23 March, Loch Fyne, Argyll, Scotland

By Christina Noble

It’s the morning of day 4 ½ of my ‘self-isolation’, on my own. This house, Policy Gate, is 20 metres from the shore of Loch Fyne, a 50 mile long sea loch. There is a stretch of wild garden and woodland behind it. It is over two miles from the village and a mile from the nearest house, along a rough track beside the loch.  I am 77. I live partly here, partly in North London and a bit in India. My son Rahul lives and works in India, my daughter Tara, her husband and two small children live in Winchester. My family has been here at the head of Loch Fyne for a hundred years.  My sister and her grown up children and grandchildren live around here.

I arrived here from London on Friday by train to Glasgow and then on the bus. There were shining streaks of snow on Ben Lomond, the loch so blue and still. Not many people on the bus, sitting well apart.  My neighbour had left my car for me to pick up at the bus stop so he wouldn’t have to meet me. Driving home along the track there was a fat and mottled seal, on the rock by the Black Hut, against the cobalt blue loch.

Tara rang in her lunch hour (she is a teacher). All schools are closed from last night.  She is going to be expected to go to work because the school is to stay open for key workers’ children. 

I walked along to the Ardno point in the evening sun, thin pink light reflecting in the loch.  Very quiet, not much traffic on the far side of the Loch. I had Brussel sprouts with one rasher of bacon and a little grated cheese.  I will have a problem dwelling all the time on what I am going to eat, and eating too much.

They tell us – the Government tells us –  that ‘we are all in this together’ but it doesn’t feel like that.  There is no togetherness possible here at Policy Gate.  Lucy and John came by kindly when they came to feed their sheep, with my shopping, and some of their Golden Wonders and a dozen of their eggs.  But they stood by their car and we talked briefly as I stood up by the rhubarb patch.  It was hardly togetherness.  And there is nothing I can do for anyone or anything, only for myself.

I understand the theory, the need, but there is nothing but negativity: there is nothing in my day that makes me feel I am doing anything for the country or the National Health or anybody.  There is no role for me except ‘don’t do this or that’.

On 1st September 1939, the day after war was declared, my Mother arrived off the sleeper train at the local station. In the book I wrote which documented 100 years of this community, I described how on that first morning of the war my Mother…

“  went straight to join the others at Glen Fyne Lodge.  Then that morning she and  Tasia, Michael, Sisi and the children and nannies,  moved down from The Lodge  back to Ardkinglas; so evacuee families could go to the Lodge.  It was thought that evacuees with mothers would need to use the Lodge and the Bungalow. None of the evacuees were to go to Ardkinglas; it was planned that the big houses were to be kept in case there was a sudden rush of evacuees later, or in case they were to be needed as hospitals or convalescent homes.”

At the time, my mother complained of a numbness, of not being able to think. And how difficult it was living with all these people around.

It was hard for her and I am sure would have been for me too, but she felt that she and others had things they must do and people they had to provide for.  While I have nothing to do except think about myself and my rhubarb patch.

Monday was a slate grey day with an East wind that chilled your bones.  The squirrels must have been hunched up, no sign of them until lunchtime.

It was a steak in tomatoes and cream sauce, and Golden Wonders and curly kale for my lunch. A steak and sauce lunch would taste so much better with someone across the table to share it with. I am so lucky, I am warm and clean, I don’t have money worries. I can wander in my garden and see if the rhubarb has grown and walk along the lochside with the seals and the oyster catchers and the peewits. But there can be no sharing.

I have the 4.30 slot of talking to Rahul and Tara to look forward to and many kind people phone me to ask how I am doing.  At some of the time in the day I have a surge of courage and will power and expectation of getting things done. At others the tears are in freefall again, can’t be stopped.

This evening’s 8.30 news bulletin –  Boris on Lockdown  – he is so hopeless, it’s  pretty much, ‘we will send coronavirus packing, we Brits are so strong, we are all in this together.  But we aren’t. This is not just me self-indulgently moaning, there are people all over the country who have been so alienated for so long, they aren’t going to feel in it together.  Someone somewhere broke into a food bank and stole a 100 toilet rolls. 

I am tired, I’m going to bed.

