Homesick: Notes on lockdown

We know what will happen with this new virus, and so I cannot blissfully self-isolate.

Hillbrow, Johannesburg (Matthew Stevens, via Flickr CC).

I am imagining that like me, you have questions about what all of this means. I imagine that like me you are far from home and you are worried both about your own well-being and that of people who are far from you. I imagine that perhaps you are not feeling grateful, even though so much of what I have read so far from friends with jobs and money is about gratitude. They are right to be grateful, but it makes me seethe.

I live in a rich country, but I cannot concentrate only on how to keep the kids busy. The latest meditation app is not going to help me get through what is really worrying me. Maybe, like me, you are thinking about how the experience of lockdown is complicated by the state of being poor or a migrant or a woman or a person who is also black or brown or some combination of these things in societies that are hostile to all of these identities.

For those of us who are Africans living elsewhere–far from home–there are specific worries, particular concerns that are linked to the state of our continent and of course these are complicated by our relationships to the places we now call home.

So forgive me if I do not yet see quarantine as an opportunity to be grateful or a time to slow down. There is a long list of inspirational books friends have shared but I cannot concentrate long enough to read anything meaningful. These are the first words I have been able to write and they have come slowly and with great uncertainty.

I am still processing, still mourning what I thought I had last week and trying to accept that today I have more than I will have this time next week.  I am still trying to figure out how to pivot. I am trying to think about what to do to ensure the safety of family far away.

I am worried about women everywhere, for whom lockdown is incredibly dangerous.  For many women the loss of what little freedom we have will feel acute. For many of us unwanted pregnancy is always a looming threat—a worst-case scenario we can scarcely afford. Now, as country by country lockdowns are declared, we will need to fight for our bodily freedom as hard as we have in other times of social stress. In America already abortion services are being suspended in several states, under the trumped up excuse that abortion is not an essential service. This will surely be the case in many other places where Africans in the diaspora are living precarious lives.

Lockdown means home is suddenly far, far beyond reach. Going into the next stage of shutdown reminds me that the fate of those I love will be fundamentally different from mine purely because of where they live. I have always known this but the gap feels especially large right now.

South Africa is a country already sagging under the weight of tuberculosis and HIV epidemics. Both of these illnesses have been amplified by inequality, and by the legacy of exploitation. We know what will happen with this new virus and so I cannot blissfully self-isolate.

South Africa is also a country with a raging epidemic of violence. For women who live in homes where the air is thick with tension, where a “wrong” move results in days of pain, this time will be interminable. I do not need to tell you to have a plan because you always have a plan for escape, you always have an eye on survival. I could tell you that this crisis presents an opportunity but that would be a lie. So perhaps it is best only to say that this crisis presents a crisis and I hope you make it to the other side of it alive.

This does not mean I don’t have more selfish concerns. In my own middle-class household, I worry about how my children will be healthy in the long term. After we have enjoyed one another and laughed and been bored and maxed out on screen time, after we find a rhythm, what then?  How long will we have to live without touching others? If it is a matter of weeks, we will survive. If it is longer, will something in us wither? What will lockdown do to the adults my children will become?

A phone screen cannot transmit the squishy smell of my wriggly tiny nieces. I love the smell of children—not just my own—and I will miss it. I love the feel of a woman’s arm across my shoulders, the way it feels to be pulled spontaneously into a hug. I will miss this. The theology of gratitude tells me I should take long walks with friends but I want to acknowledge first what I will miss.  I am wary of moving too quickly away from sorrow.

I marvel at the agility with which others have adapted. They are recording messages of love and support, organizing book clubs and promoting a new way of doing things.  My mother-in-law is in her eighties and she is doing French classes online! Meanwhile I feel older than I ever have; slow to shift. I am not nimble in this time. I am heavy and mostly sad and bewildered. This has not been my way in the past. I am even-tempered and cool. I am steady.

I know I will need to re-discover this steadiness as I face the coming hard times, but it is hard to marshal at the moment. I am looking for what the experts call resilience inside myself but have yet to find it. I am genuinely worried about what will happen for us all when the hard times set in.

For people who have grown up privileged and in wealthy countries this crisis represents a first and it is understandable that so many are embracing empathy, kindness, and gratitude. It is the first time many of them have felt vulnerable as a group; some will never have considered the idea that a force larger than themselves can make them poor.

This is not a new idea for many black people around the world, nor is it novel for a great number of women and queer people. Those of us who fall outside the bubbles of entitlement that have come to define the modern economy know what it means to live with fragility. We also know how easy it is for privileged people to lash out at us.

Many Africans live in countries that barely tolerate the existence of “minorities.” We are the first to be targeted when stress is high. I am concerned about social disorder and panic and what it looks like when it is turned against “foreigners” in Europe and America and Australia – and of course in South Africa too, where Apartheid has left us with the capacity to hate fellow Africans whom we now consider to be strangers.

The new measures of social distancing and self-isolation being adopted around the world may keep people alive but there will be a cost. Communities that already feel under siege will be further wounded. If you are an African who lives outside the continent and you are feeling alarmed about the racialized effects of this pandemic, you are not being alarmist. History tells us to be afraid.

For already vulnerable people around the world, these are sorrowful times. Many of us are trying to process multiple layers of worry–not just for those we love wherever we live, but for those we love back home. Many of us are just trying to weather the unknown without the intimacy of physical connection and with the knowledge that this crisis comes on the back of many, many others we have already weathered. Times have been tough for a long time.

For now I am feeling homesick and—yes—rattled. This–rather than inspiration—feels like the most appropriate way to manage what comes next. Given everything that history teaches us about who wins and who loses in times of crisis, given what we know about the state of Africa, and of communities of marginalized African people around the world, I prefer to build my hopes on a foundation of realism, than to use this purely as a time for dreaming.

Further Reading

The “China virus”

The coronavirus COVID-19, just like Ebola, reminds us what happens when crisis ignite deep-rooted stereotypes. Yet viruses, or any disease for that matter, do not see color. Nor do they recognize states borders and ethnic enclaves.