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.

16 March, Old City, Jerusalem

By Maya Bastian

It’s lockdown time in Israel although I’ve been calling it ‘Occupied Palestine’ which irks the locals. I’ve been on an artist residency since February 19th and have been watching the virus unfold with a degree of separation. Since I have no one to be accountable to, I wake up at 12pm today. Bells from various churches ring out and that’s when I know I’ve slept too long. Eating pita and hummus in my tiny flat that sits in the Christian Quarter of the Holy City, I decide to work on a large scale art piece all day. I step over the sheet of plastic on my living room floor that is covered in spices, paint and coloured rice and head out into the 200 year old renovated tile factory that is my temporary home.

The place is cavernous and empty. Israel has shut down all public gatherings, so we receive no visitors and there is no art on the walls. The two women who run the gallery are stressed out and curt, with good reason. All travel between the West Bank and Jerusalem has been suspended today, so they cannot see their families.

As I’m setting up my art supplies, I get a text from a local Palestinian chef named ‘Iz’, who asks me if I want to film him doing a food tour in the Arab market. It’s a beautiful day out and I know it will rain for the rest of the week, so I agree. We walk through the narrow and cobblestoned streets of this 5000 year old city looking for interesting food vendors. It’s almost completely empty. This is a place that is usually filled to the brim with tourists and religious zealots, vendors shouting and guys riding motorbikes up and down the steps. It feels surreal but also kind of amazing to be the only ones around. We speak to a baker with a 500 year old stone oven in his shop and a pickle vendor who declines to look at us but lets us sample his wares.  All the while, Iz is animated and hilarious. Falafel makers, spice sellers, bread bakers — all shops are nearly empty and they welcome us to film them and to talk. The Holy City of Jerusalem is an incredible place to be when it’s empty. Its stone arches and little nooks tell stories that no one can hear.

Nearing 5pm, I remember that I invited a couple of people over to do yoga on the rooftop of the tile factory. So we pack up our gear and head back quickly, running up the never ending steps that lead back to the Christian Quarter. Five people in total, we light candles and I teach a gentle yoga class as the sun sets. It feels like people need to relax and there are big deep sighs as I talk. Afterwards, none of us wants to go back to isolation.  We combine our groceries and Iz whips up a frenzy in the kitchen while we play MIA and Sam Cooke and laugh and joke.  When he serves us, there aren’t enough seats at the bar so he offers to stand.  But we agree that we will all stand as it makes the most sense.   

Afterwards we munch on strawberries and talk about Corona and Palestine and isolation. The people here aren’t afraid to talk about the ways in which they are oppressed, and so I mostly listen and ask questions. In this way I learn what it feels like to live a life of restricted travel, constant surveillance and racist scrutiny.  Despite the topic, there are a lot of jokes going around and the atmosphere doesn’t feel as heavy as it has the last few days. We agree to do yoga one more time before my residency comes to an end and they all take their leave.  I settle back into my flat with leftovers and Netflix, wondering what tomorrow will bring.

16 March, Spittal, Northumberland, UK

By Margaret McPhail

Spittal, the place where I started off on holiday and am now in social isolation with my partner Maggie, is a good place for this sort of situation. We have a flat overlooking the promenade, the North Sea, the mouth of the Tweed and, beyond that, the historic market town of Berwick upon Tweed, so the views and opportunities for people watching are good. Plus we can go out for our permitted (at the moment) exercise and easily avoid close contact with other older people and young mums with little ones. Greetings and comments can be exchanged at a safe distance and currently everyone seems positive.

But yesterday, when we were only ‘social distancing’, seems a long way away.

We drove to Berwick parked and set off on a walk round the ramparts, the day was bright and windy, but warm in sheltered spots.  Even so, there were not many people around and we were pretty much alone amidst all the history which surrounded us. We deviated from the route we’ve done before and, seeing the lighthouse at the end of the pier, we found a path under the ramparts and set off to see if there was a way through to it. We got sidetracked by a sheltered garden where we enjoyed the warmth from the sun and the views out to sea – lovely!

As we went on we met an American woman of a similar age to us, walking her dog, she kept a suitable distance and stopped to chat. She explained to us how to get to the pier and our talk moved on to ‘what will we do when we’re asked to socially isolate’, which at that point barely 24 hours ago we all thought would be coming in weeks. She intended to keep walking her dog and had agreed with friends they would meet up in the area we were in, spread blankets or bring chairs, keeping a suitable distance, and enjoy each other’s company from time to time accompanied by a glass of wine. Personally, she wanted to learn things, maybe backgammon or bridge? I mentioned Future Learn as a valuable resource for those like us who have curious minds and the time to spare as well as Professional Development Courses for those still in work.

When we got home, via Marks and Spencer’s for fresh food, we stumbled upon a press conference (at last!) from our Prime Minister and his medical and scientific advisors and the mood changed. We were been asked to self-isolate immediately.  On Sunday it was ‘2-3 weeks away’ on Monday it was – NOW. Quite staggering, really, in many ways.

We have each other and daughters who will support us, we will have different days to those we expected, we can Skype friends, learn things, keep a diary. No one knows how long this will be for.