22 March, Janta curfew, Bombay, India

By Sukhada Tatke

The morning was no different. My chest seemed heavy and clamped. All the space within was compressed. It will pass, I told myself, as I had over the past several weeks, if not months. Just take deep breaths, it will pass.

The morning was different, I realised when I stirred and looked outward. To begin with, there were no vehicular or human sounds. The sky was clear and the air thick with birdsong. No flowers yet on the gulmohar tree but it’s only early summer. In the next room, my mother fiddled with a laptop she didn’t know to use.

“Help me with this, please,” she said when she heard me shuffle around. “I can’t take it anymore. You know how many people died in Italy today? 700!” I showed her how to change the volume on the laptop. A soothing male voice recited the Bhagavad Gita.

A friend messaged just then to ask how the curfewed morning was progressing in my neighbourhood. He had begun his day looking at drongos, crows, parakeets and bright red flowers.

Birds. Everyone spoke of birds throughout the day. I couldn’t see them, but knew something unusual was up with them today. Were they wondering if the world had transformed into a paradise overnight? Just in case I needed a reminder in the future that this had really happened, I recorded 15 seconds of birdsong.

Around noon, another friend called to say she had just finished reading Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking. You can tell she really understands grief, my friend said. Is there anyone who does not?

At 4.55 pm, faint, unrecognisable sounds were heard from outside. “Mamma, wake up, it’s begun,” I told my mother.  From the window we watched our neighbours erupt into celebratory clamour. They clapped their hands and they banged their pans. A few days earlier, our prime minister had appealed to the nation to come out on to their balconies at 5pm on the day of the Janta Curfew and cheer those on the frontlines of the pandemic. Downstairs, someone was blowing a conch shell. I asked him to look up so I could make a video but when he did, the spell was broken, and he made false notes.

What is this collective hysteria, I said aloud. My mother asked me not to be a spoilsport. She was right. This mass gathering made me smile. I even allowed myself to laugh heartily for a few minutes. It was the first time in weeks and it felt oddly uplifting. For a few moments, the apocalypse was forgotten. Just in case I needed a reminder in the future that this had really happened, I recorded 15 seconds of conching and clanging. 

The birds went into hiding and were not heard from for the rest of the evening.

Elsewhere in the country, people spilled out in the streets in hordes, beating drums, dancing and chanting “go corona go”. The curfew deadline was still hours away, the virus was still very much in our midst.

We had done it again. Our prime minister had asked us to bend, we had frolicked. This was his power. Why then had he not used it to calm citizens when communal violence had flared up in the country only a few weeks before? 

Gloom settled in my heart again. A totalitarian government, an obsequious citizenry and the death of scientific temper. This was what we had in our arsenal to fight a pandemic. But we also had health workers and grocers and vegetable vendors and cleaners and journalists and others who were putting their lives on the line so that we could maintain a semblance of normalcy in these abnormal times.

In the evening, my mother said she was grateful I was home with her. “I would have gone mad all alone,” she said. “But I think I have also got used to being alone.”

In France, another beloved person was alone. Suddenly, I missed him achingly. As we looked at each other in silence in the white glow of our computer screens, it struck us, my husband and I, that we might actually be staring at a longer and more painful period of distance than we had imagined, with neither of us welcome in the other’s country. But love, we agreed, is greater than viruses and borders.

22 March, Kingston, Jamaica

(19 Confirmed cases)
By Diana McCaulay

Our airports and seaports were closed yesterday for 14 days to incoming passenger traffic. You can still fly out, we’re told, as long as airlines provide flights. Yesterday the British High Commissioner tweeted that the last flight from Kingston to London Gatwick would be on 25 March and there’s an extra flight scheduled for today. The US Embassy is tweeting outgoing flight schedules for its major carriers.

I’m thinking about air travel, a privilege I’ve taken for granted for my entire adult life. Sure, there was the obstacle of cost, but flying has become affordable for billions – a simple Google search reveals 4 billion flew in 2017, according to Forbes Magazine. Many of those would be repeat travellers, of course, but still, flying has become unremarkable. I’m always struck by the people on planes who leave their window blinds down, preferring not to look out at clouds and sky, turning away from the wondrous, glued to small screens.

