21 March, Amman, Jordan

By Gayathri Warnasuriya

I’d already been up for an hour when the air raid siren wailed eerily over Amman, signalling the start of curfew in Jordan. I filmed my empty street, to capture the sound of the siren with a voiceover of birdsong. Of course, I immediately posted it on Facebook. I am addicted to social media at the best of times. In the worst, it’s the hit I need to keep myself distracted and buoyant.

This isn’t really the worst of times. The curfews of my childhood carried menace and fear. There is no fear now, only compliance with an order to stay away from my fellow humans, which I am happy to do, lest I infect them or vice versa. I am fortunate to have warmth, food, family, and internet in my flat. It’s Mother’s Day in Jordan. A forgotten box of chocolates is discovered and re-gifted to me. We may sing from our balcony later, my daughter and I choose a song. In the bubble of our flat, there is joy and no fear.

A tendril of fear circles my heart only when I speak with my father in Sri Lanka. I can’t get to my parents and they can’t get to me. Borders have closed. They are well but I worry about them. My father recently attended an event, and someone there now has respiratory symptoms, so my parents are temporarily self-isolating from each other, as best they can while sharing a home. We promise to Skype later and I wonder how that will work. I spend most of our regular Skype calls asking them to sit closer together so that I can see both their dear faces on the screen.     

Seven hours have passed since the siren sounded and seven hours remain until I can legitimately go to bed. An hour remains until a virtual tea party with a few close friends in Amman. We have all had a week of home-schooling while working at home. We will Skype each other for an hour, drink tea, chat, and laugh. I notice the overripe bananas in the fruit bowl. There is time to bake banana bread before the call. There is time enough today for banana bread, family, friends and love.       

20 March, London, UK

By Frankie MacKinnon, 11

Dear diary,

Today was the last day of school for a long time. In class, we relaxed and signed people’s shirts. Conan got everyone to sign his sock. Typical. At lunch, everyone played together in a giant game of family it (if you get tagged, you and the person who tagged you are it). Then, before we went home, the class shared memories.

It was so fun; sharing key moments in our past six years together. I told the story of how me and Elsie – my best friend – met. There were stories about disaster trips and crazy break times – it was like being thrown back in time. After that  –  and after a few photos – we left. 

I don’t know how long it will be until I see the people in my class again, but I know that however long it is, it will seem too long. It’s just too impossible to imagine – that today might have been the last day I will ever spend in year six. 

But hopefully not. Hopefully we can cure the coronavirus. But until then, I’m stuck in this maze. Not knowing what obstacles lie ahead and how long it will be until I find my way out.

F. 

20 March, Bangalore, India

By Sruthi Krishnan

The date looks so prim on the top of the page, like the way my mother stacks steel glasses, one on top of the other, space, and repeat. The day began with a call to my mother. Last night the Prime Minister had asserted, with insistent finger wagging, that people who are older must stay home. I called to check, just in case, you know.

“Hi ma, how are you guys doing?”

Grunt of assent.

“You are at home?”

 “Where else?”

I swallowed a sigh.

I mulled over surveilling my parents with cameras and GPS trackers so that I never need call to ask about such things. Maybe I have been brainwashed by the productivity cult – like clockwork I call to ask about physiotherapy schedules, shirtless men on opposite building terraces, or stalkers (all stories for calmer times). These ‘how are you’ calls stump me. Whatever phrase I use, whether I modulate from dulcet to chirpy, by the end of it I feel like the ungrateful child who features often in my mother’s WhatsApp forwards (again, stories for another time).

I could have told her the news, with a capital N – I was one of the dots pinned on the contact trace of someone who was found COVID positive yesterday. Someone had just come back from a foreign country and had attended an event, which my colleague attended too. The next day, we (as in everyone in the organisation where I work) met my colleague.

The event was one of those edge cases in Bangalore – it was scheduled just before the government cancelled public life. Reading the Facebook post of the event organisers yesterday that someone in the event’s audience was COVID positive made the whole situation a shade darker.

I posted said post in my organisation’s WhatsApp group. I work in a research organisation with minds that sieve through the mass and mess of data to glean threads of order. Lists of varying lengths popped up in response to my message – who should be contacted, when, what should be done.

