Notifiable disease in Scotland – 22nd February 2020

A month before the United Kingdom declared its first lockdown, I arrived Heathrow with my family on a windy morning after a half term holiday of wedding food and partying. We took off from Lagos, casual as party rockers and landed as professionals. Jacket in hand, slippers swapped for boots and my daughter ready for school in her uniform, slightly creased from being folded in my hand luggage. Walking towards immigration, I glance through my emails, three messages from my daughter’s school informing me, in case I missed the first and second, that children and families who have visited China, Singapore, and Iran should please report this at the school office. I remember my first thought. Who could have gone thirteen hours to Singapore for a one-week half term break? But a jealous desire to go there immediately followed this thought, to go eat the chili crab and laksa curry assaulting my eyes in “Crazy Rich Asians.” This flippant thinking would haunt me later in the year as  I didn’t realise then that the world was about to go to blazes.

The email is the first personal precautionary detail about the strange new virus I receive. It is the first time details of it buzz a little more furiously in my ears other than the terse sprinkle in the night time news. It becomes a notifiable disease in Scotland. 

In Nigeria, where I’ve just come from, there is no known case of the virus yet, so it is still the stuff of stand-up comedy. Disgusting “have you been to China” banter by event MC’s whenever a cough rattled from a distant table, causing the audience to laugh, belly tight, unrestrained laughter. The virus is a joke simmering in concocted theories. But the country’s memory is still very fresh with the trauma of Ebola – evident in visible precautions at immigration. Contact tracing forms filled before approaching immigration, temperatures checked for a fever above 36 degrees with hand wash and hand sanitizers placed in strategic but ironic surfaces guaranteed to give you cholera and end you even before the strange virus if you as much as touched them.

A few days after arriving in London, I notice a placid tentativeness in general interactions. I observe people stifling coughs into their scarves and jackets during underground rush hour, an anxious politeness from fear of being judged by eyes pretending to read the Metro newspaper or a kindle with a timed-out screen. Yet, a parent at my daughter’s afterschool club had insisted that people were getting unnecessarily agitated, that if you washed your meat and vegetables in vinegar and cooked food thoroughly, there was nothing to worry about with a virus that was still mostly mentioned in the same sentence as China.

One week later, like the inevitable intro before “God Save the Queen,” the virus becomes the only conversation starter on school grounds, waiting areas, supermarkets and office lobbies. No longer a mere virus, we all begin to call it by its ugly name, Coronavirus disease, in addition to a few other aliases – COVID-19, Ms Rona, Killer flu. So many code names but only one mission. We talk about it, constantly, relentlessly as if  doing so would appease it.

The switch to full on panic first happens slowly, then all at once. My routine visit to the GP that week is efficient in a dissatisfying way. Quick, brisk, no eye contact.

On my walk out of the GP’s surgery, the air in London feels tight, tense with unconfirmed gossip and information; the grey clouds rumble with what seem like sounds of war, distant but approaching, although Mr Prime Minister attempts to allay fears by telling us with gusto how he met with some possible CoronaVirus patients in a hospital – “I shook hands with everybody there, you’ll be pleased to know…he says.

Maybe it is the horror news coming from Italy or the fact that my daughter’s class WhatsApp group for parents is split in half on a decision for whether the children should still go on their planned day trip to a museum but a slight anxiousness hovers over me for the first time and as a true Nigerian, the most sensible thing to do is to buy food.

I attempt a grocery list, something more than the typical monthly shopping, something like Christmas shopping and I order online. 

I actively begin to avoid crowded spaces, malls, the London underground. My husband and daughter come down with a mysterious flu accompanied by a fever that wouldn’t break for days. They breath with difficulty, talk like it’s a chore, but no ambulance would come because typical of the NHS:  if you are not limp like a rag doll, falling down and dying, you don’t need a hospital bed just yet. I am left in a perpetual state of tiredness nursing two people. By my birthday, the 16th of March, we are many days into a self-imposed isolation at home, drinking ginger and garlic concoctions that my sister drops off by the door to boost our immune systems.