I’m thinking about what air travel means for a small island nation. We can’t leave our borders by road or rail, and given the ports are also currently closed, nor by boat either. So we’re here. Do I feel stuck? My son lives in London, one sister in Toronto, my oldest friend is in Kendal in the UK, several close friends live in New York, Miami and Seattle, and part of my travel pattern has been to visit them. Now I can’t. Now we Zoom and FaceTime and Facebook messenger and WhatsApp call, and I am grateful for those privileges. I think of my maternal grandmother, whose only son went off to join the Royal Air Force in World War II – she would have not expected a letter for weeks. He died on his first mission and I don’t know how long before she knew, how long she would have hoped he was fine, when he was not.

So, no, I don’t feel stuck. I feel lucky, actually, for my place on a small tropical island with a year-round growing season and strong family and social connections. Jamaica escapes none of the problems of the world, but they’re writ small, on a manageable scale. I’m grateful for that, this morning.             

22 March, Bengaluru (+Thinking of Srinagar), India

By Nurat Maqbool

I work from home so that way the lockdown doesn’t affect me much. It hasn’t affected my schedule or work but it has made my day scarier. Everyone deals with stressful situations differently. Mine is: I kill myself with worry.

Back at home in Kashmir, we have seen lockdown every other week for the last three decades. We know what living in fear means. The lockdown was there but it was for a small area and the rest of the world was happy and thriving. Sometimes all of that gives you hope that things will be better for you as well. But in the lockdown of the world there is no escape.  

The fear has entirely captured my imagination. I keep checking how many people have tested positive in Bengaluru, where I am right now and in Kashmir, where I fly next month. Every day I promise myself I won’t check my phone but the promise drains out after five minutes.

I was supposed to talk about my day. Well, all of this happens in my mind all day. I can’t get it out of my mind. Even when I am reading or writing or doing the dishes I am constantly worrying. Early in the morning a friend called from Kashmir. She said ever since a person was tested positive in Srinagar, heavy restrictions have been imposed in the area. And for the first time Kashmiris are happy with the restrictions. In fact, they have been writing on social media that government should put them in curfew. ‘They will give us relaxation in the late evening but will the virus be sleeping by then?’ my friend asks.

To quieten my over thinking mind, I often look through the window. Gazing at the sky calms my nerves. The golden glint on the leaves, the swaying of palm trees, the circling of hawks, the rumbling in the skies due to a plane passing by, all fill my heart with hope. Gazing at the sky calms my nerves. Whenever we are thrown into any difficult situation in Kashmir this is one of the many ways I tackle the stress. 

The Indian Prime Minister had asked for Janta Curfew – self-imposed curfew. So people were indoors all day long. Bengaluru has never been so silent. Then at five in the evening people popped out on to their balconies or front doors clapping and beating the thali or blowing the shankha. The clapping was for the doctors and para medical people who do their duties in these trying times. I never knew so many people lived in those buildings. All these years I have just seen pigeons fluttering on window sills or squirrels jumping on balcony railings. For some minutes everyone was laughing.  I join the clapping too. And there are good vibes in the air after a long time.

After 9pm, when the Janta curfew ended people started to show up at our house or on the roads. Almost everyone who comes here or calls asks, ‘How did you Kashmiris survive the lockdown for six months?’ I shrug my shoulders.

Late in the night I listened to the sound of rain on YouTube. There are so many videos of the sound of rain with millions of views. After listening for five minutes on the headphone, the sound of the rain turns into human voices. As if hundreds of people are speaking at the same time maybe in a cricket or football stadium or after Friday prayers or the sound of pilgrims on the hills of Srinagar. They are shrieking, laughing saying something maybe babbling. It appears as if all the words we ever spoke went up and were trapped in the clouds and are now coming down as the sound of rain. I am transported to another time when life was less complicated, world was less chaotic and nature less angry. It is so comforting. After many days I sleep well.

21 March, Brighton, UK

By Meryl Williams

Last week was a different reality. Last week was BC time – Before Corona. Now we live in a Covid 19 – shaped world. These are AC times – After Corona.