After I finished my phone call with my mother, a friend pinged – ‘Yo. How are you’ and I promptly told her about the News. My friend is an artist. We spoke of why people do things that on hindsight is not a good idea (future generations note – hopping off a plane and popping into a concert kabhi karo na). What was the reason, why did they not reason — ‘reason’ is such a malleable word, noun or a verb, the situation decides. My friend excels in hosing down the judgmental cloud that (sometimes) descends over me. I felt calmer (as it is always the case) after chatting with her.

I worked. We are designing a game to talk about challenges multi-cultural candidates face in small and medium industries. I had to design one part of the game – an excel sheet, my thoughts, my colleague’s responses on chat. We over-wrote on each others’ cells, giggled a bit. I wondered, will the game take place, will they cancel, what will happen, and then shut down that voice, and continued. Finished a solid chunk.

I read the news, Twitter, Facebook. Messages popped up – some giggly, most grim.

I cooked. The plate looked colourful – yellow dal, white rice, orange subzi, and green chutney. We ate.

I read the news, Twitter, Facebook. Messages popped up – some giggly and most grim.

Spoke to a friend. Her father, a politician has been home for more than 22 hours after 22 years. (Of course, it is line I made up, but, you get the picture.)

I watched the rain. Just sat at a window and saw the rain sliding off the limbs of trees and licking leaves. In the evening sun, the trees seemed to have sprouted green crystals.

I stopped reading the news.

I decided to sing. Only for 15 – 20 minutes, lest the throat gets stressed.

19 March, Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Rukshani Weerasooriya

Renouk’s alarm goes off. It is 5:00am. Although Colombo is not on lockdown (as yet), most of Sri Lanka is ‘working from home,’ and therefore waking up a little later (I imagine). But not Renouk. He is an incurable ‘morning person,’ and more significantly, a self-employed tennis coach. So it was a choice, for him, between continuing to work, but with some caution and responsibility, or not having any work/income at all, for an indefinite period of time. He chose the former. Given the nature of his sport, the fact that all his courts are out of doors, and his students bring their own racquets etc. with them, there is nothing ill-advised about this. In fact it’s providing people a neat way to keep more than the prescribed 2 metres’ distance from each other, while still being able to meet and stay fit. All this to say, while I appreciate Renouk’s version of ‘working from home,’ I still struggle to appreciate being woken up so much earlier than I need to be awake.

By 6:00am I have cooked and dished out a small portion of rolled oats, doused it in milk, and am waiting for my one year old to let me know she is mad about it being morning already (she takes after me).

6:14am, Zara is awake and screaming her little face off. The day has officially begun.

The social distancing life is not too different for Zara and me, from the life we’ve lived since her birth. I quit my job in corporate law two years ago because I hated it. While in search of a new one, I found I was pregnant with Zara. After having Zara, taking up a job (other than her) seemed quite out of the question for me. Even now, while I sometimes feel I’m losing my mind doing the ammi-life, I also know there’s no other life I’d rather be doing. Add Covid-19 social distancing to it, and all my introvert dreams have come true. But sshhh, you aren’t supposed to hear me say this.

A bowl of oats, half a banana, some cubes of papaw, a scoop of yoghurt, 4 oz of cold milk, 3 story books, a bath with 8 rubber duckies (counted religiously), and a 40 minute rocking session later, Zara takes her morning nap. I am elated that she is asleep by 8:45am, leaving me some time to get myself organized for the day. I settle down on the couch and wonder if I can make myself a cup of tea quietly enough not to wake her up. Before I know it, 30 minutes have passed. I decide I will make that tea, and I stand up to go put the kettle on. Then I hear the dreaded sound of Zara awaking from her nap. It was a 30 minute nap. I’ve had no tea. It’s going to be a long day.

We have a part-time cook, Maheswari, who comes in on Mondays and Thursdays. We would like to ask her not to come in during this period, for her safety and ours, but she bears an extraordinary financial load for her family, and is too dignified a human being to be comfortable with an indefinite paid-leave arrangement. Besides, she works so hard at multiple jobs as it is, just to survive, that Covid-19 anxiety doesn’t even seem to factor in to her day.

I am expecting Maheswari to arrive any time now. She stays the night, every night, at the General Hospital, at the bedside of her sick mother. My heart has always gone out to her on this account, but now there is another element, a selfish element. She has a habit of touching Zara all over, the moment she walks in through our door. What if she carries Covid-19 from the hospital to Zara? When she came over on Monday, I reluctantly, and quite awkwardly, addressed this issue with her, using lines I’d rehearsed over the weekend. I didn’t enjoy the exchange, however brief, but I’m glad I did it.  

