Tag Archives: Covid-19

Spring where you can see it during Covid-19, M. Tara Crowl

Photo credit: Steve Nuske

I live here now, in my old country house
With the barn out back
I fold clothes
Empty the dishwasher
Take dirty diapers straight out to the big plastic bin
(No more diaper pail; the mice got in)
I pitch, to no avail
My stories go nowhere
Neither do I

Some days, the sun comes out to green the grass
Crocuses wave fingers through the soil
But then, a storm of snow counteracts
We stay inside
Watch movies
Drink wine
After the snow melts, we step into the ungovernable mud
(I cling to my child)

In the city (I used to live there
Until quarantine,
Two weeks ago) people are dying
Hundreds each day, they say
The dying are there, while I am here
(Am I all here?
Yes, I am here.
Every limb, every molecule)
I’m not allowed to leave

Today is gray, so it’s just as well
There’s nowhere to go anyway
Tomorrow the sun will come out
Maybe
I’ll go out to stand in its rays
Of course I will
(I can’t miss the sun)
But it’s not going to feel
Like it did last spring

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Xenophobia is a Virus, Sing Tuck Jonathan Chang

Photo by Khachik Simonian on Unsplash

Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting attention. From deserted Chinatown districts to plummeting sales at Chinese restaurants to the violent abuse – both verbal and physical – people of my skin-tone bear the weight of the colonial gaze in extra measure. Viral paranoia spreads faster than viral infection, and COVID-19 gives them an excuse to justify their hostility openly. That is, the covert subliminal racism I’m used to, has now burgeoned into overt, brazen racism, where myself and others who look remotely “Chinese”, can be suspected of carrying the coronavirus – whether we’re at Macquarie Centre, or riding the metro in the CBD, or disembarking a flight from Singapore.

An Unjust Pecking Order

I was born in Singapore, a British colony up till 1963. The epistemological system of colonies is based on the “creation and maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship… based on domination and subordination”. Postcolonial theorist Edward Said calls this ‘Orientalism’, which constructs binaries between Occident (Western world) and Orient (East), from a Eurocentric (colonist’s) perspective. This is achieved by “making statements about it, authorising views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. These are fundamentally exploitative practices, where colonised people become marginalised as colonial powers move money, people, commodities, and technologies around the world in the service of colonial capital.

Said describes Orientalism as a “western style for dominating restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. This pits West against East, which identifies and “subordinate[s] peoples of the Orient as the ‘Other’… the non-European self”. In postcolonial theory, this is interpreted as coloniser (West) and colonised (East) forming hierarchal binary logic, whereby West is regarded and universalised as superior in cultural standard and the “oft-invoked Other usually occupies a subjugated position”.

You also see this hierarchal discourse in the terms “first-world” and “third-world”. It’s reflective of colonial powers. One of the first postcolonial writers was Frantz Fanon, who was highly critical of the way Eurocentric ideas became the universalised standard against which everything else is judged as inadequate. In his words: “for the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white”. It is this same language you hear in the White House today – the “Chinese virus”- words used to keep colonial power in place; their white supremacist discourse justifying their casual racism by repeating colonial ideology. It’s never enforced (think along the lines of Marxist false consciousness).

So why am I pissed about referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”?

This Orientalist discourse paints a problematic ‘us vs. them’ binary logic. The East is seen as ‘exotic, sensual, spiritual, mystical, uninhibited, primal’. Take yoga and martial arts, for example. If they’re considered ‘spiritual’, the West is, by connotation, ‘unspiritual’. It doesn’t matter which way it goes, it’s still Orientalising. Each time you say something about the East, it allows you think something about the West by inference because they’re caught in this binary relationship. For example: Scientific West vs. superstitious East. Modern West vs. backward East. Moral West vs. immoral East. Rational West vs. irrational East. Progressive West vs. regressive East. Open West vs. inscrutable East.

The East, then, becomes a screen for the West’s fears and fantasies. It’s the unfounded misgivings conjured when encountering a passer-by wearing the hijab or burqa. It’s the Japanese-American citizens in World War II being labelled as ‘foreign spies’ and mass incarcerated. It’s the Asian-American soldier in the Vietnam War pulled out of formation by their platoon commanders and sergeant majors to be an example of “what the enemy looks like”.

It’s the more-than-passing-glance glower I get on the street that translates to “get the fuck away from me”.

Yet even though West is the dominant term, it has no value without an East against which it is not, but which at the same time it relies on them not being not, to be what it is. In other words, without the supplementary idea of East, there is no framework with which to define what West is either. The relational-but-differential status of the Other is always necessary. A term like “white culture” wouldn’t make sense if everything and everyone was white.

When societal ‘harmony’ is disrupted by threats to our conceptions of the world, humanity instinctively turns to revulsion or humour to right their perceived wrongs. This is why homophobes think LGBTQ+ people are either scary enough to be murdered, or ridiculous enough to be laughed at. Same goes for the Asian man in predominantly white countries. He is both scary enough to be immediately perceived as a COVID-19 carrier, but also funny enough to be caricatured as the anime-watching, ramen-eating kung-fu sensei. Racism in society functions by maintaining these exclusions, and disrupting them nudges one out of inertia and into paranoia and ridicule.

Situating Myself in All This

I am a walking, talking example of this. I intentionally, unrelentingly press into it. My English is unnervingly fluent to the white man. I have a Diploma in Mass Communication, a Bachelor of Media, and I’m working on a Master of Creative Writing to back it up. I embody the binary contradiction – English enough, but not quite really. I can perform the social codes of ‘Englishness’, but my skin tone and code-switching marks me as distinctively not English. In these spaces, my English grants me overt power (official approval), but my sociolinguistic accent tendencies grant me covert power (social affirmation). This signifier grants me access to societal spaces where less fluent English speakers aren’t ‘welcome’. My language puts me one foot in the insider’s circle, while my race puts my other foot outside. Back home in Singapore, speaking Mandarin grants me this same covert power. One Kopimotion article puts it this way:

“language is instrumentalised to both include and exclude at the same time. Often, what this means is that even though English remains the official working language in our institutions, Mandarin achieves an unofficial status as an informal working language. On the table, we speak in English; off the table – where deals are actually negotiated and ties of friendship are formed – we grant access only to those who speak Chinese.”