My son got a fever 10 days ago and was off school. In the time it took for him to recover enough to consider returning, the Britain that we have known so well had changed irrevocably. A blink of an eye, or a few press briefings later, we– my two boys aged 16 and 18 and I – are dutifully doing our part and obeying instructions to observe a 14-day family isolation.
For now, my unremarkable Brighton mid-terrace home is a quiet haven. I did a big shop (not hoarder level but generous) before hunkering down. We sleep, eat, chat, watch TV. Occasionally I go out for no-stopping, no-interacting bike rides and say hi to neighbours from a safe distance. Each time I venture out, I bring back a pebble from the beach and place it on my headboard. I have seven there now. As the collection has grown, so the city has fallen quieter and quieter. I wonder how many pebbles I will have by the time this is over?
Today I made it through the drizzle a few kilometres east of Brighton to Saltdean cliffs. There I had a picnic all alone on the beach. I breathed in the crisp sea air and listened to the shush of the waves lapping the chalky rock pools. It was impossible to believe that all around me, in cyber space and in the ‘real’ world, seismic changes are occurring/unfolding/cascading. A natural environment is timeless and for that reason deeply soothing. Cityscapes, however, are stapled to their moment in history by their signage, cars, people moving about, goods being sold. How could it be that major cities and even whole countries are shutting up shop, closing borders and hunkering down – literally disrobing in preparation for a feverish bedtime? Empty streets, deserted monuments and bare supermarket shelves are common sites/sights in now.

Friends stuck in a Parisian apartment seek my advice as an Early Years teacher on entertaining their captive toddler. I videocall them and read my goddaughter a story and sing some songs. Her mother looks drawn and pale.  How to explain a lockdown to a 2-year-old who dressed herself yesterday and asked to go out? I encourage the whole family to try some yoga moves with me and the father joins in. He’s been wearing sweatpants for days. Everyone is feeling the strain of inactivity in their household.

In rural Wales, my disabled septuagenarian father is dependent on daily carers. They come in and out of the house dispensing a steady stream of kindness. My mother can’t do without them. She makes efforts to minimise exposure to the virus by propping up a polite notice against a vase of daffodils in the hallway. It asks carers to put gloves and aprons on before entering the house. No masks are yet available and today she was told the carers may soon not be able to come so often.

In Australia a friend from university days has just taken a sabbatical from her job as a primary teacher only to realise, two days after agreeing her year off, that the school may be closed for the best part of the year anyway. She’d just forfeited a salary. We discuss her savings cushion and think of ways she can earn money in the meantime. At least she didn’t resign.
In London, friends I was hoping to meet for dinner now feel as far away as astronauts on another planet. At the start of the week we made tentative plans, by Wednesday meeting seemed unlikely and by Saturday frankly irresponsible in an age of social distancing. So, we make plans for future virtual gatherings and online chats. When will we next clink glasses in a pub?

 Collectively all of us are waiting for the sweep of the viral scythe. We hope that our leaders really do know what they’re doing or at least are informed by people who know people. Petty political divisions seem to fall away (for now) as neighbours rapidly collate numbers for WhatsApp groups called things like, ‘Tips for Home schooling’ and ‘Pub Takeaway’. Chatter is skittish and polite as we share information, cheer each other up with memes and offer help. We cling to the hope that we will get through this. Won’t we? They say dolphins were sighted in the Venice canals and that the skies are clearing of pollution over Italy. Is this the ‘upside’? And if so, how low will the ‘downside’ be?

 As Europe puts its belly to the ground and waits for an unknown form to step out of the shadows and do battle, I ponder this moment in time. My children’s school is now probably closed for months, my prospects for employment as a supply teacher look grim and my newest, biggest worry is will there be enough food in the shops when I get out of isolation on Tuesday? This is my new normal. How strange is that?

What seemed like media hype in January now seems like the early genteel whisperings of a shy friend. Really you should have warned me, I want to shout! I would have bought more paracetamol.

 I am a little afraid.

21 March, London, UK

By Shehani Fernando

It’s only just the beginning of this new normal but already our London home seems stifling. After our first week of juggling working from home, a myriad of Zoom video calls, and keeping our seven and four year old entertained (and vaguely educated), we thought we’d get out for the day and get some ‘fresh air’. A quick Google revealed the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate, an hour out of London, with 5000 acres that could surely provide ample room for social distancing.

