19 March, Sydney, Australia

By Simon Masterton

I teach in a drama school. It is a small, sociable place, rich in physical contact and extroversion. On Wednesday, students were told they were to have ten days without classes followed by a move to online learning for up to four months. On Thursday, the last day of classes, timetables were upended so assessments could be completed in person, even with unfinished work. You can’t help but look for meaning in days like that.

In the morning, my voice pedagogy Masters students were discombobulated. Two at home sick, dialling in to our tutorial via Zoom. The other four, tense below a can-do surface, fearful of losing part-time work on the fringes of the performance industry. We spent an hour talking about tech and preparing for the coming months before we could begin our anatomy class. Afterwards I sent them an embarrassing video I had made as a student myself, to give them some ideas about an upcoming presentation. I wonder if I did that so as not to be forgotten.

Then, over the course of the next two hours, in what would have been our singing class, the second year actors performed all of their half-rehearsed Shakespeare plays: The Merchant of Venice and then A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At a gallop. No costume, no set, no blocking to speak of, Shylock and Antonio absent. Much running about, laughing, swapping roles, paraphrasing and skipping the boring bits. It was unutterably wonderful and I alone witnessed it. The glee on their faces. Maybe it was a panicked defiance, or maybe it was nobody giving a shit. 

At lunch I passed 50 or 60 of them dancing together in the atrium, music pumping, eyes closed, distance between. A head of department was filming them with her phone, desperate to join in, but kept apart by a sense of dignity.

In the afternoon, two more plays, this time by Tennessee Williams and Will Eno. Less fluid, less joyful. This was the final year actors now, worrying about being judged, worrying about not having completed their process before showing their work. It was decent, but lacked delight. I was moved at the end anyway, because I was already mourning: I am saying goodbye to these students before I am ready to. 

Good playwrights know community is fleeting. People come and go and there’s no holding onto them. I work in education, where the learners will – and should – move on and forget. Yet I crave the community of my workplace. What I have let myself in for is a yearly dose of last Thursdays. Just as magnificent and just as sad.

18-19 March, Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Sunila Galappatti

Yesterday I tried to explain quarantine to my son Kavan, not yet three.  I knew his grandparents would arrive in the evening, catching the last flight home before the airport in Sri Lanka closed to arrivals.  They live downstairs in this house my grandmother built, and we live in the flat upstairs.  When they return home from stints living and working in Bangladesh their excited grandson usually helps them unpack their suitcases.  This time, I tried to simplify, we wouldn’t be able to hug them for a few days or do any of the usual things.  It was called ‘quarantine’ and it was a way of making sure we didn’t help to spread this illness any one of us might have without knowing it.  He’d already picked up a little; the other day Kavan asked me cheerfully as we prepared to wash our hands, ‘did we touch any coronavirus?’ But the concept of ‘quarantine’ was the thing that upset him, it became all too clear to him that something was up.

My husband Kusal went to the airport to collect my parents.  He parked on the street outside and waited for them to call and give him a cue to drive around to the arrivals terminal.   But when they called it was to say that they’d been put on a bus straight off their plane.  They didn’t know if they were being taken to a quarantine centre hours away to wait out the 14 days.  We knew this happened to arrivals from high risk countries but they had not come from one.  They said they’d try and figure it out.  My parents are good at not getting worked up in these situations –in other situations it has reminded me they are used to being less privileged than I am, now we’re all a bit more equal (though not nearly enough).   Kusal too – he said he’d just wait till the situation became clearer.

At home, the doorbell rang. Our 9 year old neighbour really wanted to visit.  I tried to explain we’d better not let her do that.  ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ she said ‘I’m really good at not touching my face’.  I said Kavan and I would watch her ride her bike from our balcony.  Her dad came out a little later and he and I tried to talk about the moment while Kavan protested, wanting to draw me away from the tone of concern in our conversation.  We went in to make garlic bread to go with our dinner – and I worried about how soon we will run out of butter.  Then I thought about how we had lived a socially distanced life for 4 days but I had evidently not really transitioned from a life in which one expects there to be butter.

