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Coronavirus: ten Geographical writers share their tales of lockdown

  • Written by  Geographical
  • Published in Cultures
Photographer Francesco Lastrucci captured an almost-empty Piazza della Signoria during one of his rare walks outside home Photographer Francesco Lastrucci captured an almost-empty Piazza della Signoria during one of his rare walks outside home
02 Apr
While we may be run from a small office in London (or, as things currently stand, from some kitchens and lofts in London), here at Geographical we’re lucky enough to have contributors who hail from all around the world. We called on some of our writers and photographers to find out how Covid-19 measures are affecting them...

Matt Maynard – Santiago, Chile

I live in one of the seven north-easterly suburbs of Santiago where there is total lockdown since 10pm last Wednesday. Since it began, a puma has been sighted near central Santiago after descending from the surrounding Andes, and a condor has made a perch on a residential balcony. Currently, we are only permitted to leave our houses with an electronic government issued permission slip for shopping, medical attention, a half-hour dog walk or funerals of close family members. I wish we had a dog! There have been only eight deaths from coronavirus at the moment in Chile. The lockdown is limited to the wealthier suburbs where positive-testing has been higher, presumably due to the international travel patterns of its residents. 

Being a writer and photographer who usually works from home, the changes to everyday life are not too great. I'm in the lucky position to be able to keep typing and photo editing. Yesterday I had to look after our son while my wife taught her university classes by videoconference. I popped him in the baby-carrier and ran 50 x 40m laps of our back and front garden. It’s a cool little circuit, but not the same as getting out in the mountains. (Silly video here).

Vitali Vitaliev – Hertfordshire, UK

Looking up from the computer screen, I stare out of the window at the deserted streets of my town and squint at the piercing, almost sticky, sunlight – the way it always feels (to me at least) in abandoned and empty spaces – like it did in Pripyat, the ‘dead city’ near Chernobyl, which I visited shortly after the fourth reactor explosion in 1986, with trees and buildings but no people... Sorry, but I cannot help associations with Pripyat, for there’s a certain apocalyptic feel about this light, this deafening silence, with no cars on the roads and no planes in the sky; the stillness, which at times is so intense that it makes my teeth ache…

For a compulsive traveller like myself, suffering since childhood from a severe case of dromomania – a medically described irrepressible passion for purposeless travel, or ‘a travelling fugue’ – being stuck at home as a ‘high risk case’ for at least three months due to a pandemic, or for any other reason, is almost physically painful. How do I cope with it all? By applying the time-tested recipe from my Soviet childhood –  vicarious, or ‘armchair’, travelling i.e. by reading books, looking at maps, telling (or listening to) stories and thus unleashing my power of imagination, which, in the words of Albert Einstein, is often more important than knowledge, and is far stronger than that of all existing virtual reality apps...

And you know what? It helps!

Chris Fitch - rural Minas Gerais, Brazil

Brazil’s response to COVID-19 has been in marked contrast to most of the rest of the world, thanks to the high profile pronouncements of controversial President Bolsonaro. The leader has downplayed the seriousness of the disease, and encouraged the country to keep working, even as other nations have begun lockdowns. Despite the president’s views, major urban areas such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have shut their land borders to try to contain the spread of the virus (most of Brazil’s reported cases have been in those two states) while a ban on foreign arrivals was recently approved and will be in place throughout April. Brazil’s official case numbers are far below those seen in Europe, with less than 6,000 recorded infections, however only time will reveal the accuracy of current data.

The lack of a nationwide lockdown means that I, currently based in rural Minas Gerais, am, like many of the over 200 million citizens and residents, free to go about my daily life, albeit a significant number of shops, bars and restaurants have voluntarily closed, and many people have taken to social distancing even without government encouragement. While funds have been made available to compensate people unable to earn an income during this time, in a country with significant informal employment, especially in the city’s favelas, it is a challenge to encourage people to stay home and not work. For many Brazilians, the primary way of passing time during their isolation involves banging pots and pans from their balconies – a popular way of showing disapproval with the way the crisis has been handled by the current president – and generally being grateful that the need to stay indoors didn’t arrive until after the annual carnival season had wrapped up for the year.

Melody Kemp – Australia (normally based in Laos)

I felt like a Middle Ages exile as I left Laos, just as the first inklings of the pestis were being mentioned across the border to the north. Now I can’t leave Australia and can’t go back to Laos as the borders are sealed. We did not leave because of it, but because I was becoming progressively deafer and wanted some medical opinion in Australia. Elective surgery is of course now cancelled. 