We arrived at 11am and found ourselves walking through ancient woodland, a carpet of newly-sprouted wild garlic and the promise of Spring’s tendrils preparing to unfurl. I lay down on a large tree trunk and looked up at the swaying branches, then closed my eyes to try and make out birdsong – for all of 30 seconds before my son asked for help whittling a stick with a dangerously sharp implement (this is not a time for him to have a severe cut I think to myself).  Perhaps finally in these months of confinement, I can learn to identify bird calls, mushrooms and other edible plants. We pass areas of coppiced sweet chestnut, Douglas Firs and a myriad of other trees I know nothing about but at various intervals we come across enormous trunks that have fallen over in this year’s storms. They lay here and there like uninvited bodies, their messy branches splayed over other trees – beautifully sculptural but interrupting the order of the landscape.  But then, our whole worldview has irrevocably changed now.

I’m on the board of a small arts venue in London. There are 3 part time staff and it balances the books precariously with hire fees and bar sales. We took the decision to close last week but had a crisis board-meeting-call today to decide what our options are, after looking at some financial modelling. As for many small venues, closing over this period which is one of our busiest seasons will be financially ruinous – even if the government pays 80% of our staff costs. The impact on galleries, theatres and festivals will be devastating – even for those that have public funding – coming at the end of ten years of sustained cuts to arts and culture. Closer to home, I worry about my friends who are freelance actors, musicians, and filmmakers who’ve seen projects and work disappear. The institute I work for is looking to move as much of its training online as possible, but at some point soon there will be a glut of virtual courses, Instagram art clubs and live work outs as people scramble to keep their audiences engaged and connected. My son’s violin teacher has already been in touch to suggest doing classes by Zoom (is there no end to what can be done on Zoom?).

I feel tired just thinking about the increased screen time that all this virtual ‘connection’ involves, but at least we are lucky enough to have stable, fast broadband which many around the world may struggle to access during lockdown.

Back to the woods. My husband requested a large thermos flask for his birthday in December. I wasn’t convinced it would get much use but it’s racked up a number of outings already on Winter picnics that our kids have been very enthusiastic about. I set out a throw on the damp ground (bought in India circa 1997) and we tuck into soup, bread and salami (post-hand gel sanitization, of course). The bread is from the French café above which we are renting, which decided to close yesterday afternoon much to our sadness. It’s a small business that is usually packed with a steady stream of locals devoted to its freshly baked sourdough, croissants, coffee and light lunches. The owner said he wasn’t sure when they’d be able to re-open, and then of course the government’s edict that restaurants, bars and venues must close came later that evening.

This week has brought our parents into sharp relief. My father-in-law has taken to quarantine rather well, addicted as he is to the news cycle and all the latest intelligence from his ex-MI5 acquaintances. He turned 83 yesterday and we delivered a care package of food to his doorstep. He waved from the porch with his polo neck pulled up over his mouth in a slightly hilarious scene. On the phone today, he said to my husband, “I can’t remember ever asking you to wash your hands when you were a child. Now my hands are falling off”. The mothers are coping but I’m not sure how long they can sustain being on their own if this goes on for more than a couple of months. And then there’s my father. This week was the first anniversary of his death. He suffered from a sudden and very quick bout of pneumonia last year which shocked us to the core. “In the 21st century, in one of the world’s most advanced cities, how could he have died of pneumonia?” I thought. Now I like to imagine that he had seen this coming – months of self-isolating, maybe catching the dreaded virus, a recession worse than the one he endured in the ‘80s. He would have hated it.

We leave the forest, the children clutching whittled sticks with pockets full of wild garlic, feeling vaguely normal for the first time all week. The walk has done us good. As we leave, there’s a huge queue of cars arriving – everyone has had the same idea on this rare sunny day. We spy two police cars in the queue and wonder whether they are keeping an eye on the numbers of people who have swarmed here.

At 9.30pm, the National Trust issued a statement deciding to close all parks and gardens, “to avoid crowding that puts social distancing at risk”. Perhaps it was wrong to go after all. Perhaps it will be our last outing for a while. But at least I can savour the memory.

21 March, Worcestershire, UK

By Rachel Smyth

Today is the first day in two weeks that I have ventured out in public – and not due to Covid-19. My almost 3 year old daughter has been extremely unwell with gastroenteritis for 15 days which has meant, somewhat ironically, that we are already well practiced at self-isolation.