Throughout this time I take phone calls from the airport: they think they will be released; they were put on the bus by mistake; they have to be taken back to the airport to go through immigration and collect their luggage. Kavan has dinner while this is happening but he is still unsettled by this ‘quarantine’ and worried that his father has gone all the way to Bangladesh to get his grandparents. 

So we make a video call to Kusal and Kavan kisses the screen and holds it to his ear.

When they finally return, Kusal heads straight into the shower, while Kavan and I light sparklers for his grandparents out of our upstairs window.  They stand in the garden below and I can tell they are too tired to stand for long, and this is a painful way of reuniting with their grandson, but they stand there for him.

 Kusal puts Kavan to bed and I carry a tray of dinner downstairs through the garage and leave it in my parents’ kitchen. Then stick some leftover lasagne to reheat in the oven for us and think again about Italy.  It isn’t very rational but I keep feeling like we’ve betrayed Italy.  I belong to that particular group of people in the world who have got a lot out of Italy. Venice is the first place I ever registered as particular, I still remember being Venice at night, aged four, and asking my parents what this place was.  For years recently I craved time in Italy, too far away to be able to go easily.  And then two summers ago we spent time there again, with our child who had just learnt to walk and wanted to climb into all the fountains.  I think about the piazza that was briefly home in Testaccio, of our perfect day on the beach in Lerici and feel we’ve left Italy to suffer alone.  It isn’t very rational as I said but it makes me sad that the nation with closed borders is the infrastructure we have, on which to hang our responses to this crisis.

This morning we drive two hours in isolation to swim in isolation at one of the most deserted beaches we know.  Before going into the water, we check the island-wide case count and then put away our phones.  It is good to be in the ocean, the best thing, but it makes us realise how heavy our heads are.  We eat the picnic lunch we’ve brought from home and Kusal takes a picture of the three of us – something we rarely do. It strikes me then that until that moment I had worried only about the world, that island, this island, our parents.  We hope to go back soon.

18 March, Oxford, UK

By Antonia Lloyd

All I want to do is give my mother a hug and a freshly baked cake on her birthday. She is 72 today and in semi-quarantine in London. I am in Oxford. What is usually a straightforward journey by train or car is now a life endangering mission that could lead to my infecting her. Who knows whether I’m a carrier or my children are? My heavy cold and slight cough could be harbouring a more dangerous viral infection, although it’s unlikely. Still the risk remains and she is in the 70+ category and with a recent diagnosis of MND she is one of the potentially more vulnerable. We talk, we skype, we text. It’s not quite the same. We all put a brave face on it; it’s the sensible thing to do, it’s for the best.

As I cook dinner, I turn on the radio for the 5pm announcement from the Prime Minister and Education Secretary.  We all listen in closely as the news of school closures and exam suspension hits. I’m transported back in time over 80 years and imagine my grandmother listening intently to her trusty wireless on September the 3rd 1939 and her reaction as Chamberlain informs the nation that Germany’s refusal to withdraw troops from Poland has pushed Great Britain to war. This is not war as our forebears faced it – no violence, bloodshed or tangible enemy to square up to. This is a silent killer that could wipe out 250,000 people if we don’t social distance, close schools and lie low. This is a peacetime lockdown that has no precedent and is hard to fathom. I feel no fear, just shock and awe that a virus is changing life as we know it for an indefinite period of time. The realisation that the kids could be at home till September and with advice against all but essential travel, the reality dawns that we’ll be locked down here for the long haul. My heart goes out to small businesses, our arts and cultural institutions, our hospitality industry, freelancers nationwide and those who live tinkering on the edge.  With everything cancelled, postponed and closed, there will be a shutting down of life as we know it.  I give the news a silver lining for the kids and look for the positive – we’ll be together, we can learn new languages, we’ll bake our own bread and bagels, and yes we can go for walks in the meadow and go rollerblading on the quiet paths, as long as we don’t catch it. Then we’ll self-isolate for 14 days.