The walk on the pier? We haven’t got there – yet!

15 March, Bodega Bay, California, USA

by Rachel Shipps

I wake up at six with prickling worry up and down my body. It’s still dim and the window is a dark gray square, but I can hear the rush of surf outside, muffled by the humming space heater.  It’s my 36th birthday. My mind runs on long and narrowing channels with a grainy sense to them, and I want to check my work email but do not. Presently I get up as the window brightens. I begin to get texts, many expected, some unexpected and from very far-flung locations, and they all make me smile.

A dark silvery switchback of river bends away toward the beach, and loud birds land and take off, socialize. I can see rough waves breaking in between dunes that were much taller when I was a child. Downstairs, I read Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire after opening all the blinds that I can. I try reading on the wooden chairs outside, which is even better, but cold, and tiny raindrops begin to fall.

My partner comes down and sits on the couch with me. I’m slightly worried, since someone else sat here yesterday, but I don’t do anything about it. He reads Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, which I just finished. Our other two friends, who’ve been sleeping in the other room, come downstairs, and we make coffee and Bengal Spice tea, my partner makes eggs with salmon while wearing gloves and we sprinkle capers on it. Our friend toasts bread.

More friends come and all six of us walk the short sandy road to the beach, one of us on crutches. Cold wind blows straight in from the coast but the sky is unexpectedly bright and blue. Up and down the beach only a few people are scattered here and there, but large driftwood structures rise up from the beach near the dunes. We sit and stand near one of them, wearing layers, taking pictures, and laughing with the wind blowing over us, and soon go back to meet my parents.

I’m frightened that my medically minded parents are coming despite their serious worries about the virus, and have given them every opportunity to cancel. “We wouldn’t being doing this in two weeks,” my mom has said, and to my relief, doesn’t want to come close enough to tough elbows. We meet my mom outside since my dad has mysteriously decided to come separately, and set off to Bodega Head from the cabin, with the thrill of walking somewhere that you thought was only attainable via roadways. Our friend using crutches is staying at the cabin.

We walk on the flat, sunny expanse behind the dunes, which is flattened by last night’s rain at first, crawling with lush, invasive ice plants tinged with red and the occasional patch of coast cypress. The path is meandering and possibly disappearing, but we follow it or something like it back and forth, eventually reaching a parking lot. Some mild disagreements about bladder mechanics take place as people use the bathroom there.

As we set off again, the dunes deepen and begin to ascend. It takes some effort to continue moving quickly. We’ve moved into a region of silvery, needlelike beach grass. The tips spike into your legs and fingers upon contact. My mom, who told us about this trail, begins to remember getting lost during past years at this part. We end up at a fork in the recognizable path, which has two signs with thick posts both broken in half, pointing nowhere in particular. We’re going south towards the Bodega Bay Marine Lab and Bodega Head, and we can see the bay side to our left, but tall dunes rise before us and to our right. We pick a path to the right and keep going.

Our friend who is pregnant is tired, and the rolling dunes thicken with grass. We’re up high enough to see the full ocean to our right. Now no path is visible, or the small paths we had have diminished, but the way back is the wrong direction. One intrepid hiker climbs to the top of the dunes to look for a way forward, and the rest of us sit on the warm sand and eat snacks, pouring them carefully into hands. Ranch dressing chips fall on the sand and are rendered inedible.

We call a friend who is meeting us at Bodega Head and my dad, who has hiked around the area to try and figure out a way to get a ride back. There’s no emergency but we are stuck in the middle of recognizable places. The intrepid hiking friend comes back with the news that the best way forward is through the lab preserve – we’ll hit their paved road and walk to a gate for an easy pickup.

We cut through lab land and through more open grasses back to the road. The lab seems quiet, though two cars pass us as we walk along the pavement. As we cross the trail we meant to have taken, my dad emerges from it, unconcerned and waving. Some of us decide go with him up over a last hill, and others take my friend’s car, which waits at the gate to the lab road.

Back on a real dirt trail, we hike quickly through constant switchbacks which make the tall rolling hill gentle, and over the top we can see the flashing sea and all the way down to the Bodega Head parking lot, which is glinting with cars. Perhaps not as many as on a typical sunny weekend, but many. On the way up and down we speak about gray whales and ice plants, passing a few other people until we’ve reached the lower point where Bodega Head tumbles into low sandstone cliffs and a small beach at the water’s edge. We walk to the smoothly worn point, where nobody is touching, but a number of people are standing, and take in the silhouettes of seagulls and what I learn are black oystercatchers. Up the coast, a point of something like Gualala is visible, and a blunt greenish drop off of Point Reyes in the far south. Clouds are visible out at sea but the coast is brilliant with mid-afternoon light.

Back at the cabin, we cook and I climb the stairs to try and separate out a bit. My friends from childhood and college and my partner’s family are here, but two friends are either sick or at risk and have not come. I toast everyone individually for my birthday, and everyone toasts me.  Some people have empty glasses and most are drinking water, but I think that it counts. I put 18 candles onto one piece of cake and blow them out before the evening is over and everyone goes home. As my parents leave last, the stars are brightly visible in the coastal sky.