This morning, my daughter seems to have finally turned a corner. After weighing up the risks, my husband and I decide to take her to a local National Trust site, as the grounds remain open to the public. With the sun shining, lots of people clearly have the same idea.  It is very busy. After two weeks of staying at home, I feel socially overwhelmed and uneasy.

As it is a large site, we manage to keep more than the recommended two meters away from others but I am still anxious. I sadly realise that this fear is now a part of our daily life and I suddenly crave the quiet solitude and safety of our home. A thought flashes across my mind: “What if social distancing and social isolation is our new world?” We could never again go out in public without fear, never again touch the people we love…so many “never agains” when my mind allows itself to think that way.

My daughter spots another young girl running and starts to laugh and run after her. After two weeks at home, she is excited to see another child. The girl’s mum and I give chase, briefly agreeing from a safe distance how hard it is to explain why they can’t play together. Not long afterwards, my daughter becomes tired and her father and I decide it’s too busy, so we head home.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. Although I will celebrate it with my daughter, I’m sad that for the first time in 42 years I won’t see my own my Mum. I’m hoping through the lounge window to watch her open the card and presents I have bought for her. Under the current circumstances, this is our bizarre new reality.

My brother is getting married on Tuesday. He had only planned a small civil ceremony in our home town with my parents as witnesses, but even that is up in the air as he lives in London and my parents are in their 70s. If it goes ahead, my sisters and I are trying to figure out if and how we can all still meet up afterwards for cake and fizz at a distance. Another special family occasion that we may not be able to celebrate together.

It is hard to remain positive and optimistic when there is so much uncertainty ahead. However I have already decided that I will not succumb to negativity or get pulled into the vacuum of scaremongering news and fearful social media posts. I have my daughter to think of and also my husband, who has been classed as vulnerable due to his Crohn’s disease. Becoming a mother has given me a level of mental strength, resilience and stamina that I did not possess before. I know this will be a huge advantage in the weeks and months ahead, whatever the outcome.

21 March, Heddesheim, Germany

By Susanne Wieners

I’m so glad it’s Saturday! It means a break from work and a break from our first home schooling attempts. Today is the first Saturday after a week of self-isolation and I realize only now how exhausting the past week has been. Things we deemed impossible just a week ago have become a reality in these last few days and the adjustment process has been exhausting, both physically and emotionally. At times it felt like being in a movie. Everything suddenly happened so fast: The nation-wide shutdown of schools and kindergartens, the instruction for all employees to work from home who are not required to keep essential infrastructure running, the constant call for social distancing, the rapid increase of reported Covid cases close to us, reports of people hoarding food and toilet paper, a TV speech of the Chancellor addressing the German people and explaining the seriousness of the situation.  All this information demanded to be processed while at the same time we faced the challenge of working from home and simultaneously taking care of two kids, aged 6 and 9. It felt like we were constantly torn between ‘business as usual’ and a state that was everything but usual.

For now, I still have projects at work that need to be finished and deadlines that need to be met. This may soon change but for now the work has to be done. My husband pretty much handled his usual crazy workload from our home this week and I must praise our children who managed these first days of being at home quite well. They, too, are torn between feeling that they got unexpected “Corona holidays” while sensing that the reason for this is a serious one. They’ve kept themselves busy with schoolwork, audio books and lego play and so far only little television. (I’m sensing that the amount of television watched in this household will increase over the weeks to come.) Whenever the kids demanded our attention – because a math assignment required explanation for our daughter, or our son was bored or the two had a quarrel they couldn’t settle alone – I could sense the potential for parental conflict: Which one of us was to interrupt their work? Whose work was more urgent in that instant? It was tense at times. I ask myself how we will we manage as a family when this goes on for an indistinct period of time. Minor considerations when you think of what others have to face these days: self-employed who have no income, people who have already lost a loved one, medical staff working into exhaustion, to name just a few.

My thoughts today also revolve around my shopping experience yesterday when I went out for grocery shopping. I buy our week’s supplies every Friday. Yesterday was the first time I actually saw the empty-swept store shelves, the marks on the ground conveying the distance to keep to other customers while waiting in line, the glass shields put up between cashier and customers, cashiers wearing gloves and a few people wearing face masks (something completely exceptional in Germany). It seemed like stepping out into a different world than a week ago when I last did my  grocery shopping. Again, I found myself torn between feeling reassured that necessary and important measures were being taken and the disbelief that all this is really happening.