A few days later, everywhere looks like rubble and chaos when we come out of our isolation. Queues are long in the post offices and supermarkets. The government has announced a stay at home order to take effect by the end of the week. I think that if this is what rapture would look like, I better be among the saints already dead so that all I have to do is rise up with triumph. The anxiety is overwhelming. It is punishment. 

Items in supermarkets fly off the shelves into quick hands and swift feet. There are no everyday basics. Bread, eggs, milk, flour are all gone. The supermarkets which typically induce headaches for me because of their too many options look bare, stripped. Pasta and tomato sauce, all cleared from the shelves. The whole country on the same diet thinking the same thing. There’s no rice of any size or spaghetti of any shape, no toilet tissues. It is the most unreal thing to me. 

I buy a brand of canned tuna that I have never seen in my life. I pick two, so that if this is the way the world ends, I can at least have a half decent sandwich before the plugs are pulled.

You MUST stay at Home and Protect the NHS – 23rd March 2020

The first morning of lockdown feels like the day after arriving from a holiday: not yet fully consumed by work but not quite in relaxation mode either. My daughter wants her day to go just as it does in school. “Yoga first,” she says. She’s  dressed in her  school uniform, complete with shoes. “We always do stretches after the morning register.” 

I laugh. Nothing is funny but it is what the day calls for. Simulated laughter because of the mild confusion over what the magnitude of lockdown is supposed to be. Pandemic, quarantine, lockdown. These are the words that make up our vocabulary now. I’m stretching, doing something called cosmic Yoga from a link that my daughter’s teacher  sent. My daughter  corrects my downward dog, “stretch your hands more, mummy.” 

“Aunty,” I say from my upside-down angle. “I’ve been doing yoga since before you knew left from right, you cannot teach me how to downward dog, you hear me?” But she continues with her eyes firmly on the screen and says, “We are doing the crab pose now anyway.” I unravel myself gently, and as I walk away, I say over my shoulder, “keep going, let me know when it is time for real school, like science.” 

We watch the news and track updates on social media, spending the day in a spectacular state of limbo. Every few hours, there’s a short video from someone in Italy warning the UK to take the new lockdown measures very seriously so we don’t end up like them. Their voices are taut with part rebuke and part concern. I watch these videos with a surreal sense of despair for them but adorn myself with a naïve hope that things will blow over in a week or two. Nigeria has by now recorded its first and growing numbers and I’m flushed anew with anxiety, worried for my family back home, many of whom are now classed as vulnerable, worried about the typical incompetence and anyhowness that is the behaviour of the Nigerian government even for the most basic things. There’s a too-long line of examples of ineffective governance which makes policies and laws unworthy of trust, which makes announced measures put in place for anything nothing but dispiriting. Nigeria helps nobody, you help yourself. So, I issue semi-rigid commands whenever I call.

“Don’t go to church; stay at home.”

“Don’t receive any guests.”

“No parties for now.”

They all insist that the scorching sun is killing the virus, not giving it room to spread. “We are alright here and washing hands.”

In London, we too are washing hands furiously, attempting to do everything right. Wiping down door knobs, banisters, taps, the entire house drenched in the ruthless smell of bleach. I manage food with the expertise of a boarding school matron. In 2013, when I lived in Ghana, a dear friend had taught me to freeze bread in small batches when I complained how whole loaves usually went to waste after three days. Though she convinced me that bread thawed easily and tasted just as fresh, I wasn’t keen to try. With online grocery shopping becoming a keenly contested event with no delivery dates available for up to four weeks, I give freezing bread a shot. Three bagels or six slices of bread inside zip lock bags stacked in the first freezer compartment. We eat everything with Bolognese sauce – spaghetti, potatoes, rice, and into the left-over sauce I crack eggs to fry the next day because I have since run out of fresh tomatoes.

Eggs and milk are the first to run out so breakfast becomes a less robust affair even with more sweetcorn, which my daughter does not appreciate. One evening, I hear my husband heading for the fridge and shout from the living room, “only one glass of juice o.” 

