Tayari Jones, US: ‘We are living in a horrific Venn diagram, where the plague of racism overlaps with a global pandemic’
Tayari Jones is the author of five novels. Her fourth book, An American Marriage, won the 2019 Women’s prize for fiction. Her latest novel, Silver Sparrow, was published in March, to critical acclaim. Born and raised in Atlanta, she returned to the city recently after a decade in New York, to teach at Emory University
I was born in 1970, two years after Martin Luther King Jr was martyred in service to civil rights for all Americans. As a child, I reaped the benefits of the sacrifices of my parents’ generation. I was spared the tyranny of Dick and Jane, instead learning to read with books featuring drawings of happy, beautiful black children. My first paediatrician was a black man, modelling for me and my brother that we could be doctors, scientists, or whatever else we wanted to be. I never felt the sting of a racial slur hurled at my face until I was about 40 years old, living in New York City. Because of the strong foundation on which I had been built, I experienced the insult with annoyed disbelief, not as a blow to my soul.
Social justice has always been my parents’ ministry. As a mere teenager, my mother participated in the Oklahoma City sit-ins, three years before the famous Greensboro demonstrations. My father protested segregation at the Greyhound bus station; for his trouble he was arrested, jailed for a week, and then expelled from university. Their bravery was rooted in a commitment to bettering the world for the next generation. This is my parents’ greatest gift to me: a life without the daily in-your-face racism that they faced growing up in the Jim Crow south.
But now, in 2020, my parents are on my mind every day, as we are living in a horrific Venn diagram, where the plague of racism overlaps with a global pandemic. Mama and Daddy are, thankfully, in good health. But they are 77 and 84 years old. They aren’t young any more. Covid-19 is especially dangerous to the elderly. It is especially lethal for elderly black people.
Luckily, my parents are intelligent. They listen to doctors. Daddy is especially compliant, wearing the masks my mother sews, even when we meet for our weekly outdoor visits.
Maxim Leo, Germany: ‘We are corona world champions, you might say’
Maxim Leo, 50, is an author, screenwriter and journalist. Born and raised in East Berlin, he continues to live in the city and has worked as an editor at the Berliner Zeitung. His memoir, Red Love: The Story of an East German Family, won the European book prize
Yesterday, I watched Meet the Parents with my daughters for the 86th time. Since by now we know the dialogue off by heart, this time we watched it in Greek, which made the film even funnier, not least because of the curiously high-pitched dubbed voice of the Greek Robert De Niro. I was particularly struck by one thing: the people in the film often stand very close together, they’re constantly hugging and shaking hands for far too long. I thought: this is crazy, aren’t they scared?
Until it occurred to me that I was still hugging people 10 weeks ago. It was 13 March, a Friday. I had a reading in Brandenburg to which only four people came, because of the start of anxiety about the virus. After that I drove to my friend Esther’s birthday party. We drank, laughed and danced a lot; there was a strangely cheerful atmosphere, as if we’d already sensed that there wouldn’t be another evening like that for a long time.
All of that seems so far away, as if from another time, another world. Which means above all what an incredibly important part getting used to things plays in our lives. Sometimes I think our whole life is one long process of getting used to things. That everything we see as immutable and decreed by fate is ultimately nothing more than a routine that we’ve come to love. Which means that we could radically change our lives at any time even without a crisis. If the fear of the unknown were not so great. And the love of what we know.
A lot of people say this pandemic will change the world and our lives will never be the same as they were before. I don’t believe that. Because getting used to things works both ways. In a few weeks we will have forgotten a lot of what seems so big and inevitable right now. Most of what we are now struggling to learn will pale into the mist of the past. As soon as the situation is different.
Personally, I’m a passionate nostalgic – I always mourn the past and wallow in memories. Incidentally, it doesn’t matter a damn how unpleasant the past was. For example, when I still lived in the German Democratic Republic I thought the country was completely round the bend. Then, when the GDR was gone, I missed it.