18 March, Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Pasan Jayasinghe

So I turn back onto the path back home. My step is hurried, from the unease—for going out—and the guilt—for going out unnecessarily. In my hands I clutch a plastic bag of unripe tomatoes, curry leaves and rampe, the fruits of my anxiety.

On the path, a woman walks past. A shock of curly black hair, a striped top and short skirt. The clothes are too tight for her body—a full woman, my aunt would say. She looks fantastic.

She has a hand up in the air, waving about. She’s also saying something out loud as I pass her, but I have my headphones on (see above re: anxiety) so I don’t hear her.

A slight distance behind her walks another woman: a tiny, old, sliver of a person. In blouse and cloth. A perfect rectangle of a body with a perfect circle for a head. She is also talking out loud. I stare at her and she stares at me back blankly and motions impatiently for me to pass. I finally take the headphones off.

Immediately my ears are filled with noise. The old woman is screaming after the woman out ahead. “You whore!”. And then “don’t ever come back here, bitch!”. It sounds worse in Sinhala, of course, because what invective doesn’t?

I suppose disruption is the word, to hear to hear such things coming out of such a person, at such volume. In broad daylight. At any time, of course, but especially now, when people are busy dancing around their moral worth with bags of guilty tomatoes. 

And the woman at the front keeps waving her hand above her and merrily screaming back, “I’ll come back whenever I want to, you old hag!” without turning.

She, too, is disrupting, the houses pressed onto the narrow path; the apartment blocks rising behind them; and the invisible sediment towering higher still about what never to say out loud, and how and when.

The old woman continues on after her, a shaking fist aimed at the sky. “I’ll break your bones if you’re back here, you slut!” She is so consumed by fury that her fists are shaking, her whole being a dynamo of pent-up anger. Her adversary merely cackles.

They continue walking and screaming; a lulling back-and-forth of daytime rage. Is this how we go on? Carrying on the obnoxious, enthralling rhythms from the Before?

I continue watching transfixed, until the woman ahead turns from the path onto the road, followed duly by the old woman.

Throughout the whole exercise, they walk two metres apart, perfectly.

17 March, London, UK

By Ivana MacKinnon

Weirdly, I am sleeping really well. No restless nights. It seems to me that the world might be split roughly into people who have been waiting for something like this to happen and are oddly calm; and people who are terrified and expected things to stay as they are forever. 

I woke up and Rowan (6) crawled into my bed, his cute face and sour breath. We cuddled closer than we normally do – he knows something is up but in some way he’s just excited we might all spend more time together. Frankie (11) is more aware, devastated about the things she is going to miss, and rationalising it all in strange, magical thinking ways. 

I feel like we are all saying goodbye to things day by day. Social gatherings, hugs, touching people, going outside. They are narrowing. Today it felt OK to stroke the back of a friend whose play had just shut down – but only because she’s French. I feel like we are all feeling great tenderness to each other. 

On a personal level, I’m seeing kindness and humanness and emotional honesty from everyone – and it’s quite staggering what it tells you about how we normally live. But I’m painfully aware too that so many of us are in a middle class bubble – we are worried about boredom, our kids’ mental health, yes our parents and the ill but as long as we can persuade them to stay away. I keep thinking though of people for whom this is bankruptcy, or 3 – or more! – months in a house with an abusive husband or parent – or people who don’t have a home. 

When we come out the other side, everything is going to look different. The films I am developing now will mean something else and will need to be made in a different way. Our brains will be different. Our communities will be different. We will know our communities better. Very possibly our governments will have created states we don’t recognise while we aren’t looking – but our bonds with each other and our thoughts about how life should be lived will change radically. I think we will all appreciate nature a lot more – and we will have realised what we don’t need. In the end, and this is what I am telling Frankie, this might be the only thing that could save us environmentally, or put people on a different track. I think there will be a lot of people who change their lives after this. A lot of divorces too. But maybe things will be better. 

Then again I have realised I am a mad optimist. There might also be a world war. 