“We are rationing juice too?” He asks. 

“It appears we are,” I respond. 

I bake a banana cake from bananas getting overripe, finally trying out a recipe which my friend first sent to me on WhatsApp two years before, and I feel aligned with the rest of the world doing the same. Home-schooling is tough but doable; it mostly means I can get nothing else done until evening.

We have surprisingly entered week two of still being stuck at home and we begin this thing where we all clap for our carers and key workers to thank them for the incredible work they are doing containing the virus —  synchronised front door and window claps, pots, pans and car horns for melody and and two minutes of distanced chit chat every Thursday at 8pm, all of us wearing the same lockdown fashion staple – house robes, t-shirt and joggers.

If your friend invites you to meet, you must say no” – April 2020

The infamous words of a frazzled Prime Minister addressing his people, hair dishevelled and skin wan, like the colour of the moon, like one deficient of iron. Boris Johnson wouldn’t catch the virus and need intensive care for another few weeks but already, he looks worn out. His usual flailing arms now grip the lectern as if for support, he stutters when answering questions, reaches for words that hopefully pacify, that won’t be indicting or misconstrued on the next day’s front-page news. But he would have no such luck. He rambles and rumbles. A tired man. 

Spring is in full gear, but it is impossible to reconcile the overwhelming deaths being announced with the flowers blooming in the garden, springing all over London that tourists won’t see and appreciate. There’s no way to understand the deaths or rationalise them. No vocabulary to describe the exhaustion, physical and mental that plagues me from just seeing the number of infections and deaths rise. The virus map for London looks redder than the Nando’s maximum hot scale, ravaging black bodies in disproportionate ways. It’s the lack of Vit D, someone says. It’s because of our pre-existing conditions, says another. It’s because of systemic racism, says yet another.

Every new day is like peeling an onion but never getting to its core, familiar but bizarre. Every evening, I grieve deaths that haven’t already happened because the news updates only bring more turmoil. The numbers only mean that more people will die. In America, they say it is almost impossible to find graves to bury the dead. Inhaling so much information, exhaling confusion. By this time, the allotted one hour outside is not enough to expel my daughter’s energy so we introduce football in the garden. Her lone shouts of “gooaal” or “you cheated” ring across the street. 

One morning, I notice how eerily quiet everywhere is, like there is no proof of life. No aeroplanes flying overhead at 6 a.m, no one sided conversations of passers-by walking briskly, talking into their headphones, running to catch the 7 a.m train. Even the distant whirling of the trains are now much more spread out. Birds are not cawing. London takes on a weightless quality. The stillness of everything is unsettling, disturbing. I’m swinging to the opposite ends of grief and despair like a pendulum, looking for small pockets of hope to balance on in the middle with the warm weather that’s now gaining momentum.

It is the end of April already and starting to look like we may die of hunger even before the virus. 

With supplies depleted, all my frozen bread now finished, I finally venture out to the supermarket. It is the first time I try on a mask. Though I feel protected by it, I’m largely unprepared for the breathlessness and muffled sound of my voice coming through it. Mildly startled at how the trapped steam from my mouth rises to my glasses, blurring my vision and requiring me to pause to catch my breath every few minutes to give my glasses a good wipe. The mask, – one of the high grade N95 types ordered just as the virus began to gain speed, when I had naively thought  it wouldn’t ever come to us needing to wear masks even though it was wise to have some – would shortly be announced as a critical supply to be kept only for healthcare workers. I did not know that the world would come to us buying masks a dime a dozen, that DIY videos of how to make them with different types of fabric would circulate the internet, or that they would become statement accessories, surprisingly pretty things, elegantly designed, bejewelled even, something to be colour coordinated with clothes, something that made lifestyle and entertainment headlines – 10 luxury styled masks we are loving this season.

There is no soul on the street my entire walk to the supermarket, every door shut, every street corner empty with one car driving past per ten minutes. It is as if aliens have finally made contact with earth and eaten every living being before heading back. The silence is unnerving, almost terrifying. Outside the supermarket, a woman waves frantically at me. 