That’s how it could be with the coronavirus. I wouldn’t be surprised if I kept this chapter of my life in melancholy memory too. Particularly given that there are already a few things that I’ve just learned and I’m a bit proud of; for example, the technique I have by now perfected of opening doors with my elbow. Or the idea of stopping cutting the nail on my right index finger because it means I can use the touchpad of the credit card reader without making dangerous skin contact.
Or the breathing technique that I’ve developed over the weeks, which allows me to hold my breath for up to a minute if somebody near me sneezes. Or the turbo-personality scan that I’ve developed to categorise passersby coming towards me in the street by risk group, and distancing myself more or less according to my estimate of the situation. Or, don’t forget, my video-conferencing skills. Amateurs always look at the screen, vain amateurs only look at themselves. The professional looks into the camera and consequently looks everyone straight in the eye.
What I still haven’t managed to do is keep my distance. I still stand too close to people. I was like that before too, though. I like touching people and sometimes pinch particularly good friends on the bum. That’s actually what I miss most, when I come to think about it.
Otherwise, these days I sometimes look at the international statistics of new infections and deaths and think: well, I guess we’re not doing too badly. I know it sounds a bit silly, as if I was the health minister or something. No idea why I’m filled with pride all of a sudden, but that’s the way it is.
This morning, as I write this, for example, the number of new deaths in Germany had fallen to a record low; 23 people had died of the virus over the previous 24 hours. The only places doing better were Russia, Turkey and Iran and let’s not talk about the transparency and honesty situation in those countries. So I assume that at the moment we Germans are in first place in terms of deaths. We’re corona world champions, you might say.
And that’s wonderful when you bear in mind that we have not only the handsomest virologists and the most enlightened chancellor, but also the best hospitals, the most brilliant ventilators, the most money and the most awesome crisis management – even though we also have the most criminal meat producers. Somehow, that makes you feel that you yourself are all the more awesome, brilliant and handsome, doesn’t it?
Of course, I realise how embarrassing and backward-looking such feelings are. They are the opposite of European integration and human solidarity – they are steeped in stupid arrogance, narrow-mindedness and egoism and belong in the emotional dustbin! For ever!
And I’m afraid I still feel that way, I can’t help it. That’s also how it was before corona – I nodded proudly when it said on the news that we were once again world champions in exports. Then I quietly thought to myself: not bad, world export champions! Hats off to you, ladies and gentlemen! As if I had even the slightest thing to do with it. And the only thing I’ve ever exported from Germany is my battered dark-brown suitcase.
Corona pride is, of course, much worse because it’s about human lives. And because it’s supposed to be a source not of joy but of humility when fate is kinder to you than it is to your neighbour. That’s why we can’t go around boasting about our magnificent successes; it doesn’t go down at all well in other countries. I see that in the video conference calls with my wife, Catherine’s family. Her sister lives in Milan, her brother in Paris, their parents in Brussels, all more or less corona hotspots, as you can tell in the video conference calls by the fact that the others all look very pale because of the strict lockdown. We’ve stopped telling them that we always go to our garden in Brandenburg at the weekend, but they can tell anyway – by our suntanned holiday faces.
The conversations are difficult too. You can’t ask: “Well, what have you been up to?” I know that, because I’ve asked the question. And the answer was icy silence. Even cheering words are frowned upon and pity is out of the question. Right now, as a successful German crisis-fighter you’re pretty much on your own.
My wife says the Germans have no sense of solidarity. She says: “You bring back 240,000 German tourists, you let 30,000 eastern European harvest workers fly in. And only 47 Syrian refugee children. You’re opposed to corona bonds and your biggest fear is not being allowed to fly to Greece in the summer! You should be ashamed!”
At such moments, it occurs to me that as an east German I am in a sense the Greek among the Germans. And that my false pride might also be a cry for love. I’d need to think about it.
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Emily Perkins, New Zealand: ‘We’re a small enough country that the prospect of mass death feels terrifyingly personal’
New Zealander Emily Perkins is an author and broadcaster. Her books include Novel About My Wife, the Women’s prize-longlisted The Forrests and Not Her Real Name and Other Stories. She lives in Wellington and teaches creative writing at the University of Auckland
This story has a false ending. In the movies that’s when the villain gasps back to life, a bloodied hand claws the floor, a zombie bolts upright for one more kill. In Aotearoa, in New Zealand, we were Covid-free for 24 days. Now we’re not. She’s baa-aack. If the pandemic had a musical score, that trick ending might be a caesura, shown by two parallel diagonal lines: railroad tracks, only we ran out of rail.
