining areas and move to take-out only. Then yesterday, they reduced capacity in retail businesses, and banned all social gatherings of people outside of their own households, starting Monday. But today was a beautiful sunny day and people were still milling about, picking up coffee and shopping with their friends, perhaps getting in one last visit. For my family, the only change will be the social one. No more masked meet-ups with the kids’ friends for hikes and bike rides, at least for the moment. But otherwise it seems we never really left the first lockdown.

I walk the dog up the street that leads to the hill by our house, so I can take in the view of the valley this evening. It’s quiet now, but somewhere out there the virus rages at levels we’ve never seen before. I have little hope that this shutdown will make a difference, we’re all entrenched in our behavior at this point, and people will keep doing what they’re doing until the virus comes to their door. The weeks ahead will be dark. The days are getting shorter. So many more people will die before this year is over.

A few years ago, my family spent a gray December in Indiana and I came to appreciate the necessity of celebrating the winter solstice. As the sun hid from sight a little more each day, I felt deeply the need to hang lights and mark the time until the sun would return, the way as a child we lit candles to mark the weeks of Advent. It’s dark now, getting darker still, but the light will return. In a few weeks, our health care workers will start receiving a vaccine. A few weeks after that, we’ll have a new government. I turn the corner towards my own home and can see from a distance all the lights I’ve hung, glowing in the night.

9 November, London, UK

By Ivana MacKinnon

Everything feels different this time. Our lives are already quite small so this lockdown doesn’t feel it will make an enormous amount of difference. We were already avoiding our elders because the government saying it was safe didn’t mean it was. The kids are at school and in a childcare bubble. We have been inside two restaurants since March. One pub. But the difference is more that this time everyone is visibly experiencing different things at different times and reacting in different ways. I don’t think anyone believes this is only four weeks; I don’t think anyone can quite face the idea of how long it will be; I think everyone will cheat in some way, a small way or a big way, as a result. So the lockdown will be longer. At least the US election has offered some chink of light, and, as my sister says, is playing out like an omnibus edition of Sunset Beach to distract us all. 

At “work” (preparation for when work can happen again) we learn what we can do remotely and what we need to be in a room to do, and have started to understand what gets lost in translation when everyone is a disembodied head and shoulders with a perfectly symmetrical zoom background. Everyone except me: I still have mattresses and kids toys and hastily blu tacked pictures behind me at all times. I haven’t managed the Zoom grammar at all. My company set up means I haven’t had furlough (the UK government scheme to support businesses and workers facing suspension on account of the COVID crisis). This is really starting to bite, and the arts are just fucked, so fucked. Everyone still is taking little steps, one in front of the other, in hope, but how long for? How long before we all have to do the government’s retrain quiz online and decide to become ….. (What?) 

The kids are holding things on their shoulders which come out in strange ways — in tics and hyper-fears of things going wrong — but given everything they still seem to be coping well. Those who can are trying to swaddle the kids, I suppose, to just get through this moment, into whatever happens next, which seems less and less likely to look like what was before. Anyway in the service of child mental health and in order to have an excuse for the chaos of our Zoom backgrounds, we have 100% embraced the middle class cliché and have a new puppy. The week we decided, two other friends did the same; since then another has. By the time we get out of lockdown there will be more dogs than people. 

So now the puppy sleeps on the sofa and pees on the floor and learns little things and then forgets them and eats sticks outside and tries to dig up old fox poo and I chase after it while on the phone to someone I would otherwise have emailed. And that’s all. That’s the whole day, every day. And once a day I go out, into a world that doesn’t look much like it’s in lockdown at all. The walls get more and more filled with pictures and people make half plans for the future but not for Christmas, Christmas has already been written off. And we all hope to find our Norwegian spirit as the weather gets colder. Maybe we will start smoking again, to keep warm.  A couple of times a day, we see our great leaders on the news, and despair.

7 November, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

By Katie Y

The AP called the US presidential election just before noon in Philadelphia. Our Saturday morning had started with a puzzle. After getting dressed, we dumped 100 pieces of cardboard on the living room floor. Then we sat in the fall sunshine and slowly pieced together the outline of a Tyrannosaurus rex. A stuffed Tyrannosaurus sat nearby and pointed out likely looking pieces in a surprisingly squeaky voice.  

When the news came, we were still sitting on the floor by the big windows that face the street. Car horns and jubilant voices sounded in the distance. We grabbed our facemasks and slipped on our shoes. Then we slipped them off again to dash to the kitchen for a whisk and a metal pot lid.

Our garden was shockingly quiet. But when we rounded the corner, we saw our neighbors dancing. Someone waved a full-sized American flag while others banged on pots and pans. We took pictures and moved to the next alleyway, where a group of families with young children cheered everyone walking by. We banged on our lid and whooped in return. 

On the main road, people had gathered on every corner. Wearing facemasks and brandishing cowbells, they hollered at passing cars. The drivers honked their horns, while passengers waved and recorded cellphone videos. A few played music that echoed between the houses. We found an unoccupied corner and joined in, waving at strangers and banging our pot lid until the Tyrannosaurus and her friend asked for lunch. After walking home, we ate bowls of rice in the garden. 

The sky has been bright blue all week. Flowers are blooming. This is not supposed to happen in November in Pennsylvania. I worry that it’s a sign of problems to come. But right now, it feels like spring.

7 November, Kolkata, India

By Puja Bhattacharjee

Durga puja is the worship of Goddess Durga. According to Hindu mythology, in autumn, Ma Durga “comes home” to earth for five days from her Himalayan abode. A Bengali eagerly waits for autumn the entire year. Marquees called pandals are erected in neighborhoods and housing societies to worship her. We shop for the best-looking clothes, decide what to wear on each day of the five days; make plans to meet friends, and go pandal-hopping much in advance. The city takes on a whole new and more chaotic character. 

This year’s Durga Puja – arguably the biggest religious and cultural event in eastern India, was vapid. Under strict orders from the Calcutta High Court, organizers had to cordon off the entrances to the pandals, and sentries posted near them discouraged pandal-hoppers from lingering for too long. I managed to visit a few pandals before the festivities began in earnest. The size of the crowd was laughable compared to other years.

In my housing society, a pandal constructed with bamboo poles and covered in colored fabric and tarpaulin is erected every year. Watching the pandal take shape is also an exciting process as we count down the days leading to the puja. This year, the organizers opted for a metal structure that was erected in a few hours. The marquee was huge but the Durga idol was small and gatherings were sparse. There was no life at the festival. Cultural programs, a norm in the evenings during the festival, were axed. Instead, there were some impromptu performances.

Almost immediately after the end of the festival, my mother tested positive for the Coronavirus. I, along with my parents and younger sister, went into self-isolation. Today is the eleventh day of our quarantine. We will be able to go out again after three days. Honestly, I am apprehensive about how people are going to react to us. Will they avoid us out of fear? Will we be censured? Being able to go out again is exciting, but these nagging thoughts are not.

Kali puja or the worship of goddess Kali is next week. She is my favorite Hindu deity. She has dark skin, wild hair; is naked and very, very angry. To me, she is the perfect antithesis of established societal norms. For now, Kali gives me courage. I think of her to keep my anxiety at bay.