Synthesising an Other in Another

The problem with this in today’s postcolonial world is “there is no neat binary opposition between coloniser and colonised [minority] – both are caught up in a complex reciprocity and [the Other] can negotiate the cracks of dominant discourses in a variety of ways”. Homi K. Bhabha coined this negotiation as “hybridity”. Instead of demarcating civilisations into rigid homogenised coloniser-colonised binaries, postcolonial societies are marked by the confluence of both dominant and subordinate cultures, and the movement of subjects across those strata.

The role of postcolonial critics is to challenge Eurocentric universalism and western hegemony (like Fanon), where white values have become standardised as arbiters of an apotheosis, and thus used to judge anything not white. They aren’t universalised at all; they’re relative values presented in a universalising way because those who are universalising have the authoritative power to do so. The myth of universality is therefore “a primary strategy for imperial control”.

Ambivalence is key to the postcolonial experience. We are endlessly hassled to ‘assimilate’. An example question would be: “you’re totally different from us; why can’t you be like us?” The colonised person is appropriated and assimilated into, and by the, dominant culture and institutions. A popular Western discourse is the concept of Asians as the ‘model minority’, which highlights socioeconomic disparity between racial demographics. Asians are typecast as unassuming, polite, intelligent, law-abiding members of society, in contrast to uneducated, welfare-dependent, criminal-prone black or Hispanic stereotypes. Positive or negative, these colonised are both inside and outside of the assimilation process. The trouble here (with white people in Australia) is that without Aboriginal/black/Asian people, they don’t know they’re white. Their very identity as a white person is predicated on the Aboriginal/black/Asian ‘other’. That is, you need to know who you are; yet if I become like you, I won’t be your other (therefore you won’t know who you are), or I’ll remain separate from you, and thus be the subject of your endless anxiety about your own cultural identity. The existence of the Other is always necessary; total assimilation means no one knows who they are in relation.

I can seamlessly assimilate while retaining the identity of my cultural roots (‘both/and’, not ‘either/or’). Bhabha calls this tactic ‘mimicry’, where colonisers desire “a reformed recognisable Other, as a subject that is almost the same, but not quite”. That is, I pretend to be who you want me to be so you can be who you think you are. But me being who you want me to be means I’m not who I am, which means you aren’t who you really are either. This is intrinsically destabilising to the majoritarian white, who considers this resemblance a “menace”. The colonial gaze can’t put the Other in their place. For the case of ‘Chinese virus’, the term’s use is to try and put China in its ‘subjugated place’ as enforced by centuries of colonial standards.

One Century of Diseases Later

Even after the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic, humanity still hasn’t learnt its lesson. Contagion outbreaks evince double standards. The 1918 influenza pandemic is more commonly known as the ‘Spanish’ flu. Its name is a misnomer, because the first few outbreaks and mortalities were documented in the US. Because Spain was neutral during the concurrent World War I, it wasn’t under wartime censorship. Therefore, the false impression that Spain was hardest hit gave rise to its ‘Spanish’ flu designation. It was one of two pandemics caused by H1N1 influenza A virus. The other is the 2009 swine flu outbreak that originated in North America. The first incidence of Mad Cow disease and its associated vCJD came from the UK in 1986. Yet there’s no ‘American bacteria’ or ‘British prion’. The 2013-2016 Ebola crisis became a rhetorical proxy for ‘African-ness’. COVID-19 isn’t new ground. Two other coronaviruses have been prevalent in my lifetime – SARS in 2003, and MERS in 2012. Even though the latter stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, xenophobic sentiments aren’t nearly commensurate to the racialised backlash COVID-19 has had on those of Asian descent, like me.

Identities are produced through series of social categorisations; who you are is a function of how you are treated because of the social categories you occupy. These different ‘selves’, which arise at the interstitial liminal spaces of different lines of privilege and prejudice, are what critical theorists call ‘subject positions’. Even though different skin colours occupy the same physical space, we occupy different subject positions because we are included and excluded differently through circles of language, culture, and power that box us to varying degrees. Unfortunately, since who we are is so deeply connected to our very different social realities, we cannot learn compassion if we refuse to look through each other’s eyes. Until we’re willing to, this xenophobia will propagate long after COVID-19 is etched into the annals of history.

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Deadly Traffic, Jacqui Greig

Photo credit: gmacfadyen

The email blipped onto my phone as I boarded a flight from Diqing to Kunming in China’s south western Yunnan province. I tapped the little aeroplane icon and walked down the jet bridge. Later, as the Himalayas passed below, stereoscopic and horizon-wide, I read, ‘A mystery virus is sickening people in Wuhan. Stay away from markets.’ It was 14 Jan 2020 and I was on my way home to an Australia still smoke-dazed from its worst bushfire season ever. Given the many discussions I’d had with my brother, a biomedical engineer researching HIV at Massachusetts General Hospital, the email should have alarmed me. Perhaps it was getting up at an ungodly hour to reach the airport, or the brief but disconcerting concern that my visa wasn’t valid, that left me exhausted and unconcerned. I, like the rest of the soporific world, pushed the message out of my mind. The truth is that for all of us this story started long before now.

On the morning of my eleventh birthday, I had met an African Spitting Cobra and a dinosaur. To my brothers and me, the scaly creature rustling from the veldt on its hind legs with its giant claws tucked against its chest was a velociraptor. The snake, also scaly but slimmer and agile, didn’t stay; it swam off, a gold flash in the grass. The dinosaur turned its inquisitive snout in our direction and sniffed our scent on the dawn air. We three crouched, entranced as we watched the creature continue its purposeful progress. That was the first and last time I saw a pangolin. The beauty of other animals over the years: a cheetah downing its prey in a swirl of dust, the iridescent joy of a hovering sunbird, or the silver gleam of a diving otter, never dimmed the privilege I felt at glimpsing the elusive scaly anteater.