But for today we are still taking our kids to school and whispering at the school gates and then going home to our houses. We are planning and still using humour to cope. We are still doing work calls about projects that may never spark into life. I am struggling with the urge to take half the house to the charity shop so that it feels clear and new for isolation. We are looking at other countries shutting down and knowing it’s coming. We are despairing of our government. Although oddly I am taking comfort in the idea of evil mastermind Dominic Cummings being in Number 10 – although he doesn’t care about humans, he really, really, cares about modelling. And I am hopeful that for the first time in a long time, most people are acting out of concern and care for people who are not themselves or whom they don’t even know.

And I am planning the party to end all motherfucking parties once this is over.

In the morning I tried to work but it’s not easy to figure out which parts of the work are viable at the moment. And I kept ending up on the phone. With my mum who is getting the things she needs from her London house before decamping to the country. With my friend who is already in self isolation and already worried. With collaborators just coming to grips with the fact that nothing might happen this year. 

One told me her husband had just been released from intensive care very suddenly and with no follow up, and that the ward had been emptied when they arrived and was full of doctors preparing. A scene from a 1980s movie; now reality. 

For lunch I had a kale smoothie. This is not normal for me. 

After school I picked the kids up from the other family with whom we share childcare and we had a glass of wine for St Patrick’s day and said bleak things. 

Then we took some school work to my daughter’s friends who are already self-isolating because of their dad’s asthma. We stood two meters away and they stood on the doorstep in their onesies and told us about their day. At one point the cat escaped their house and we all had to figure out what to do so that no one got closer to each other. 

On the way home, Rowan begged to be able to leave school so that he could hang out in the house all day. And Frankie started to realise that she was going to miss all the greatest things at the end of Year Six – the disco; the school play she was going to star in; signing each others’ T shirts. For some reason this hurts me more even than my films that might not get made. These childhood landmarks erased. 

By 9pm I could hardly keep my eyes open – all the repressed British emotion was weighing on me. 

17 March, Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Chiranthi Rajapakse

I’m still surprised by the silence. Like a Sunday but a quieter, denser silence. My house is right next to the road and usually the sound of cars and tuk tuks is the always the background, even early in the morning.

A three day holiday has just been declared to keep people at home. Events have been cancelled. What this means still isn’t quite clear. Going outside isn’t forbidden but most people in Colombo seem to be staying indoors. We seem to be holding our breath to see what happens next.

I talk to my sister on the phone. We have nothing particular that needs to be said but as always the conversation makes me feel better. I’m grateful for this.

We argue about how I’m going to get home. I work in Colombo, she lives in Kandy and I’m planning to go to Kandy as soon as I finish some work. Usually I take the train or bus but is public transport safe? Car, she tells me. No train. It’ll cost a lot more but it’s worth it. 

I want to go soon. I am half expecting a curfew any minute, probably because in times of trouble we’ve always had curfew. Bomb blasts, communal riots, JVP troubles. Buy food and stay home to wait until curfew ends. That’s been our routine in the past. 

After the conversation I feel more settled, eat (tea, bread, bananas), sit down at my laptop. Working through the usual routine makes me feel more in control. There’s a document I have to finish.  It’s factual repetitive work, which at this moment I find comforting.

At about twelve the doorbell rings. I wonder who on earth it is. I open the door cautiously and find three men standing in the garden. The baas (plumber) and two assistants.  

I’ve been getting a bathroom renovated which came to a halt after the baas disappeared to another job.  After numerous phone calls “Baas unnehe heta enavada? Ah heta berida?” the baas promised to turn up this week to finish the work. With everything changing in the past few days I hadn’t expected him to come.

But here they are, the head baas and two assistants. They look at me expectantly; I am slightly flummoxed. They have come all the way from Kandy, a three hour journey by bus, to work. What do I do with them?

I automatically let them in and realise that I’m trying discreetly to sidle away so that I’m standing a safe distance away from the baas (who is acting exactly as usual). He’s been working all week in spite of the holiday, and sounds prepared to carry on working forever.