The opening scene is a party in late February. The house is packed, people squeezed against walls and crammed on to the deck, drinking from anyone’s glass, dancing close. A guest says calmly we’ll be in lockdown before long, that millions, globally, may die. Is he making it up? He’s a what, epidemiologist? Have another drink!
One month on, the world has changed and alert level 3, near-lockdown, looms. A screen split four ways: Zoom. One friend worries about her partner overseas. Another, in Australia, isn’t sure what support non-citizens will get. Will anyone keep their jobs? We’ll make it through, we swear, with love. An hour later one of those friends and I are fighting over whether it’s safe to keep our date for dinner. Accusations, crying, fear. That night we do meet, don’t hug, and hand sanitise madly, agreeing how rigorous isolation will be. Cut to us outside in the dark, sharing drags on a damp-ended joint, exhaling with borrowed calm.
Alert level 4: the interminable middle. Cases rising. The first death. For a country with huge inequality, we’re small enough that the prospect of mass death feels terrifyingly personal. There’s a sense of solidarity, although everyone’s lockdown depends on the pre-existing conditions of their life.
Here’s another music notation: the fermata. I feel like a dot muffled under an arch. A friend incorporates the pandemic into her novel; there are brilliant zines, poems, endless fucking online readings, as though the writing world has been poised for this, introverts raring to go. Me, I’m bringing back the zombie metaphor, teaching on Zoom, enjoying bloodless family harmony despite the urge to stab someone, and wandering an internal desert. What’s the point of anything, any more? But Christ, I am thankful – for the safety of loved ones, the job, the house, the time to angst.
Another word some use to describe what’s happening is rāhui, a Māori concept which, among its meanings, can connote protection from harm by placing temporary restrictions, management of an endangered environment, the observance of restraint. Not all agree it’s the right word to use, but this, rather than the carceral-sounding “lockdown”, suggests the potential implicit in the pause.
Trust in the government is high, but there’s change needed before they earn everyone’s; the pandemic response comes under scrutiny for ignoring Māori considerations. Ongoing inequities in the healthcare system, in so many systems, the systems themselves, are exposed anew. In parts of the country, Māori communities set up their own checkpoints to successfully protect the area and people, an enactment of devolved power, with police and other institutions following the community’s lead.
It’s one thing to obey instructions when you generally agree with those giving them; I try to imagine how I’d feel if our previous, rightwing government was implementing lockdown. Polls are stratospheric for Jacinda Ardern, whose masterly communication skills, steeliness and genuine empathy were established well before this crisis. At some point, the leader of the opposition gets rolled for failing to read the room – losing subplot status to the booming national side hustle in chief medical officer merch.
My son has moved home from his university hostel. “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when we go to level 2?” I ask our cosy family bubble. Without missing a beat he says: “Pack.” But the bubble concept works. So light, gentle, clean. If alert levels conjure civil defence seriousness, the bubbles connect us to the suds we’re constantly frothing up in the sink.
Active case numbers dwindle. It feels hopeful, but weirdly hollow. Many of us have connections with other countries, friends to whom it feels indecent to mention the moment our new cases stop. Level 2 arrives one midnight in May. A neighbour celebrates by gunning his car. It might be the best sound I’ve ever heard.
And suddenly, astonishingly, we’re out. A crisp blue autumn has given way to cold flat skies. Who cares! It’s level 1! Outlines are sharper, people are beautiful, all is possible. We gather in a pub to hear a politician talk about environmental change. We gather at BLM support rallies that call for decolonisation. We gather to watch sport. Well, I don’t; nothing could deliver that plot twist. Instead I run through peopled streets to my nephew’s concert, a student quartet playing exuberant Haydn in an empty church, the violinist rising from his seat as he wields the bow. In that moment all I want is for everyone in the world to be able to hear live music.