Pangolins, native to Asia and Africa, subsist on ants and termites, a preference sufficient to make them lovable. Pangolins are ant devourers extraordinaire. They possess the elongated sticky tongues of other myrmecophages and their tough, keratin-lined stomachs must, for ants, be comparable to the voracious maw of the sarlacc in The Return of the Jedi. Ant venom has the questionable distinction of being the only acid named after an animal. Formic acid packs a punch but the scaly exterior of the pangolin is ideally suited to its diet. Pangolins are the only mammals that boast of such armour which they put to good use defending themselves by curling into a tight ball and swinging their sharp tail to ward off predators. This defensive tactic accounts for their name, which derived from Malay, pengguling, means ‘one who rolls up,’ but it also leaves them vulnerable to poaching. Humans, unlike leopards, overcome it with ease and our appetite for the keratin scales which protected pangolins for millennia, now renders them the most trafficked animal in the world.

Keratin is a remarkable protein, as lustrous as hair and as tough as hooves; it constitutes rhino horn as well as pangolin scales. Despite being ubiquitous, the protein has resulted in these two animals being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list. This means that they may not be hunted or traded for any reason other than scientific purposes. No study has ever found keratin to have therapeutic properties.

Chinese friends explain that pangolins’ mythical appearance makes them prized. What my child-eyes believed was a dinosaur is perceived in China as a small dragon. When rolled up, pangolins resemble fabled dragon eggs.

The rarer pangolins become, the more they cost, paradoxically increasing the demand for pangolin meat. For a host to provide expensive pangolin, or other rare wild animal meat, for guests or employees shows generosity and improves face. Along with the perceived healing properties of the scales, this has skyrocketed the [1]  price of pangolins. As recently as 2018, the Chinese government, in  Implementation of the Rural Revitalization Strategy, encouraged farming of wild animals for sale in wet markets as a path out of poverty for millions of rural poor. The practice was further encouraged on Chinese television and by internet celebrities. According to Beijing University’s Professor Lü Zhi, wild animal farming is largely unregulated and many animals for sale are wild-caught ‘laundered’ animals. Particularly vulnerable are species near impossible [2]  to breed in captivity like pangolins.

It’s autumn in Hangzhou city with hawkers shouting their wares: framed red jianzhi[1], jade and silver bangles, and wood carved croak-frogs. With leaves already tinged yellow, the ancient gingko trees lining the street shade the afternoon warmth. A brisk walk uphill is required to reach my destination, the local Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) centre. Along the way, aromas of frying oil, meat and spice assail my nostrils,  smells that become an assault as I pass the local ‘stinky tofu’ dealer. Wooden benches cluster about the entrance where the TCM patients wait. Inside it is cool, cavernous, and quiet, the air is redolent of spices and dried plants: the reassuring scents of ancient knowledge. White-coated doctors staff the heavy counters where meticulous drawers, brass-labelled with artistic hanzi[2], stretch into the gloom. Atop the cabinets reside china-blue medicine jars guarding secret balms interspersed with glass jars of animal feti, snakes and pickled roots. Time is spent unravelling each person’s concern. Despite many years of absorbing western medicine, the gravitas of history and the spell of mythology overwhelm me and remind that the Western scientific approach can neglect with patients.

I ask whether pangolin scales are available. The prompt denial seems more to deflect this waiguo ren[3] than to communicate the truth. The Chinese name for pangolin scaleschuan shan ji, means ‘piercing through a mountain’, which epitomises their perceived strength and explains why they remain listed in hundreds of TCM formulations. These formulations are used to improve lactation, menstrual disturbances and arthritic pains deemed due to cold, or damp. As unscientific prescriptions go, the notion that pangolin scales act as galactagogues is no more unlikely than the advice that fenugreek, nettle, blessed thistle and ginger improve breast-milk flow than we would like to admit. The latter remedies remain touted in Australia without any corroborating trial evidence.

Zootherapy, the use of animals for healing, was a world-wide phenomenon prior to the ascent of scientific medicine. As recently as 2011, World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics reveal that 80% of people in developing nations still rely on traditional medicines for their primary healthcare. Many modern medications derive from natural remedies, humble aspirin being one of the more notable. In Latin America, 584 animal species, ranging from the slimy — slugs, snails, and worms, to the magnificent — pumas, manatees and tapirs, are listed as having medicinal properties. The most renowned TCM practitioner of the Tang Dynasty (608-907), Sun Simiao, in his ethical treatise, Da Yi Jing Cheng- The Sincerity of Great Physicians, wrote of animal usage, ‘if you kill an animal or take a life to save another life, it moves away from the original meaning…the lives of animals and humans are equal.’ Today, TCM has drifted from this principle and, though practitioners may be reluctant to prescribe endangered animal parts, the raw ingredients remain readily available in shops. It may be easier to buy a whole pangolin shell than to obtain prepared medicine containing pangolin scales. Purchasers can then simply prepare the scales for personal use. The meteoric rise of an enormous, cashed up Chinese middle class, coupled with the Communist Party’s ambition to elevate TCM to the status of Western medicine, has left vulnerable species on the edge of extinction; a precipice they were already pushed toward by climate change and habitat destruction.

On my January flight home, I was unaware the plane was tracking north-east of the main pangolin smuggling route from Myanmar into China. The poor of Myanmar, a strife-torn country with one of the largest income gaps in the world, are easily exploited by wildlife smuggling chains. The smuggling routes stretch from Mandalay northwards through the border town of Muse and the poorly policed, casino hub of Mongla, before crossing into China near Ruili. Investigators from the environmental group Sustainable Asia report that smugglers take pangolins only as far as Ruili due to stringent police road checks in China. From Ruili, transportation becomes the buyer’s responsibility. To circumvent this, many Chinese keen to sample Pangolin and other wild meat travel to Yangon in Southern Myanmar. There, a restaurant opposite the international airport openly serves these delicacies. It is possible that one of these trafficking routes, fanning out across the vastness below my plane, facilitated the transmission of Covid-19 into our world.