He tut-tuts over the half-finished bathroom and goes into a short digression about what needs to be done next and the material they need. I feel slightly adrift. What is a barrel nipple? Or a magic hose for that matter? From not understanding the coronavirus I’ve gone back to my usual state of not understanding my house. This is weirdly comforting.  

I make appropriate noises and slide out, leaving them to it. The two assistants are already starting work. One is a grey-haired old man – probably in his sixties. He must have taken the bus to come here, the bus that I – younger, healthier – am going to avoid because I can.

I go back to my laptop and the work I do from home, leaving him to the work he cannot do from home. The chasm between having and not having has never seemed wider and never has it seemed more important to struggle to stay on the right side of it.  They are daily paid workers. If they don’t go out to work, they can’t live.

I try to get back to my document– tell myself it’s okay to look at Twitter because after all I need to see the news, and then get hopelessly distracted.  Parliamentary elections are due to be held in April, and still have not been postponed in spite of requests. I watch a few videos which infuriate me – a former member of Parliament ignoring all the stay at home guidelines and thanking her constituents for coming for an election rally in spite of Corona.

In the evening I drive to independence square, where I usually walk. On normal days it’s packed. Today there is just one other car in the parking lot.  Three cleaning women are seated on a step, resting, wearing masks.

I run. There are people I don’t know in the distance.  A woman playing badminton with her child. Two teenage girls climbing a tree. It feels good to be out and I feel normal for the first time.

When I get home I get out to open my gate as I always do. There is not a single person in sight. No one at the car wash opposite which is always open, no three wheeler driver parked at the side of the road waiting for a hire. I have lived here for years and for years I have complained about the noise, the crowds, the traffic.

16 March, Norfolk, UK

By Francesca Wolf

Here I am in the cottage alone. After a weekend with the children, their partners and the four grandchildren I am again alone. Not unpleasant. It was lovely to see them all scampering on the beach. We gave each other Japanese bows and hugs from a distance.

This morning I went to buy a freezer. The Indy headline was “Over-70s will be told to stay at home for four months.” We don’t have a freezer, only a tiny fridge. I had to choose between one barely bigger than a large shoebox and one my height ( 5 foot) , which seemed huge. I got the latter, to be on safety’s side. 

Then to Budgens. Toilet and kitchen roll, tinned soup and pasta in the basket. Toothpaste, miso sauce, cheese, lentils, crackers. I wonder now if I’ll eat these sensible basics or should have bought gin, vodka, chocolate, a few tasty delicacies. The shop is filled with old people, clutching a stick in one hand, basket in the other. It is 11.30am and we are all late-comers. Last week at Aldi, it was families in their 30s and 40s, giant  trolleys piled high and shelves stripped bare of soap, toilet paper, hand wipes.  

Suddenly I am one of the elderly, over-70s, vulnerable, weak, needing care and protection. I feel threatened with losing my independence, autonomy, freedom. With being prevented from leaving home, even for a short walk or to go to the shops. For my own good. Will I be allowed to go out in the garden? Will the neighbours report me to the police when I get in my car or walk out to see the sunset? The young shop assistant said I didn’t look 70. How absurd to be so ridiculously pleased.

Only last week I was working, caring for grandchildren. Seventy, but only just, and reasonably healthy despite ‘underlying conditions’. Suddenly I’ve been shunted forward a generation. .How will they know I am not 68? I will re-dye my hair. Put on make-up. 

All this uncertainty drives one crazy.   

16 March, Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka

By Suramya Hettiarachchi

I turned 40 today.

I was never in the mood to celebrate. I told my mother, the one who birthed me, the one who laboured through hours of pain and my father, who held on helpless, to see the baby they had after 9 years, that I wanted to be alone this year. I had deactivated my social media a day before. I did not want anyone to wish me. I had planned it all.