Now we know that the idea we could be Covid-free was a false ending. That’s OK. We’re better off without fantasies of “purity”, of “specialness”, that keep us from taking responsibility. And just this week, the health minister has resigned. But we still have, at the time of writing, no community transmission; we’re still at level 1. And we did act collectively. We could keep on doing that.
In a ski town, by an achingly beautiful lake, a local tells me people have already left to try their luck in the cities. Maybe the ruinous loss of international tourism will be good for the environment, she says; maybe recovery could look different; fewer people on the mountain trails. Right now it’s desperate. Rents, debt. Two of her friends had the virus. One survived. The other, she says, chose not to go on. Silence. I don’t ask for details. We talk instead about the global situation: how long does she reckon before things improve? That means how long till a vaccine, a stupid question. She uses the word “we” to mean something more than just this country. It’s the first time I’ve heard that since our lockdown lifted. “We’ve still got new cases rising daily,” she says. She means all of us.
Natalia Borges Polesso, Brazil: ‘Every day we wake up with a hole in our chests’
Natalia Borges Polesso is a Brazilian writer and journalist. In 2017 she was named as one of the Bogotá39, a list of the most promising young writers in Latin America. Her book of short stories, Amora, translated by Julia Sanchez, was published in May
There’s a saying we have: Brazil is not for amateurs. I get it. Still, even as a Brazilian, it’s hard to breathe easy at the moment. I speak from a position of relative privilege. I work from home. My routine is practically unchanged, with the exception of all the literary events that have been suspended, postponed, cancelled or moved to online platforms. And yet I’ve been feeling tired. There have actually been a ton of book clubs, lectures, panels and debates and since I’ve been home it’s seemed easier to attend everything. But it isn’t. It tires me out, wears me down. Everybody wants to talk. Everybody needs to talk.
I want to talk and have conversations too. Sometimes I feel like opening my mouth to scream: enough! Everybody supposedly in charge, cut it out. You got us into this position and now you want to go back to “normal”? At the expense of human lives? More lives lost every day. For what? I want no part in it.
But it’s hard to scream when you can’t breathe. And for some, that is not a metaphor.
There are good days and there are bad days at any moment in time, but here in Brazil there are a lot more bad days if you look at the political situation, which is terrible. Two health ministers have been fired in the middle of a pandemic because they didn’t agree with the madman currently occupying the most important seat in the nation. Our deplorable president doesn’t appear to have a plan to handle the health crisis or to handle the social crisis that’s sure to arise as a consequence of his growing negligence. And he definitely doesn’t have a long-term plan for taking care of the Brazilian people. I can’t even think about art, culture and education, all of which have been systematically attacked and discredited by many politicians in Bolsonaro’s government and their supporters. It’s all heartbreaking. I don’t understand why people would want to go back to what they call normal. It reeks of death. It’s like a plot for genocide.
In Brazil, every day we wake up with a hole in our chests, and though it’s hard, it would be impossible not to follow the news. It’s difficult to watch people in your extended family share fake news and hatred on social media. During the lockdown, we’ve had the military police throwing teargas at demonstrators protesting against fascism; a Ku Klux Klan-inspired march with torches and white robes; a pro-dictatorship march attended by the president; the president and his lackeys deliberately toasting with a glass of milk, claiming that it was in support of the farming business, even though we all know it is an alt-right symbol that extols white supremacy; a black boy gunned down by the police in his aunt’s house (the police fired 72 rounds). Here, we call Bolsonaro “Bozo”, the name of a sad clown in a 1990s television show. I feel bad for the clown, not the president. Meanwhile, he legitimises death, racism, sexism, LGBTQ-phobia and populism.
I haven’t been able to work. My work basically involves language, thinking about things and debating them. You’ve got to be healthy in mind and body for that kind of work. You need courage. My relationship to the world has changed. My relationship to time has changed. My relationship to dreams has changed. I can no longer think of tomorrow, for example. I used to like it that the future was mysterious and uncertain, but not any more. Now, the future looks disastrous and distressing. The incompetence, the desire for death, the genocidal policies we are being subjected to will leave deep marks.