I hadn’t been home long before I started receiving panicked emails and messages from friends in China. People, many people, were dying, and my friends were terrified and angry. News of doctors and academics being silenced abounded. The world’s slumber was disturbed by a new, deadly, crown virus that had started in a wildlife market in Wuhan.

Neither zoonoses nor plagues are a novelty, despite the virus initially being called ‘novel’. Zoonoses and coronaviruses are devastatingly familiar to doctors and epidemiologists. In medieval times, the plague was deemed miasmic, caused by ‘bad air’. Now, the commonly accepted theory is that the plague was a zoonosis, an infection that crosses the species barrier from animal to human. The plague bacterium, aptly named Yersinia pestis, was ably assisted by fleas in its transitional leap from rats to humans. Tuberculosis came to us from cows, psittacosis from parrots, and rabies from any animal that bites. We risk disease if we live too close to animals either by domesticating them, encouraging their overpopulation or by driving them from their homes by natural habitat destruction. In the last decade, 75% of new diseases have been zoonotic; the barrier between human and animal has always been gossamer thin.

The route Covid-19 [3]  took to reach our lungs may never be fully elucidated. The market where it is believed to have started has been disinfected before reopening. However, scientists rapidly identified and sequenced the genome of the causative coronavirus, a member of the virus group that caused recent deadly epidemics like SARS (2003) and MERS (2012), and which has long annoyed us with the common cold. Bats have evolved to co-exist with coronaviruses for millennia, but humans virtually never catch the virus from bats. For this leap, an intermediate host is needed to facilitate the gene mutations that help the virus attach to human cells, which it does using its corona, or crown, of surface ‘bubbles’. For SARS, the intermediate host was the civet; for MERS, it was camels. As urbanisation destroys their habitat, bats come into closer contact with intermediate animal hosts. The market atmosphere of stressed wild animals in crowded cages further increases the likelihood of the gene leap occurring. Covid-19 shares 77% of its RNA with a bat coronavirus, while its receptors share 99% of their RNA with a pangolin coronavirus.

The road to the Covid-19 pandemic is pathed with ironies. China had, as recently as 2019, planned an outright ban on pangolin trade. Since 1989, pangolins have been on China’s level II protection list, which bans eating pangolin meat but allows scientific research and medicinal use. The elevation to stage I protection, banning all use, would come into effect in Jan 2020. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, China placed a ban on the sale of wild animal meat, but it was only temporary. China is not alone in selling wild animals in wet markets; the phenomenon is common in South East Asian and many African countries.

In the United States, repeated warnings concerning the likelihood of a pandemic were met with the shuttering of the Pandemic Preparedness Unit in 2018. The same year Luciana Borio, then director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, told a symposium that “the threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern”. When President Trump said on March 6, 2020 that the pandemic was an “unforeseen problem…that came out of nowhere”[4], he had never been further from the truth.

The tragic tale of pangolins encapsulates the perfect storm of the Covid-19 pandemic: the environmental destruction and climate change leave bats and pangolins vulnerable; the poverty and inequity encourage poaching to help people to survive; and the greed strips every resource from our environment at the lowest cost and sells it to the highest bidder[4] . Over [5] the years, my heart has wrenched each time I read of another border-police haul of illegal pangolin scales. I have felt grief that my children would never see this elusive and gentle creature wending its way through a honeyed African dawn. How much more I should have worried.

Bibliography

Alves, Romulo R., and Humberto N. Alves. “The faunal drugstore: Animal-based remedies used in traditional medicines in Latin America.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, vol. 7, no. 9, 7 Mar. 2011, doi:10.1186/1746-4269-7-9.  

“CITES Appendices.” CITES Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES, www.cites.org/eng/app/index.php.  

“Pangolin.” South Africa’s showcase of our collective heritage, southafrica.co.za, www.southafrica.co.za/pangolin.html.  

Devonshire-Ellis, Chris. “Covid-19 Carriers: What Do China’s Wildlife Protection Laws Say about Pangolins?” China Briefing, Denzan-Shira, 1 Apr. 2020, www.china-briefing.com/news/covid-19-carriers-chinas-wildlife-protection-laws-pangolins/.  

Friedman, Uri. “We Were Warned.” The Atlantic, 18 Mar. 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/pandemic-coronavirus-united-states-trump-cdc/608215/.  

Greenfield, Patrick. “Ban wildlife markets to avert pandemics, says UN biodiversity chief.” The Guardian, 6 Apr. 2020.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Pangolins Poverty and Porous borders.” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 27 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11878-Podcast-Pangolins-poverty-and-porous-borders.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Why are pangolins so prized in China?” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 14 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11855-Podcast-Why-are-pangolins-so-prized-in-China-.  

Lyons, Suzannah, and Natasha Mitchell. “How did coronavirus start? Where did bats get the virus from and how did it spread to humans?” ABC News: ABC Science, ABC News, 9 Apr. 2020.  

Qiu, Jane. “How China’s ‘Bat Woman’ Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus.” Scientific American, 27 Apr. 2020.  

Ranasinghe, Kashmi. “Going viral: how a virus mutates between animals.” CSIRO Scope, CSIRO, 7 Apr. 2020, blog.csiro.au/virus-mutation/.  


Endnotes

[1] Papercuts – a Chinese traditional art form that dates back to the 6th century ACE

[2] Chinese characters

[3] Foreigner

[4] Quotes from ‘We were warned’ The Atlantic March 18, 2020.


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Covid-19 Diary, Sue Osborne

Date: 1 April

It’s amazing how the rain can become a source of entertainment. For months we had none, so when it finally comes it brings excitement and joy. Now it is more mundane, yet still a pleasure. All of a sudden, a dripping gutter is a conversation starter. Our lives have been reduced yet at the same time enriched. Simple things have become important. I believe this time of crisis could see us all appreciate life a bit more.