Oddly enough, my wish was granted. My otherwise steadfast, stable, non-risk taking husband whose social distancing skills are usually top-notch took the one risk he is never able to resist. He went to the Royal-Thomian cricket match. = He who tells me not to attend my numerous activist demonstrations went in, abundantly aware that Covid 19 virus had hit Sri Lanka because – well –  no one cancelled it. Colombo was angry. But many  Royalists and Thomians (people who had attended the schools by those names) did go. Off they went to the match, with their fathers, mothers, sisters, ex and current girlfriends, daughters and sons. There were papare bands, food sellers. Drinks of both hard and soft nature were poured out generously while uncensored baila  was delivered with gusto under the sweltering tents where the fans whirled about hot humid air. Even while the government requested all gatherings to be limited, called off, it went on. No one stopped it and no one stopped going. Call it arrogance, call it stupidity, call it selfishness, it happened.  That was the weekend.

On the day I turn 40, the government grants a special public, bank and mercantile holiday. We are told that a Thomian first officer of Sri Lankan Airlines has tested positive and had visited the match. I reactivate my social media accounts, to see what is happening. Social Media is ablaze and wave after wave of anger and hatred come pouring in against the ‘elitist Royalists and Thomians’. At the start of social distancing and self-quarantining, social media engaging begins with a vengeance. All the bottled up anger against the elitist schools, the privileged, the arrogant morons, the posh ones, f@$%^ idiots, rages on. All that had been directed towards the Sri Lankans coming from Italy and resisting quarantine efforts and towards the government for not taking necessary precautions turns swiftly to the merry makers.  Whilst a responsible few accept their grave mistake and start taking precautions, others take it upon themselves to defend their alma mater. Each wanting to prove a point, theyrage on,  all repeating and repeating the same.

While all this is happening, I feel it all. I feel the almost malicious glee one feels when one is proven right while feeling the resentment of being proven wrong. I need to disengage, distance and isolate myself.

The Coronavirus is testing us as human beings. Not just in terms of recovery, but testing the width, breadth and depth of our ability for kindness despite mistakes, our ability to learn from our mistakes, our ability to feel empathy and ability to forgive and perhaps our faith in ourselves and/or in God. Covid-19 watches us as we scramble for food, medicine and sanitary care. You know, I can almost feel it judging us.

16 March, Canterbury, UK

Two days before India closed its borders to the UK and Europe
By Radhika Iyengar

Monday, 16th March morning, two of my four flatmates suddenly informed me that they were returning to their home countries. Europe was moving towards a lockdown and their families in Sweden and Finland respectively, were calling them back. So far, India had denied entry to foreign passengers, but was still allowing Indian passport holders to return to the country, if they wanted.

Since I was at Kent University in Canterbury, UK, on a fellowship, I didn’t want to cut it short. So, I had decided to stay back. I was advised by my friends to stock up on food supplies and home essentials for at least three weeks. Tesco, a known supermarket chain, had refused to deliver groceries to our student accommodation, stating that most items were “out of stock”. So, I decided to head down to the City Centre, 15 minutes away by bus, to visit Tesco personally.

I had been living in Canterbury for the last six weeks and Tesco shelves always had rows and rows of neatly stacked products available – more than required. This visit revealed a somewhat different scene. A few shelves, including the health aisle, had been scraped bare. Thermometers, hand sanitisers and toilet rolls were nowhere to be seen. The cereals shelf too was almost empty, with a few oatmeal packets knocked down – you could tell that people had been in terrible haste.

Earlier, I would find a majority of customers hovering around fresh vegetables, gingerly picking plump tomatoes, carefully smelling avocados or walking through the fresh meats section, selecting poultry and bacon packets, as well as fresh milk cartons. At the back of the store, was the canned food aisle. On this visit, that aisle was crowded. Customers were dropping dozens of pasta, oats, noodles and milk powder packets, as well as canned tins: kidney beans, tuna and other ready-to-eat goods into their trolleys. Some of them were rushing back and forth, cradling food tins in their arms. Was this the first sign of the world coming to an end?