“I can’t see your face but I recognise your glasses from the playground,” she says. She’s evidently beaming behind her own mask, so am I though we both can’t see. We say quick greetings, standing far apart, an imaginary calculation of six feet between us.

I imagine she took the plunge, saw an opportunity for human interaction for the first time in a month outside her home and took it. 

Back home from the supermarket I wipe down everything with antibacterial wipes. Kills 99% of bacteria and viruses, the container reads.

With fresh new supplies available, I bake, furiously, almost compulsively, which is strange to me because I do not enjoy baking. Cooking, maybe, but the chemistry of ingredients colluding to make a reaction full of flavour in an oven does not relieve tension for me in the way that bakers say it does. But here I am, for the first time in my life baking lemon butter cookies, little gingerbread men and women, saturating my home with the delicious smell of melted butter and sugar. Pounding dough furiously because my body needs to fill the gaping hole in my day where familiar activity should be. School drop off, writing, furious editing, more writing. I want to unstrap my body from its state of limbo, half trying to get work done, half monitoring my child’s home learning so that guilt wouldn’t end me in the future if she ends up struggling with a core subject whose foundation should have been set right early, pre-empting the next half hour she’s likely to come charging through the door and quickly shouting “you can have another snack” so that I don’t lose my train of thought as a paragraph finally falls in place for the first time in ten days.

My body yearns for a library cubicle, a bookshop, for the mundane task of finding a socket to charge my laptop in the panel below a coffee shop chair. 

I miss being in commute; the chunk of reading lost to its absence makes me feel restless. I miss how light suddenly flushes the London underground carriage after momentary darkness, how the light sprinkles warmth like a photography filter and seems to brighten the faces of those about to disembark, how it loosens the tightness in the corners of their eyes, and makes monotonous things come alive, bouncing lustrous exposure on fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags just before the modulated mind the closing doors voice comes through the speakers and the train propels itself into darkness again at breakneck speed. 

Black Lives Matter – May 2020

Even in the middle of an unrelenting, non-discriminating global pandemic, it still needs to be precisely said. One evening, after a long run that leaves my knee mildly injured, I’m nursing the pain with an icepack and scrolling mindlessly on social media, noticing snippets of a developing, disturbing news. A grown black man crying for his mother. Minneapolis. A white police man. His lethal bludgeoned knee. Eight minutes restates itself in all the details as an integral part of the news. I’m patient to gather these details, reaching for a blithe and mysterious hope, not for a conclusion that’s already well known because maybe this time, just maybe, there’s a fitting explanation, a genuine delineation. I recognise the moral disposition of a contrarian in my hope, that stylistic forthrightness of one waiting for more facts because the one before them cannot possibly be. I lay there, insolubly confounded, stunned in an ingenuous way, as if it is my first time knowing that America can shame you, that the world can decide of its own accord that one group has rights to gnaw at the sacredness of another’s identity, desiccate it till it is frail and brittle, till it can’t breathe. 

During the coming week, protests break out in the UK, reverberating what is already an impetus in America, challenging police brutality and racism in all its forms. I receive two emails asking how I’m doing in light of recent news. I appreciate the emails but I don’t know what to do with them. I can’t figure how to translate them into a palliative to relieve the tightness in my chest. A tightness that’s both foreign and familiar.

The UK government is in the middle of a phased return to normalcy with a rule that allows groups of no more than six to gather but still socially distance. Considering how volatile things still are, the protests breaking out around the world could not be more poorly timed, but there’s a resolved courage of the already damned visible in the voice of black youth. Dangerous as the courage is for them, the protests continue. Across the UK, historical statues are being defaced or pulled down, generating mixed reaction. “All of UK history is entrenched in racism,” someone says on Twitter. “It doesn’t matter if their name isn’t in history books as slave traders, these MF’s all functioned in a system that oppressed black people, period.” 