It’s April Fool’s Day too. I contemplate a prank but it seems inappropriate. It’s a time for contemplation. We must maintain our spirits, stay uplifted, yet resorting to trickery feels wrong.

Date: 2 April
Weather: 23°C Mostly Cloudy

Pyjama parties, toga parties, they’re classic rites of passage during the first year at university. The pyjama party many students are now experiencing is very different – festering at home in their sleepwear. What does it mean for ‘Generation Covid’, who will never properly experience what it is to be a fresher student? University is about more than just learning. It’s about making new friends, having new experiences. A whole cohort is missing out on that, forced to study from home. Even before this crisis, university wasn’t what it used to be for undergraduates, with so much communication via social media and financial pressure forcing students to work long hours. There was a time when students could explore radical political and social thinking. That doesn’t seem to happen as much now. Are we creating a generation of more insular, conformist people? I hope not.

Perhaps next year universities will endeavour to give second year students a chance to make up for lost opportunities, and a new appreciation for freedom, be it political or social, will arise from this year of living singular!

Date: 3 April 2020
Weather: 20°C Partly Cloudy

Prince Charles found self-isolation ’strange, frustrating and often distressing’. So speaks one of the most privileged men on earth. Self-isolation is a novelty for most. But for some it is the norm. Some elderly people can go for days without any human interaction. How does self-pity from the temporarily and newly isolated make them feel? The young can still reach out using social media, the elderly often cannot do this. They move among us invisible and forgotten. We quickly tire of their conversations when they nab us unexpectedly at a shopping centre. It could be the first human contact they’ve had in days but we’ve got a deadline to meet and cannot be delayed. The world is shrinking for all of us but for the lonely it was already very small. In times of crisis, people do tend to band together, but this virus is insidious. The elderly and isolated in our community are exactly the people we must avoid.

Date: 4 April 2020
Weather: 24°C Mostly Cloudy

I have often imagined being a fly on the wall while my husband is teaching one of his classes. Now I have that opportunity every day. Every class is being rolled out courtesy of Zoom from our spare bedroom and it’s given me a newfound admiration for the teaching profession. I already knew teaching was hard but the intensity, the total concentration and devotion to the students required from teachers is like no other job. My neighbour, also a high school teacher said, you ‘just give and give all day’. It sounds like it ought to be easier on screen but in fact, without feedback from the kids and the classroom dynamic, the pressure to keep a lesson lively is even greater. Let’s hope at the end of this crisis we all come away with an increased appreciation of our teachers as well as health professionals.

Date: 6 April 2020 at 9:23:00 am AEST
Weather: 20°C Mostly Sunny

Matching pair. But seriously, I’m amazed by how many dog walkers there are on the streets at the moment. I thought I knew every dog in my suburb after years of regular dog park visits, but I’ve seen lots of unfamiliar dogs and owners these last few weeks. Dogs seem to be the winners during this lockdown. Taking the dog for a walk provides a great routine to our day. Dogs and other animals stay the same while all around seems changed and uncertain. Their unquestioning faith in us, and complete innocence and reliable friendship, are a comfort in these uncertain times, when a simple trip to the supermarket could end up in a squabble over toilet rolls.

Date: 7 April 2020 at 9:49:37 am AEST
Weather: 19°C Showers Nearby

In many parts of Sydney, residents are only a few streets away from places captured in time. In Lane Cove National Park, it can feel as if you are lost in a deep prehistoric forest, surrounded only by the squawking of cockatoos and the rustling of water dragons scuttling into their hiding spots. A wall, built in convict times, remains impervious to the daily to and fro of the city. These places provide important respite for residents, until we decide to build on them. Every hectare counts.

Date: 9 April 2020 at 10:18:13 am AEST
Weather: 20°C Mostly Cloudy

Today is an exciting day. An excursion, a treat. Where to? The local Woolworths no less. A formerly onerous task has become something to look forward to. I get dressed up and put on make-up. It’s the only chance I’ll have this week to do that. However, in the store I feel guilty about buying things, even though I need them. I look furtively at the other customers and can’t meet their eye when I put anything in my trolley that’s in short supply, as if I’m committing a crime. There’s a tense atmosphere pervading the whole shop. Am I standing too close to you? Did I wash my hands enough when I got here? I feel vigilant and observed, and in fear of being accused of something, although what exactly that is, I’m not sure. So even though this was to be my big excursion for the week, I can’t get out of here quickly enough. It’s not a relaxing experience like going to the pub. That kind of thing will just have to wait.

Date: 10 April 2020 at 10:14:06 am AEST
Weather: 19°C Light Rain

I’ve never considered myself a ‘girlie girl’ worried about ‘putting my face on’ before I could leave the house. In fact, for a long time I considered make up and high heels anti-feminist and part of the conspiracy to keep women in their place. Nowadays, I’ve changed my position and getting dressed up is part of the excitement of going out. I never thought getting dressed up for work was anything special. I did not realise how important these routines of make-up and wardrobe are to us. I am not missing the actual work or socialising as much as the preparation and anticipation of it. Clothes and makeup gathering dust in the wardrobe are a daily reminder of how the normal ebb and flow of life has been disrupted. I’m impressed by the way most people have adapted almost overnight to these new rules. Nonetheless, humans are creatures of habit, and we miss our little rituals.

April 12

Easter Sunday is usually a quiet day at home overdosing on sugar, so today will feel like a fairly normal Easter for us. Family time has been quite a pleasure these last few weeks. I know the authorities were worried about this enforced togetherness causing a spike in domestic violence. I hope that hasn’t been proved true for too many families. Home is a haven. I can’t imagine what it would be like not to feel safe in your own home, to have nowhere to run and hide in times of trouble. We’ve been getting on fine, no arguments. it’s quite nice to be together, but I feel a lot of sorrow for my children, missing out on so much at such pivotal times in their lives. My daughter was to celebrate her 21st in a few months. Now she fears losing touch with many of the friends she was to invite to the party. She was also to tour Europe in July for a typical graduation holiday before starting a ‘proper’ job. I’m sure there are many in her shoes. What of the people at the other end of the spectrum? What if you could count the rest of your years on your fingers? One year taken from that small bunch is a momentous amount. If this was the year to do that one last bucket list trip or activity, to ensure you have lived a life with no regrets, how would you be feeling now? Praying that your health, and perhaps that of your partner’s, holds out so you can do it next year. What about those elderly people in nursing homes, forced to live in isolation, not sure when, or even if, they will see family members again. Worst of all, the poor people dying in isolation, unable to farewell their loved ones.