Before leaving, we did notice that while China had professed to have sealed Hubei and Wuhan, we were seeing convoys of cars arriving in the capital. To the north, the Belt and Road Initiative, in the form of the high-speed rail also brought workers into Laos, along with massive areas of contract farming. I still have not seen any analysis of what effect that had on infections in Laos, or if any of those workers were traced.

Laos itself only owned up to having COVID-19  ten days ago, though I was hearing stories from my sources that several cases had been admitted to hospital before I left in February. What was interesting was how foreigners joined in the denialism.  As I am learning, humanity is an interesting laboratory rat. Laos was and possibly still is unable to cope with an epidemic, as trained staff are few and resources limited to the regional centres. Travel from the northern areas adjacent to China is difficult and time consuming. I suspect people will die in the villages.

I hear that while enforcing lockdown,  the government has not lost its sense of humour. A sign sent to me said that despite it being April Fools Day anyone spreading false information is liable to three years in jail and a 2,000,000 kip (USD $200)  fine. 

Of course I stay in touch, and after years of totalitarian rule and Buddhism, the Lao are fatalistic and obedient. In this case both are necessary to survive and care for each other. Family structures and coherence make up for absent social services, while in Australia an equally long tradition of individualism and elitism has led to crowded beaches, despite the government exhorting people to stay home so people in the at-risk group, such as myself, being older, are at less risk. 

In Asia the stay home message comes at a time of severe heat and drought. Those well enough off to have air conditioning will be fine, but the majority live in small huts, and of course, who grows the food? So I live in two worlds, writing stories is hard for me as I rely so much on personal contacts and observing non verbal communications... and there is the deafness. It’s a hard time as income is short, and while I am myself fatalistic about the risk I would like to be around to see how this resolves and what if anything changes as a result. My gloomy feeling is that dictators and fools will be vindicated... but we may care about each other more.

Marco Magrini – Lisbon, Portugal

Portugal was wise enough to enter into lockdown mode on 16 March, when only 324 citizens were infected and one had died. In other words, the country quickly learnt a lesson from the troubles in Italy and Spain, and reacted promptly. What is remarkable though, is that I saw bars, shops and restaurants in downtown Lisbon shutting down three days before the government’s decision. The prime minister Antonio Costa has praised the Portuguese people’s respect for rules and directions. I believe he is right.

Coping with news from Italy, where all of my family and most of my friends are is the biggest challenge for me. That said, since I started worrying about an upcoming pandemic in late January, lately I gave up reading too much virus science and viral news as a relief to my own cardiovascular wellbeing. It works. I have no problems keeping my spirits up. I play the piano, write a new book and indulge in multiple videochats with family and friends, who are busy no more. In other words, my days are quite busy.

Francesco Lastrucci – Florence, Italy

Starting from March, the government of Italy imposed a national quarantine, restricting the movement of the population and making Italy the first European country to experience a total lockdown. All people must respect social distances and leaving home is allowed only for strict needs. The only shops to be open are groceries, those selling necessary goods and newsstands. I’m coping with the lockdown quite well and I don’t mind slowing down for a while. What I’m missing the most though, are social interactions. Living in the historic centre of Florence – one of the surviving authentic neighbourhoods of Florence – social interactions are on the daily agenda, as much as in every dynamic place where everyone knows everyone. I miss the serendipity you can find within this kind of lifestyle.

Since I cannot produce more photography work unless I’m assigned some news story, I'm working on my archives, researching for future personal projects, reading, painting with watercolours, gardening and living the slow life in general. I’m lucky enough to have a fairly big terrace in the centre of Florence, where I can breathe fresh air and enjoy the first warm spring sunlight. Every evening during the first week of the lockdown, I got to listen to people singing or playing music from the windows around: we were keeping each other company while waiting for our warm social life, pizzas, aperitifs and proseccos to come back. Now, it becomes quieter as the quarantine goes on, but I’m getting to see at least the good side of it: re-discovering the slow-paced sweet moments of life that we often forget exist.