The protests continue for three weeks, they say to white people specifically, since you won’t join us in the recognition of our painful past, we wouldn’t licence your continued ignorance of it. There’s a scramble all over social media to be seen as a black ally, the white friend who knows the workings of racism but who at least has the common sense to not be racist. Decolonised minds, decolonised book shelves, even palates. A solidarity that seems desperate to not be patronising. Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing spikes in sales and I wonder what white people read when this book sat on all the prestigious lists of books to read in 2016, what they have processed since Toni Morrison wrote Beloved in 1987. My church begins to reel out series and series of video chats exploring racism. In one of such videos, when a black youth leader explains the strategy of his white wife being the designated one to flag down a taxi whenever they are out in town on a date because many drivers would never stop to pick up a black man, the white pastor listening is visibly stunned, his face colours in something that looks like unease or maybe it is shame. 

Few days later, I’m running again to check how my knee is recovering, all the recent news hovering in my head through my laps. I think about how some actions are not racist, there is no doubt about that. But the fact that there are people privileged enough to not have to rationalise a job rejection, a sales attendant trailing them, a neighbour asking you to prove you live in a particular neighbourhood, interested in how you are able to pay the rent of a flat that she can’t afford makes my head spin. A friend told me once of a visit to a beautiful nursery she hoped her two-year-old could attend but was told “I’m afraid we are at capacity.” Two days later, her neighbour, a white woman also interested in the same nursery had gone and been booked immediately for a viewing. All of the thoughts running in my head make me feel a need to expunge something. Suddenly, my eyes blur with tears remembering that even my five-year-old at the time has already been told in her short life that she doesn’t belong here because of the colour of her skin. I wonder if as a parent I dealt with the issue appropriately when it happened. I wonder if the world would be better when she’s grown or she will still need therapy to unpack this thing she understands hurts but can’t make a deep sense of yet. I feel pain stretching inside me. But it is only an intangible thing, something I cannot touch for authentication, so I’m tempted to run at my fastest speed and slam myself against a tree so that it becomes physical. Instead, I stop, observe where I am through my distorted vision and convince myself that my knee is not yet better and begin to walk back home.

With most of the world now in a form of lockdown or the other, Instagram has been providing a much-needed distraction with its live function. There’s a collective tiredness that makes people record their first live or watch their fourth one as some kind of background noise. The music battles called “VERZUZ” are the most popular. Artists of the same genre and era sing their songs much to the elation of the internet space, evoking feelings of times that seemed simpler. That evening, for the first time, I watch my first VERZUZ. It’s between Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond, the sounds of my teenage years. And even though it’s a Sunday and I have a deadline sitting on my neck, I watch till past midnight and sing along joyfully, live tweeting furiously like I’ve seen people do over the past editions. It makes the burden of the past week a little less heavy.

Eat out to help out – 3rd August 2020

By August, summer is at its peak. The sun is an unforgiving, raging thing in the sky. With no chance of travelling, we make our first outing out of the neighbourhood to a family picnic. The infection and death rates have dropped and we can almost believe the theory that warm weather  destroys the virus. We dress up almost elaborately because there has been no reason to do so for months. We console each other for missed birthdays and events. When we all hug, it is too quick, creating distance rather than closing it because we are still meant to be distancing. Maintain a bubble but seat apart. How do you tell four- and five-year old cousins to keep their hands to themselves?

The government has extended its furlough scheme till September, which means that people out of jobs can continue to rely on the safety net of funds provided. There’s also the eat-out- to- help-out scheme the government has designed to help boost the now struggling hospitality industry, since no one has pampered themselves with hotel and restaurant meals in months. Discounted meals of up to 50% to encourage socially distanced patronage in participating restaurants nationwide three days a week. And because stomach infrastructure is just as important in rich countries as it is in poor ones, a record 64 million meals are recorded in the first three weeks of the scheme. The scheme doesn’t apply to takeout food, which seems not well thought out, considering that the real need is to ensure there is no second wave or surge in Coronavirus cases. Why not discount takeout food so it ensures that people are still mostly at home but can at least order food they didn’t cook. I am unable to understand how this is “following the science,” one of PM Johnson’s favourite things to say. The scheme wrecks a havoc no one will admit. I am annoyed at the foolishness of many young people who have had an understandably tough few months but who somehow would throw caution to the wind simply because they haven’t been able to get drunk with friends. It is no wonder that less than three months later we head back into a second lockdown because cases of the virus have spiked again. 