April 14

An unexpected consequence of the shutdown is that we’re hardly driving. We are saving a lot of money on fuel bills. The planet must be taking a huge breath. Global emissions will be down this year. Perhaps we’ll get an extra month out of the Great Barrier Reef. Maybe it will make up for all the carbon pumped out during the bushfires. It’s been noted that Scott Morrison is now taking notice of scientists, something that’s been out of fashion since Abbott’s prime ministership. When this current crisis is over, will the government continue to listen to scientists? Scientists agree that the climate crisis is a more serious existential threat to life on earth (not just human life) than Covid19 will ever be. Morrison said not one single Australian job should be sacrificed in the fight against climate change, yet he’s allowed thousands to be shed to tackle the virus. It’s time for a change of philosophy, a new way of thinking and living, if we are to tackle the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced – climate change.

April 17

I’ve been bushwalking with a neighbour. I have known this lady for several years as we walk our dogs together in the dog park. However, our relationship has never moved beyond a casual acquaintanceship until now. It seems like the unusual circumstances are also freeing us up to be more open with each other, to make social connections even when we are instructed to be distant. I feel much more connected with my local community now I am forced to spend more time in it, and the community spirit is palpable. Just walking around the streets, with so many people out and about, not rushing to the station, is refreshing.

20 April
Weather: 26 Sunny

I’m going for a haircut. It’s been a long time. While I must admit I’m pretty keen (being confident about how you look is important), I hope I’m not like the woman in America who wants all lockdown measures removed because she can’t get her roots done. It’s amazing but very scary watching these Americans taking to the streets with semi-automatic weapons in hand to protest their lack of freedom during the lockdown. I didn’t realise the full extent of their cultural beliefs on individual freedom. They’d rather risk thousands of their citizens dying than have the government tell them what to do. And this obsessions with government interference means some eschew government-funded entities like hospitals, welfare and public education. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. The least educated members of society need such services the most, yet shy away from them. They’re also the easiest swayed by populist politicians and vote for policies that will do the most vulnerable (often themselves) in society the most harm. A strange, perplexing conundrum.

April 24

Old friends from childhood are replacing real friends. We’re finding comfort in the safe and secure familiar stories. Colouring, jigsaw, puzzles, quizzes, painting, reading, writing, drawing crafts and baking are experiencing a resurgence. Arts, creativity and contemplative work have come to the fore and people have time to take a breath but are also considering what really adds value to their lives when the constant business of work is removed. Perhaps another positive that can emerge from this time is a reconsideration of what we value, what’s important. The arts, like health and education, have been starved of funds for years. Maybe it’s time to stop valuing GDP over all else and consider other ways we can value things. Why is a commercial real estate agent earning four times more than a teacher or a nurse? Who is really bringing the most value to our society? We can only hope this virus makes us reconsider our worth.

April 27

Ever since the cathedral of Notre Dame almost burnt to the ground in April 2019, things we once took for granted seem no longer immutable. The summer bushfires and the Covid-19 crisis reinforce that impression. The new normal is that there is no normal. Expect institutions, traditions and expectations to change quickly, and evolve with them or be left floundering on the sidelines.

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA
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Persecution, Swarna Pinto

Photo by Graham Ruttan on Unsplash

The solitary diner at table 13 was Rosa’s last customer. He was a regular who wore Armani suits and left generous tips. As she placed his bill on the table, she noticed the red onion rings from the salad and the skin of the grilled salmon on the edge of his plate. His napkin was on his left and as always he had placed the knife and fork parallel to each other in the centre of the plate, pointing to twelve o’clock.

‘Today is my last day here and you are our last customer.’

Bryon took his eyes off the journal and looked at Rosa and she said, ‘Perdón por molestarte.’

Bryon raised an eyebrow. ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Oops, I spoke Spanish. You are reading and I disturb. Sorry sir.’

‘I heard molest which… never mind.’

Rosa’s face burned as she stacked his dishes on her forearm. Bryon wanted to know what she had said before.

‘Just that I lost my job here and no one is hiring waitstaff until the Covid-19 pandemic is over.’

Rosa put the dishes back on the table and wiped her tears away with the back of her hands. Bryon was intrigued. The girl was making fists and using the dorsum to wipe tears like a small child. ‘Surely, there must be something else you could do?’

‘Yes. Cleaning, cooking, baby-sitting. But I don’t know anyone here.’ Rosa wiped her tears again.

‘If you can’t find any other job, you could come and clean my house in Camberwell, say for one hour each morning?’

‘Thank you, sir.’

 Bryon stood up and shook her hand. ‘I am Bryon. Bryon Felix. You are?’

‘Rosa Maria Sanchez.’

Sitting in a train on the way home Rosa saw a Metro train map stuck above the window and checked how to get to Camberwell. Two trains to go there and with her luck, a bus from Camberwell station to Bryon’s house. She’d have to spend the whole day in trains and buses. She would ask Irma to talk to her boss again.

Irma was Rosa’s friend. Both had been radical political activists in Colombia a few years ago and had fled to Australia when the protest organisers were being killed. They had arrived in Darwin on working holiday visas for 12 months and had run away from Darwin when their visa expired. Since then they had moved from state to state doing any work they could find. They had come to Melbourne last year and shared a room in a rundown share-house in Reservoir.

That night when Rosa came home Irma was kneading cooked corn meal to make arepas for their dinner.

‘That puta, Neela, never cleans up the stove top after cooking her curries. We should say something to Neela. What do you think?’

‘Okay.’