Countries like China, Italy and Spain had buckled into a lockdown, but the UK was far from it. As of March 16, clothing stores, pubs, cafes and restaurants were still running. Schools and universities were still having face-to-face classes. However, self-regulated, smaller communities like Soka-Gakkai UK had taken the weekly community meet-ups to an online platform called Zoom. As of March 20, the NHS website guidelines stated that if an individual experienced any Covid-19 symptoms, he/she was requested to stay at home, practice self-isolation and not visit a “GP surgery, pharmacy or a hospital” for seven days. It said that if at the end of the week, an individual felt that his/her symptoms were getting worse, then he/she had to contact the NHS solely via its website instead of placing a call.

I finally exited the store with groceries which I assumed would last me for at least three weeks. I glanced at my phone and noticed I had received a text from my best friend in India. She wrote: “Not to cause panic, but take a look at this,” and attached a screenshot of a Coronavirus (Covid-19) update. The Ministry of Health in India had announced that it was going to start “prohibiting” passengers “travelling from European Union countries, European Free Trade Association, Turkey and UK to India” from March 18. At this time, the number of cases in India had risen to 114. This was a blanket travel ban for everyone, including those holding Indian passports. That included me.

My country was on the verge of closing its borders. Although the government declaration stated that the ban was until March 31, no one knew whether it would be later extended if the situation escalated. From the looks of it, we were heading towards a lockdown.

While this dawned on me, there I was standing in the middle of a semi-busy street with three large grocery bags packed to the brim, left to make a very uncomfortable decision. Did I have to rush back to campus and buy the next ticket out? What would I tell my administrator at the university or my fellowship advisor? Would I get a ticket back to India in time? How expensive would it be? What about my fellowship – how could I leave it midway? And, what was going to happen to all the food I had just bought?

I called my parents. They advised me to return half of the items, in case I decided to leave right away. If I was forced to stay back in the UK, then at least I’d have some groceries to fall back on. I re-entered Tesco in panic, ramming into scrambling customers with my overloaded bags. I approached a staff member, apologised in advance, and told her that I needed to return most of the products I had bought ten minutes ago. She looked at me quizzically, took a deep breath and smiled, “Don’t worry, hon, there are a lot of people here who’d want buy what you are returning. So, it’s all good.”

On my bus-ride back to the university campus, streets looked emptier, yet some people were still walking about holding hands. The sun was out and the bus passed through leafy boulevards, which was immensely therapeutic. The seats around me were almost empty; when I turned around to count the number of people on board, I heard a girl behind me sniffling. Her country had already closed its borders and now she didn’t know what to do. She used words like “stranded” and “depression” while she was speaking on the phone.

By the time I returned to my campus, students from the other houses were rolling their suitcases towards the bus station. The university had already begun to look like a ghost town. When I entered my campus home, my flatmates were in the middle of packing and throwing out trash. One of them had already left, I was informed.

I rushed to my room and called my brother. “You need to book a flight back to India immediately,” he told me, trying to calm me down. “I’m looking at the flight options – they are disappearing fast.”

Over the last few days, things had spiralled out of control so quickly, I hadn’t had the time to process any of it. Now everyone was leaving. After considering the pros and cons, I took the difficult decision of leaving too. I managed to buy a ticket on a direct flight which had only four seats remaining. The ticket’s price was tenfold, 

I heard horror stories of how several flights to France and Norway were getting cancelled. My Finnish flatmate’s flight got cancelled too and I saw her shaking with fear, thinking she would be stuck. It took her hours, but she did finally manage to rebook another flight in the nick of time.

The international students, scholars and fellows were leaving town, except for Italians, who felt it was safer to live in Canterbury. I left all the food that I had bought to them.

As I sat in the cab to the airport the next day, I listened to radio reports on the situation in the UK. There were cases where two brothers couldn’t hug each other after the sudden demise of their father; a 74-year-old woman who had two doctor appointments and could not reschedule them to a later date, because she would otherwise lose “her place”. The airport itself was deserted – I had never seen it so empty, neither had I felt so alone. But I knew one thing for sure, I was going home.