Thomas Bird – Penang, Malaysia

I usually divide my time between China and Hong Kong when I’m not on the road. I came to Malaysia to escape virus-related chaos there as well as to work on my forthcoming book in Penang and pen a few travel stories to boot. I had just finished a magazine assignment when the country went into lockdown after an enormous four-day Mosque event outside of Kuala Lumpur spread coronavirus cases amongst attendees, who then carried the bug back to their home states. Currently in Penang measures are strict aimed at ‘flattening the curve’: only one person is allowed per car, there is an evening curfew, state-to-state travel is limited to essential services and only essential business like supermarkets are open. Air Asia have grounded their fleet, while China and Hong Kong remain closed to non-residents so I’m essentially stuck here, for good or ill. 

Malaysia is a warm country, and according to one study at Sun Yet-sen University, Covid-19 thrives in cooler weather which may account for a lower per capita infection rate than the USA and Europe. That said, due to years of endemic corruption under Najib Razak who is alleged to have whittled away state funds in the order of billions, it is unlikely Malaysia has the budget for necessary medical equipment should numbers rise precipitously, so it’s really important we all respect the lockdown. This is relatively easy for me as I have, by good fortune, found lodgings on Pop & Chee’s Organic Farm. Here, I am relatively isolated which is a good set-up for a writer-in-exile with a hefty book to finish. When I need to stretch my legs I can do so amongst the banana and coconut trees in the garden where a plethora of exotic birds congregate. 

Residents at the farm have formed a band – The Quarantines – and we’re recording sunset jams of optimistic, well known numbers like Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ to send some love and encouragement to people trapped at home. This is also helping to maintain household morale in this strange and challenging time. House matriarch Chee also encourages us to practise Zen Mediation. Because of the lockdown, Haeng Won Zen Meditation Centre is leading mediation sessions via Facebook. The resident Buddhist monk Sunim is also sharing thoughts and advice on the pandemic and how we should cope. If you’re feeling anxious it might well be worth tuning in.    

Hadani Ditmars – Vancouver, Canada

I’m lucky to rent a small apartment with a view of the sea and two balconies so if things get too much I can always retreat to one of them. We’re allowed to go out for an hour’s walk every day, but it can be a bit challenging to maintain social distancing on the seawall – especially with joggers coming up full speed behind you! 

I used to live in Paris and am accustomed to the daily shop for fresh produce, so the once-a-week trip to the suddenly-grim grocery shop, with masked cashiers and plastic barriers can feel rather dystopian and unappetizing. But at least we have supplies for the moment – although I’ve been unable to find any yeast to make bread with for weeks. I’ve planted some vegetables on my balcony in pots but it’s early days yet – we just had another snowfall here the other day.

It’s hard to be a travel writer in lockdown. I’m working on a new book on Iraq (as a follow up to my first book Dancing in the No Fly Zone), currently called Between Two Rivers: a Journey Through the Ancient Heart of Iraq, and was supposed to be in Iraq again for research. I’m now working remotely from Vancouver, following up with contacts by Skype, but there’s an 11-hour time difference.  I really miss my friends there, but they’re also under lockdown.

Also the 4th edition of my Wallpaper* City Guide to Vancouver just came out with Phaidon but I can’t have a proper launch party at the moment, although I may do a virtual one. I’m selling signed author’s copies via my website. I’m in the midst of a PhD in English at King’s College London and had to do my upgrade by zoom last week. It was weird. 

I’ve been writing a series of poems called Love in the Time of Corona and have got up to #20 to date.  I may keep it at that number, like Neruda’s 20 Poemas de Amor.

Laura Waters – Brisbane, Australia

We’ve just gone into Level 3 restrictions, which means we can only go out of the home for four reasons (food shopping, daily exercise, medical reasons and necessary work). People seem to be stretching the rules a bit at the moment though. I went down to the beach this morning for some ‘exercise’ and though there were ‘beach closed’ signs everywhere there were still heaps of people on it. Lucky our beaches are big enough to spread out! 

I managed to squeeze in a seven-day solo hike locally before the lockdown so I haven’t had a chance to get bored yet. I plan to teach myself video editing and focus on keeping fit with yoga and free weights. My main challenge is that work has completely died – no writing or speaking gigs now. 

Laura Cole – London, UK

Week two in London’s lockdown and though the rules are not so stringent as in other European cities, they are more vague. For example, how local does ‘stay local’ mean? In the interest of not spreading this thing, how long can ‘one exercise’ last? You find yourself thinking up your own loopholes. Then you feel a bit guilty about it. 

Meanwhile, the move online comes with its own differences. Group board-game nights and Skype drinks bring us together, but you don’t get the quiet asides to ask a particular friend what’s going on, ask how they’re really doing. Sometimes, an old-fashioned phone call is a better substitute.

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