‘Okay? What type of answer is that? Look, I am going to stuff my arepas with cheese. What do you want?’

‘I said, okay.’

‘Rosie, what’s the matter? You didn’t hear anything I said.’

‘I don’t have a job anymore. They said when we reopen, make sure to bring your papers. I’ll never have papers. Why can’t I work with you? Make him give me a job. Please?’

‘He’s not hiring, Rosa. But I’ll ask him again.’

‘A customer offered me a cleaning job. Suppose I’ll take it. It’s the Armani guy. Irma, here, look at his card. Wait, wipe the flour off your hand first.’

‘Bryon Felix, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, Southern Health,’ she read it out. ‘Must be very rich to wear Armani suits.’

Each day that she cleaned, it took more than two hours for Rosa to get to Bryon’s house. Sometimes, she had to wait for up to half an hour until Dr Felix paid her. The work was not hard and she didn’t mind the occasional wait.

One day, Rosa found a $100 note on the sofa. She could buy shoes with it. This is not stealing, she reasoned. Maybe he was drunk last night. Would he look for it? Maybe it was not his? No, there weren’t any extra dishes in the sink this morning. What if he is checking on me? What if he contacts the police?

‘Dr Felix, this was on sofa.’

‘Thanks, Rosa. Please call me Bryon.’

A few days later, Dr Felix asked her to come in the evening for three hours to clean and cook dinner for him. Five to seven. When Irma heard this, she warned Rosa to be careful.

‘Why aren’t you looking for another job? You spend your whole day on trains. I think he’s going to get into your pants.’

‘Irma, he’s not like that.’

‘Ha? Forgot what happened in Darwin? Here, keep this knife in your apron pocket all the time. And keep the back door open.’

With the new work arrangement, it made sense for Bryon to ask Rosa to eat dinner with him. He liked this girl. She was clean and honest and funny. And she was lovely.

Rosa took leftovers home for her lunch the next day. If she finished her chores early, she could watch TV or read a book. Best of all, she could play the piano. After dinner, Bryon said thank you, good night and went to his room. Rosa put the dishes in the dishwasher and went out the back door.

One evening, Rosa was about to untie her apron when she saw Dr Felix standing at the doorway looking at her. She was startled, for he never came into the kitchen. Her hand flew for Irma’s knife in her apron pocket. She looked at the back door. It was closed. He’ll grab me from behind while I try to open the door, just like in Darwin. Rosa gripped the knife tighter. This one will be dead before he touches me. I’ll stab right through his heart, she thought.

Bryon saw Rosa’s pupils dilate and her chest heaving.

‘Hey, I didn’t mean to scare you. I just popped in to ask if you could bring my dry-cleaning tomorrow.’

‘Ah, yes, of course.’

‘You are bleeding,’ Bryon exclaimed.

Rosa followed Bryon’s eyes and saw a big red patch around her apron pocket. At the same time, her hand started to throb with pain. Dios mío! I am clutching the blade, not the handle. The red patch was getting bigger but she could not let go of the blade. There was a loud roar in her ears and everything became dark.

Up close, she saw clean white floor tiles. A bit further away, the tiles were dirty. They had dust balls on them. They were the tiles under the fridge. She was lying on the kitchen floor. Bryon’s voice drifted to her ears from above.

‘Let me help you up. You fainted. You have a nasty cut on your palm. I’ve applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.’

Bryon held Rosa close to him and Rosa rested her head on his shoulder while he led her to the bed in the guest room.

‘This wound needs stitches. Here, take these two capsules, they will numb the pain.’

Rosa woke up with a throbbing pain in her palm. From the dim light of the night lamp she saw that her palm was bandaged with white gauze. Her fingers poked out. I can’t remember him bandaging my hand. Dios mío.

Heart racing, Rosa stumbled into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. Her face was very pale but there were no bruises. She looked at her clothes. She was wearing all her clothes and underwear. The buttons on her blouse were all done. No buttons were missing or hanging loose. Her bra was fastened on the first hook, just the way she always did. She felt for the string of her tampon. No, she hadn’t been interfered with. Gracias a Dios.

Rosa glanced at the clock. It was 8.30pm. She could get home before eleven. She had just gone into the kitchen when Bryon came in. He was in his pyjamas but without the maroon silk dressing gown he wore when Rosa arrived in the mornings. She suppressed a sudden urge to smooth his dishevelled hair.

‘Rosa, go in the morning. You might faint again.’

‘I am okay.’

‘You don’t look okay. I put three stiches to close up that cut, you know.’

‘Thank you, I am alright. Where’s your dry-cleaning receipt?’

As she looked around for the receipt, the bench tops floated around her. She moved backwards and leaned her back against the pantry cupboard. Her sore palm bumped onto the edge of the cupboard and an intense lightning bolt of raw pain shot up from the wound. A whooshing noise blocked her ears. Bryon went over to her.

‘You can’t travel tonight. If you really want to go home, I’ll have to drive you.’

The benchtops stopped floating but the whooshing noise persisted. ‘I’ll stay,’ Rosa said in a small voice. He’ll know why I had a knife. It’s because… No need to think about Darwin. I am safe here.

All the way home early the next morning, Rosa was smiling to herself thinking how Irma would tease her, not believing that she had slept alone in Bryon’s house overnight. But Irma wasn’t anywhere to be found. Their room was untidy and Irma’s side of the wardrobe was empty. Rosa ran and banged on her neighbours’ door.

‘Neela, Neela, Ravi, open the door please. Irma’s missing. Her clothes are gone.’

Ravi came out of the room rubbing his eyes and closed the door behind him.

‘Police took her away. I think they are going to deport Irma. She was crying. They came around 2 o’clock. We couldn’t sleep after that.’

Rosa checked her phone, but there was no message from Irma. Terrified to contact Irma thinking it would give her away as well, Rosa gathered her belongings and went back to Bryon’s house. I’ll beg him to let me stay there until I find a place. I’ll work for nothing if he lets me stay.

Later that night, Rosa received a text message from Irma on WhatsApp.