Maheswari calls me at 9:42am to say there aren’t many buses.  “I might be late, but I am coming, missy” she says. “It’s okay if you’re late, I’m not going anywhere,” I reply, trying to keep things light. Things are light, but you know, also not.

I am pleased to see Maheswari go straight to the kitchen sink, as soon as she arrives, at 11:00am. She then makes tea for herself and me, stirring noisily since Zara is awake.

On a normal day, Renouk works long hours, and I often complain that I only see him after dark. But these days aren’t quite normal. Very few students still want lessons. Today, he is all done by lunch time. I should be sad for him, his lack of income etc., but I can’t remember the last time he would have this many daytime hours at home with me, so I am delighted. It is lovely to feel his warm, sun darkened, skin against my arm, as we sit side-by-side on the living room floor, trying to feed Zara her lunch.

Lunch – Zara’s and ours – followed by more story books, another bottle of milk, more rocking – takes about two hours. But they are two hours divided between us today.

During Zara’s nap, I sit across the dining table from Renouk and try to do some studying. Renouk is poring over his accounts, trying to see how to keep his coaching business afloat in the present situation. He recently acquired two new courts. The investment was heavy. Things just seem uncertain right now. I am studying as I recently got a job as a part-time A-Level Law teacher. I was supposed to start this month, but with school closures etc., I was informed that my new start date will be at the beginning of the second term (whenever that will be).

Zara wakes up from her nap around 4:00pm. As Maheswari leaves, armed with a packed dinner for her sister and herself, the three of us spend the first evening we’ve had together in months, watching TV, doing some couples’ yoga poses (which turn out really funny), and trying to invent ‘family yoga poses’ with Zara in the mix. We manage to feed Zara a banana-oatmeal pancake, without too much fuss, proceed to have our own dinner quite early, as it turns out we’re both starving, and then start winding Zara down for bed.

It’s funny, but while sickness and death seem to lurk around every corner, our home is full of life tonight.

19 March, Norfolk, UK

By Francesca Wolf

I wake to a different day. Lying in bed the silence is like white velvet. Not a peep, a car, not even the odd plane rumbling overhead. Complete quiet covering everything. Like waking after a secret snowfall in the night to a white still world.

I am warm in bed and it feels like a nest. Last night was better than the two before where I lay like charged metal awake and dozed with seething dreams. Last night my dreams were busy too but softer and less threatening. It was comforting to hear Gillies’s breathing and to feel his arms around me.

I lie in bed and then I drift off again. Get up late at 9 and the sky is clear blue as a breakfast tray and the sun is shining. The days before were grey, damp and drizzly. This is beautiful. The birds have started singing.

When I come downstairs Gillies  tells me Matthew Parris on the radio said old people should be forced to stay at home. I feel myself becoming nervous at the thought of forced incarceration and decide to do some yoga. 

I did bring my mat.  I tell myself that I should do this every morning. Yoga is good except for the moments when the worries start creeping in.

It is anxiety that gets me every time. I lay one to rest and another pops up . Were it not for that I could enjoy this stillness more.  I am so very fortunate to be here . I have resources, that is not the problem. There are many things to do and I don’t mind a degree of isolation . The difficulties for me are I think: loss of control; lack of purpose; lack of a sense of contributing anything – more we are just the problem; loss of independence; and this nasty undermining free floating anxiety which attaches itself to first one thing, then another.

I am not scared of death or dying. But I am worried our affairs are not in order, that I don’t have everything clear and neatly filed, that I may leave a muddle. And I am terrified about what is happening to the world, about the dreadful situations so many people are in –cooped up in tiny spaces, in camps without clean water or soap, in abusive relationships, desperately sick, or desolate and alone.

I miss Ivana and Carla and the grandchildren.

I would like to be able to do something useful and purposeful.

I spend two hours pulling up brambles. I phone friends – all struggling in different ways and trying to keep sane. 

Later Ivana invites us to a Zoom meeting and for half an hour we swap silly faces with Frankie and Rowan. We will need to adjust to virtual relationships but I haven’t yet.

Will this be the new normality – atomised lives in separate spaces and digital rather than human, physical connections? This is so sudden, so shocking, so hard to take in. Massive. A punishment for our flabby complacency.   “ Things fall apart; the centre cannot not hold.”  

The normality of daily life – so precious and so hard to appreciate when it’s there. 

How long will this go on? 

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.