Those of us who survive this pandemic will need great creativity to envision new ways of narrating the world and narrating this mess, this wreck. I believe in and cling to the strength of those who live through this world every day and who must forge for themselves a new world every morning, in this world that has long been ending. I will join my people in creating something new, something once unimaginable, something that will give us all room to breathe.
Translated by Julia Sanchez
Sjón, Iceland: ‘Our small population and distance from continents can also be our strength’
Sjón is an Icelandic poet, novelist, lyricist and musician whose books include The Blue Fox, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was and CoDex 1962, both published by Sceptre. He frequently collaborates with the singer Björk and has performed with the Sugarcubes as Johnny Triumph
As someone who has written a novel that takes place in the days of the 1918 Spanish influenza, I was maybe better prepared than most people for the narrative that the coronavirus set in action. It was all eerily familiar to me from the research I had done for my book, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was. The string of denials following the discovery of a new virus. The belief or hope that it will somehow stay put with the population it preys on first, as the first victims tend to be the most vulnerable in society and therefore already “unclean”, unlike the rest of us. The disbelief that it was really as infectious and deadly as the viruses of the past. The reluctance of politicians to take immediate measures against it, seemingly because these are both expensive and unpopular – they disrupt the flow of money and goods. But most likely it is because pandemics always shake the foundations of societies, by exposing their underlying social illnesses, and sadly most politicians are not up to the task of making the systemic changes needed to make us better prepared for the next virus attack… even if it were just for that.
So, for the past three months, I have been marking on my checklist the mistakes made, the good actions taken in the private and public sphere, the acts of kindness and selfishness, the deceptions of the opportunists, the sacrifices by those on the frontline.
It takes a global disaster for the people of a small place such as Iceland to remember that we are also a part of the planet’s ecology or realpolitik. When life runs smoothly we “play nation” in our miniature country under glass – turning it upside down once a year to make it snow in winter – and it’s only the occasional volcanic eruption that turns the eyes of the world our way. But the small population size of our island and its distance from continents can also be our strength, as the first round of the fight against the coronavirus has shown.
From the moment the first person tested positive, the authorities managed to get the people’s attention and turn the response to the advancing wave of cases into a national competition to flatten the curve. The government focused on economic and social measures while admitting their shortcomings in the medical field and promising to heed the advice of specialists. The ministers stepped aside and the daily press meetings were handled by the Directorate of Health and the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management and given by two doctors and a police officer. At every meeting, there was always a guest representing hospital workers or different civilian groups directly affected by Covid-19 or by the rules we had to adhere to. The method of testing, tracking and quarantining proved to work and the 2-metre distancing between people and restrictions on assembly did too, as did the closing of the borders. To that success story I must add the contribution of the private bio research company deCODE, which donated manpower and technology to make the mass testing possible. As with elsewhere there was a flurry of online cultural and communal events organised by people in lockdown, meaning I didn’t get too far in my discontented box-ticking when it came to my own country.
Still, what underlying social illnesses did the pandemic reveal to us here in Iceland? Well, for the first 20 days, all information sent out by the authorities was in Icelandic only – announcements on everything from the importance of hand-washing to unemployment benefits to access to testing or treatment, ignoring that an ever growing part of the population uses other languages in their daily lives. We were so used to excluding the Polish, the Filipinos, the Lithuanians, the Latin Americans, the English speakers (to name but a few) from the public discourse that no one thought of providing them with the same life-saving information deemed essential for the rest of us. Luckily, that changed and now the official website on Covid-19 is available in more than 15 languages, and for the first time the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service and the major newspapers translate into Polish and English.
I believe this feeling of opening up the public platform also resulted in the big turnout at the recent demonstration for Black Lives Matter in Reykjavík, where Icelanders of colour shared their experience and were listened to with more attention than ever before. Hopefully the culture of inclusion and respect will become one of the long-term changes in Icelandic society brought on by the virus.
The simple lesson we should take from all of this is that “inequalities are a virus’s best friend”. By proxy, it will also make us better at tackling the ongoing climate emergency that Covid-19 has pushed to the side for the time being.
Yes, like so many others, for the past three months I have been dreaming more vividly than usual.