‘Police said a friend dobbed on me. That’s why you didn’t come home last night. They’ll come for you too. I thought you were my friend, you puta.’

Not caring for repercussions, Rosa texted back saying, ‘Irma, please believe me, I stayed here because I cut my hand and fainted. I don’t know how this happened.’

Rosa’s message sat there in her WhatsApp, never reaching Irma.

Since that day, Rosa had lived at Bryon’s house. She kept the house and the garden. She tended to the orchids in the front yard and made a little herb garden at the back. Bryon was the kindest person Rosa had ever met in her life. As she did not have to pay rent or for transport and food, she saved money and bought a bicycle.

I could buy a small used car. But what’s the use? Without a visa I can’t get a car registration or a licence. I am stuck.

One night over dinner, Bryon told how his wife left him after three years of marriage. He blamed himself for that. Those days, after finishing his theatre lists in public hospitals, he’d do surgery in private hospitals. He came back home around one in the morning or sometimes even later.

Rosa told him about her life in Colombia. Both her parents were school teachers. She was the only child. Even when she was a science undergraduate, she was an anticorruption activist. She was involved in protests against proposed reforms to the education system and later against austerity measures of the government. The government was corrupt and Rosa had been involved with a group who were planning to overthrow the government. She talked about the protests she and Irma had attended. She told how her parents borrowed money and sent her to Australia because the government was killing protest organisers.

 ‘I had a boyfriend, nothing serious.’ She couldn’t talk about the Darwin incident or Irma’s deportation.

‘You must miss your family. When are you going to visit them?’

 ‘I can’t go there. I have no visa.’

‘I had no idea.’

Rosa explained the application process and Bryon told he’d find a good lawyer for her. Their platonic relationship changed sometime after that. Who fell in love first was talked about at length but never resolved.

Rosa was excited after securing an appointment with Kevin Flintheart, a famous immigration lawyer in Collin Street. But the day before the appointment Rosa woke up with a high fever and Bryon postponed the appointment. Although Bryon suspected Covid-19, he could not risk taking Rosa to a hospital to be tested because Kevin had said that no one must know her whereabouts yet. He had warned that in case of an arrest and subsequent removal from Australia, it would be near impossible for Rosa to return to Australia.

Rosa was moved into the guest room and Bryon cared for her. He wore full protective gear when he went to check on Rosa. He gave her strict instructions. Stay in this room. No cooking. No cleaning. Don’t even go to answer the home phone. Use disposable plates, cups and cutlery. He would bring food after work.

On the first night that she felt well again, Rosa cooked a delicious Colombian dinner. She could see that Bryon was pleased to see her up and about.

‘I do shopping tomorrow?’

‘Rosa Maria, listen to me. You can’t go out yet.’

‘You buy bad vegetable,’ she pouted.

‘Vegetables. Listen. Your visa appointment with Kevin is in three days. Please stay inside until then.’

The next morning, Bryon woke up cranky. He couldn’t eat his favourite breakfast of eggs and chorizo. His tie was askew and he let Rosa fix it. Saying, ‘Stay in, bye,’ Bryon drove off to work.

He felt tired walking across the car park. He swiped his card and went in. The corridor seemed unusually dark and much longer that morning. On his right was the Pathology department. He wondered how many tests they had conducted during the last 24 hours. How many of them had been positive? Concealed behind the Pathology was the morgue. He was proud of the fact that he had not sent anyone there in his 30 years of service here.

‘You’ll end up there yourself,’ an ugly inner voice told him. A cold shiver ran up and down his spine. He should go back. But his legs carried him forward.

He was startled as a nurse in full protective gear appeared from behind a little alcove and motioned him to stop. He froze as she pointed a gun straight at his forehead. Bryon had a terrible urge to reveal everything. Look, I have cared for someone who was sick. I have been very careful. I haven’t put anyone in danger. Please, don’t tell anyone. But no words came out of his mouth. The nurse kept the gun very close to Bryon’s forehead with a steady hand. He held his breath while his heart raced. The gun beeped and he took a step forward.

‘Mr. Felix, please stop. Mr. Felix? You are running a fever. Have you been in close contact with any confirmed or suspected Covid-19 cases?’

Bryon was speechless. The nurse waited a few moments and pointed towards the alcove.

‘Please wait over there. I’ll call someone to take you to the fever clinic. They’ll test you for Covid-19. Standard procedure, I’m afraid.’

Covid-19? They’d quarantine him for two or three weeks. He should call Kevin and tell him what to do. Rosa mustn’t miss her appointment. His fingers kept pressing wrong buttons on the phone. He was light-headed and covered in a cold sweat by the time he managed to call Rosa.

‘Hola?’ He heard her sweet voice but found that he could not talk. The phone slipped from his hand and fell on to the tiled floor of the corridor. He heard the faint sound of hospital chimes and wondered why they weren’t loud as usual.

Rosa heard the phone clattering. Almost immediately she heard ear piercing chimes followed by a measured female voice saying, ‘Respond blue, corridor near Pathology.’ She then heard some hurried footsteps and soft murmurings before Bryon’s phone went quiet.

After worrying and crying all through that day and the next, Rosa called Kevin.

‘Bryon not come home two days now. He called yesterday but didn’t talk to me. After that his phone’s not working. Something happened to him in the hospital.’

Later that day, Kevin rang Rosa and said that Bryon had suffered a stroke. He also had Covid-19 and no one could see him. Kevin would be in touch with Rosa. She should stay home.

Rosa had been waiting for days expecting a call from Bryon or Kevin when one evening a black car came to a sudden halt in the driveway. Rosa hid behind the curtains and watched. A well-built middle-aged man in a cheap black suit got out and strode towards the door. Rosa held her breath while he knocked. After a few minutes, he went back to his car. He stood looking around for a while before getting in and driving off. Immigration? A detective hired by Irma’s parents?

Ten minutes later, Rosa sprinted out of the side gate. She wore dark clothes and carried a large backpack. The rhythmic sound of her running feet faded away as she disappeared into the gathering darkness.

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