Plan B: I’m trying to organize a work-related trip. The work plan is made. The invites are sent out. The participants have confirmed. But I have a nagging feeling that this might be postponed. I’m still attending meetings, still going out to meet family and friends. As a journalist, it is my default setting. Wuhan is in my news alerts. Till now, people are thinking it is something limited to China. “We are safe” is the global sentiment. But news has started circulating about the prevalence increasing. I’m late to the party, but I have now learnt its name: COVID-19. Three days later, we are onto Plan B: Postpone all meetings and interviews indefinitely. My feature stories will now have to rely on phone-based interviews, unless unavoidable. PSL matches also have a Plan B now: play in the stadium but have no live audience. My Quran classes are indefinitely called off. The world is in Plan B mode. Or Plan C.
Change: News of transmission through zaireen (pilgrims) returning from Iran via Taftan is creating ripples of panic. The first case in Karachi has surfaced, yet Karachiites are still chilling. Everything seems normal, except that the grocery stores are unusually crowded; bulk shopping is the first sign of collective panic. The prospect of not just hunger, but the idea that we may not get to eat what we like when we like, is causing the panic in upper-tier Pakistanis. At a lower social rung, daily wagers are hoping for just basic needs being met. Business is slow. Dollar is rising. Financial hawks are buying shares. Schools are shutting down. There is news that they are not allowing tawaaf around the Ka’aba. Husband is praying at home on a Friday. I am not prepared for this. But it’s happening.
Behind the mask: Masks are not available in any pharmacy. They have put up print-out posters outside: “Sorry, masks not available”. Husband manages to get locally made masks for us. They are flimsy and clearly made in a hurry. I still feel very grateful to have one. It is my passport to going out although I’m not sure it actually protects me. I am nagging my house help to wash her hands. Her response is a quizzical look. Two days later, she has been initiated to the idea of an invisible killer called “Corona”. She is washing her hands regularly now, but not obsessively, unlike me. My hands are sore from repeated washing. I have a variety of sanitizers now. A few days later, she has left for her village. The fear is permeating all strata. This is getting real.
It isn’t easy living in semi-isolation. Life has lost its spontaneity.
Physical Distancing: I am getting hundreds of Whatsapp messages daily. I try to read them, thinking there might be something useful. I give up soon. Although there are some useful things hidden in the multitudes of forwards, most of them are either conspiracy theories, or videos of patients in Italy, or badly written clearly fake news snippets. I feel worse every time I read any of them. The memes sometimes help me feel better, and sometimes sound insensitive. I don’t know any longer what to feel. Sad? Scared? Anxious? The only messages that make sense are from charity organizations or individuals helping alleviate people’s miseries by distributing ration, asking if I want to contribute. Charity is Pakistan’s saving grace. The best messages are personalized ones – someone asking how I’m doing, or sending prayers. The rest are all white noise. Daughter gives a brilliant suggestion: we call one person every day. I’ve started calling friends and relatives. It’s good talking to people one-on-one after ages. I prefer “physical distancing” to “social distancing”.
The cough: I wake up with a cough. I have body ache. I am so scared, my heart skips a beat, and I can’t breathe. I have checked my fever a dozen times. People I actually know, abroad, have told me they have coronavirus. The killer has a face now. I’ve been at home for more than a week, except a stroll outside the house after dinner on a deserted street since the lock down. No happy motorcyclists whoosh past anymore. Leave alone eating out, even riders cannot be seen on the streets, delivering consumerism in styrofoam food boxes. Then how could I have gotten it? My doctor friend says it doesn’t sound like coronavirus. I am relieved… for now, but still scared. Everyone is scared. Bleach. Door knobs. Vitamin C. Nigella seeds. Take off shoes at the entrance. My vocabulary is growing exponentially, so is the number of those affected by the virus.
Epiphanies: Meetings and classes are on Zoom now; adaptability is a human strength, I’m rediscovering. My feel-good factors are changing. I’m tempted to order some clothes for Eid from Pakistan Day sales online. But what is Eid going to be like this time? I already have so many clothes.
Self-reflection is routine now. Audio books are helpful. A book in hard-copy is back at my bedside. We are mopping and washing, grateful we are able to do it ourselves. The baking tray is out after ages. It isn’t easy living in semi-isolation. Life has lost its spontaneity. You can’t step out when you like. Life is more basic. We are moving from wants to needs. But acceptance is finding its way in. Humanity is becoming more of a fraternity; nothing bonds people more than shared pain. “Things” seem inconsequential when you hear of people dying; when you’re witnessing the plague of this era, and when healthcare saviours are risking their lives at the front-lines. What does it matter who won that argument on Facebook? What does it matter what someone said to me four years ago? What does it matter what anyone thinks of the car I drive? In the bigger scheme of things, what does actually matter? Being safe, healthy, content, with your loved ones, and accepting your vulnerability, yet reaching out only to The Creator. Perhaps that is the biggest takeaway of COVID-19.