Domenico Starnone, Italy: ‘Fear put us all in our place. We were the first to behave sensibly’
Domenico Starnone is an Italian author, screenwriter and journalist whose novels include Ties and Trick, both translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. Born in Naples and now living in Rome, he and his wife, the translator Anita Raja, have often been whispered about as the real authors of the works of Elena Ferrante, but have never confirmed or denied this
Covid-19 barged into my life in the same way adults did when I was a kid. I’d be playing wildly with my brothers or cousins or friends and the adults’ sepulchral shadows would appear out of nowhere and say: “That’s enough.” All of a sudden that same desolate silence fell over things, at home and in Rome, the city where I live.
The most obvious harbinger came from the big Catholic church across from my building. Until February it was, for a non-believer like me, irritatingly active. People sang at the top of their voices, they played music and, most significantly, all the parishioners, both young and not so young, would linger and chat outside until midnight. Then lockdown made a desert of everything and rats took over the churchyard. I’d watch from my balcony in the evenings, feeling no relief.
Within days, everything lost meaning. People soon gave up chanting patriotic hymns and cheerful songs from their windows. No more Sundays with children and grandchildren. Intellectuals delved into all the books that made even the vaguest reference to a plague. The planet suddenly turned into what it is: a shard of matter, overcrowded with action figures who are precariously alive. Religion, history, philosophy were all laughable. So too science, whenever it offered up remedies that were as old as the hills. And the arts, literature? Compared with the urgent reality of supermarket queues and the number of people who were infected and dying, they seemed like toys meant for frivolous times.
The worth of national character was quickly reduced to precious little, too. When the virus raged in China, windbags in the west had plenty to boast about. Then it came to Italy and we became the butt of the joke. In the end, fear put us all in our place. We in Italy were the first to behave sensibly, like sheep obeying every edict uttered by prime minister Conte, who, despite some ups and downs, has surely done a better job than Trump and the petty dictators who share his vision. Of course, one should not imagine that obedience – those harbouring authoritarian fantasies take note – was absolute. I have a friend who, locked up because of the virus, a prisoner in his home, with a wife and three children, broke every human and divine law in order to see his lover, even for a few minutes, on the other side of the city. And I witnessed how a respectable gentleman in a queue at the supermarket, who had politely asked some fellow to keep a safe distance, proceeded, risking that distance himself, to come to blows with the undisciplined individual who had rudely talked back to him.
Now, they say, the war is over: we finally know the enemy, so we turn back to our old fairytales. These are misleading metaphors. Wars have always been fought by human beings who confront one another with intense ferocity. The virus is neither friend nor foe, it’s just a part of the innocent becoming of all things. What we dealt with, and continue to deal with, is merely a collective educational experience that has shown us how all our planetary games can lose meaning and can seem both egotistic and futile. So we ought to be ready to reorganise them according to nobler rules founded on altruism. But now we’re worn down by the fear of getting sick, coupled with the fear of wretchedness. Optimism smacks of blindness.
Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri
Kyung-sook Shin, South Korea: ‘Can we ever return to our lives before the pandemic? I’m pessimistic’
Kyung-sook Shin is a South Korean novelist whose breakthrough novel, Please Look After Mother, sold over 2m copies in Korean and went on to become a bestseller around the world. She became the first woman to win the Man Asian literary prize in 2012 for the same book
“It’s not our first virus, so we had better be careful,” was my initial reaction to hearing about Covid-19. This is self-centred of me, but even when Wuhan went into lockdown, I thought of it as a problem exclusive to China. Having this titan of a country as our neighbour, Koreans have long accepted that the weather in China determines the amount of particulates in Korea’s air and I assumed this would play out like that. Soon enough, Koreans started testing positive. A religious group called Shincheonji in the city of Daegu created the first major cluster, putting Korea on high alert. But I remained self-centred. Despite Daegu’s distress, my thoughts mostly concerned my friend in Seoul. Last autumn, she had moved her ageing father to an apartment below hers to take care of him better, and what a relief that she did so. If she hadn’t, my friend would have worn herself down to the bone with worry.