“Eat-out-to-help-out does not mean you should go to a restaurant and crowd a table with ten friends.” I almost want to scream at the TV as pictures of young people crowded in bars and restaurants are displayed. Earlier in the summer, it was people crowding beaches and attending raves as if in a fictional dystopian world where everything is upside down and opposite, where the trick to prevent a pandemic is to squash together in the sun and breath in the same air as thousands of other people. 

The virus is still the most talked about thing on any news channel, only this time, we are also discussing its long-term impact and not just the unfortunate deaths, like how public debt is at its highest level since World War II. The joy of travel has since become a forbidden fruit; eat it and perish, and many do not remember the route to their offices or where their wallets are. 

The government’s largesse with the furlough and eat-out-to-help-out scheme is stretching things to a breaking point. Industry professionals make projections, article upon article from analysts in The Economist and the New York Times, news talks on the BBC which we watch and sigh, saying almost jokingly but with imminent gloom that it is the next generation that will suffer all this gbese

Happily, Cautious After? 

I consider myself an extreme introvert, my homebodiness a residue of a childhood mostly spent indoors. Once, my husband returned home from a four-week trip to an excited but pensive security guard who told him “Madam nor dey!” in a worried tone because this meant he wouldn’t be able to get into the house. “Don’t worry, she dey,” he said to the security man who was walking behind him towards the front door. The security man’s face washed with daze when the bell rang and I opened it.

But even for me, the restrictions due to the virus continue to be a malaise. Christmas away from friends and family is not something I’m used to. Today, one year since the first lockdown, we are being phased out of what is our third and hopefully final lockdown, with the government hoping to be able to remove all forms of restriction by the end of the summer, having vaccinated all adults. Children are back to school and I can only hope that the long-term effects of being out of school for so long are contained. It is astonishing how life seemed effortlessly quick to shut down at the start of the pandemic but awfully slow to return even after one year. I have adjusted to the new normal but now anxious for what real normal may feel like. The days are still monotonous, dragging like the final hour of a long trip, only to begin again the next day. We have moved from the resignation of what the number of deaths will be, only concerned now about what a “cautious but irreversible” roadmap to recovery looks like. I don’t imagine it is the same for those who have lost loved ones. For them, how life continues to go on, albeit fearfully, must be torturous. 

Thankfully the science has delivered vaccines and led the UK down a divergent path that prioritises giving the most vulnerable one jab, covering a lot more people in a short time. The second jabs that should have followed four short weeks later were pushed back to twelve weeks. In that one example of truly following the science, the UK has pointed the rest of the world to a faster route out of lockdown, well that’s if the UK variant doesn’t render all vaccines useless. Someplace else should suffer the blame for that. Brazil? South Africa? 

For this atleast, I hope that posterity is a little kind to Boris Johnson’s government.

And though I don’t know that I want official salutations to be elbow bumps or masks to continue to be a necessity, in hundred years from now, when archaeologists dig up these times in the event of another pandemic, I hope they find lessons to navigate. I hope they learn that toilet tissues cannot and must not be the thing to foolishly hoard. But then again, I imagine there might be robots doing the nasty work of tissues by this time, and very effectively too.

About the Author:

Temitope Owolabi writes fiction and essays with themes that explore love and loss. She was shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship in 2020 and her short story Luggage made the Royal Society of Literature longlist. She won second place in the Mo Siewcharran Prize for her first manuscript Alien go Home in 2019 and was also shortlisted for the Brittle Paper Award for Creative non-fiction for her essay The Smell of Oxford in the same year. In 2015, she was one of twenty-five selected to participate in the yearly Farafina creative writing workshop hosted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Lagos Nigeria.

Featured image: Unsplash