The wonderful spring weather we’ve had these past few days in Germany further reinforced the feeling of disbelief: It’s that time of year in Europe where trees and flowers are starting to bloom, ice cream parlors are opening up again and people are keen to be outside to catch the first warm rays of spring sun. After a dull and grey winter, nature is showing us its beautiful side and everything seems so peaceful when you listen to bees humming in the garden. The next moment, you read the news that make you feel you’re living in a war-like situation. I find the use of war terminology rather unsettling but I guess it is a kind of war. What makes me hopeful is seeing how many (unfortunately not all) people have started looking out for each other. The most obvious concern we all have is for our parents and grandparents whom we all avoid to see now, as hard as that is for all parties. Interestingly, this protective instinct is extended to all elderly people at the moment. In relation to others, it seems like people feel connected in a new and special way: strangers are suddenly exchanging encouraging smiles while standing 2m apart in the supermarket line, sales staff in supermarkets receive spontaneous signs of appreciation from customers who normally barely even take notice of the staff, and the line “stay healthy” has become a standard goodbye these days.  Lately I feel the constant urge to reach out to friends and family to find out how they are doing and what their coping strategies are. Today, for example, I called my aunt – I take far too little time for calls like that in my hectic everyday life. It occurred to me that what has been labelled as ‘social distancing’ is really more ‘physical distancing’ as it appears that these exceptional circumstances are actually bringing many of us closer together. Finally, in the midst of writing this, I learned today that a friends’ father passed away – the first Covid death to affect us personally. Although we all know that we need to be prepared for such news, actually getting them is quite another story. It makes you dread what else we will have to deal with in the weeks and months to come. I then grabbed my kids and we baked scones – I’ve always found baking very calming. We’ll see how much baking I’ll be doing in the near future.

21 March, Santo Estevão, Portugal

By Philippa Harland

It is my husband’s birthday tomorrow. Obviously the lunch party with several friends that I had planned has now been cancelled, so we will just be having a modest meal together instead.

Since arriving from the UK to live in the eastern Algarve over a year ago, we never dreamed that we would ever live in a ‘State of Emergency’ which the Portuguese announced this week. There is no real news yet of many cases in our immediate area, but we are relatively close to the Spanish border so are mindful of the risks.

Suddenly, in the last week, the fish markets are closed, as are all cafes, bars and restaurants – and the few supermarkets are only allowing a dozen people in at a time making for long queues snaking around the car parks and making shopping for anything a long and protracted day’s work. Luckily my husband (a former chef and Portuguese speaker) has a fine and close friendship with our local butcher, so a large free range chicken and some pork chops were set aside for us (only 3 customers allowed in there at a time, as is the case for all the small, busy local shops on which we depend here in the countryside).

And, with unfortunate timing, yesterday the spring rains were suddenly with us – heavy downpours, leaden skies and cold winds making it impossible even to enjoy spending time gardening or sitting in the hammock in the orchard with a book.

No, our little Algarvian cottage suddenly feels cramped and dark with all the windows and doors having to be shut — and chilly. We are unused to being so restricted, and the parameters of our lives seem to be getting smaller every day – no friends can be invited over (a major pastime here) and even countryside walks aren’t possible in groups of more than four or five people.

Last week I was supposed to have been over in the UK for my regular trip to see my mother in her care home. This home is now in lock down, and since her stroke she is confused as to why she has not had the regular visits from friends or my sister.

Meanwhile that same sister regales me with tales of having to deal with distraught and tearful staff.  She has had to relay to them that her restaurant is closing today following the government directive.

That UK trip was also my opportunity to buy birthday gifts for my husband, so I now find myself in the strange situation of having to create something home made to give him tomorrow. I have found some old linen napkins and have spent the last few days embroidering one with birthday messages and some crude floral decorations.

This morning was spent secretly baking a selection of cookies from whatever was in our store cupboards – peanut butter, coffee, ginger, walnuts… These will be wrapped in said napkin as the only gift I can procure for now.

At least we still have our beautiful view of the sea (through the rain) and our almond trees which are in bud, as well as the fig trees showing their first fruits.

The hardest thing is not giving in to that helpless feeling of frustration, and the fear for friends and loved ones with whom our first instinct is to be near, and which is, for now, forbidden.