I was, even at that point, complacent. Then I saw on the news that infected passengers on a cruise ship were being denied entry and the ship was left with nowhere to go. A chill ran down my spine. That inside this ship some were dying while others were being infected but none of them was allowed to leave… This ship lay in the water for several days. News that the passengers were from 56 countries rendered me speechless. I finally realised, then, that Covid–19 was a global event. Events in Seoul were also moving fast. The number of diagnosed patients increased by the day. Our phones rang with emergency alerts and the Korean Centres for Disease Control began daily briefings.
Patients’ movements were revealed to the public and the streets where they had passed through were shut and sterilised. Then came the World Health Organization declaring it a pandemic and countries closed their borders. An acquaintance of mine staying in Lisbon had her plane ticket cancelled six times, finally managing to come home by detouring through a string of countries that allowed her to pass through, and she immediately complied with self-isolation upon landing in Korea.
With our neighbouring countries, China and Japan, as well as Europe and America in turmoil, being a Korean living in Korea felt reassuring for the first time. Even little children talked knowingly about “social distancing” and long queues formed at pharmacies selling masks. For the past 15 years, on days when I was in Seoul, I’d show up at my neighbourhood yoga studio at 9.30 in the morning. That studio closed. The cessation of this ritual made me feel as if time itself had frozen. My schedules cleared; I was the first to suggest we postpone a book club meeting with diplomat wives in Seoul to discuss Please Look After Mother. Korea was also looking forward to a National Assembly election on 17 April; was it going to be delayed? But the Korean people adhered to social distancing, wore their masks, disinfected their hands and voted in the elections.
After that, I decided to remain calm. I read no newspapers and watched the news for only half an hour in the evenings. The news was making me feel anxious that Covid–19 was going to end the world. I thought, in light of this unprecedented event, I needed to take stock of my life. I disinfected my yoga mats and left them out around the house. Whenever I felt helpless while reading or doing my writing, I got on to a yoga mat and did whatever asana that came to mind. In the morning hours, where I used to read the papers, I did a yoga session on my balcony. Mostly 16 sets of salutes to the sun and some deep breathing.
My neighbourhood has mountains behind it and in front of it. The mountain in the back is Bukhansan, frequented by many Seoulites. My feet usually led me to Bukhansan for hikes, but one day, I turned in a different direction, towards the mountain on the other side, the one I’d neglected because I’d been distracted by Bukhansan’s beauty.
“Look, this trail was here all along,” I thought to myself as I went into one forest one day and another forest the next. Flowers bloomed and then fell along the trail. The buds on the trees soon grew into lush leaves of green. With travel now impossible, I pined after new horizons. But the things I had forgotten while I’d been busily on the move were coming back to life one by one. “This is all part of life, too,” I thought. When I thought about why I was so good at adapting to frozen time, I realised it was because, pandemic or no pandemic, a writer’s life has always been a life of slipping into the self-quarantine of work.
Despite this, the pandemic was the first silent war I had experienced, just when – as someone born in 1963 – I was wondering what could possibly remain unexperienced. I’d glance at whoever entered a lift without wearing a mask; anyone coming up to me to say hello made me anxious. The pandemic has shattered life as we know it. A young friend returning from New York, in the midst of quarantining herself in rental accommodation to protect her parents from possible infection, texted me saying “I miss you” while in quarantine. “I miss you, too,” I answered. She could not take a single step outside her apartment, so her masked mother would leave food for her at the door, text her and wave at her from the doors of the lift. She said it was a sad and funny situation, that she had spent 14 hours on a plane but was unable to see her mother up close.
But a serious problem is that this battle doesn’t look like it will end soon. Even Korea, which has defended itself fairly well, keeps having new clusters. Our patience seems to have run out. The virus shows no signs of slowing down and will probably continue to mutate. Last month, news came in that cafes and restaurants in Paris had reopened. Can we ever return to our lives before the pandemic? I’m pessimistic. Still, we cannot keep our children at home for ever, or stay away indefinitely from elderly parents in nursing homes. We have to create a new everyday. We must accept that this unprecedented experience is part of our lives from now on. And the next step is to think deeply about how we must change.
Translated by Anton Hur
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