Personal stories of how Covid-19 has shaken life from Milan to Lagos

Writers from around the world share their experiences

10 May 2020 - 00:04 By Sunday Times
View of Piazza Duomo in Milan, Italy, on May 4, during phase 2 of the lockdown.
View of Piazza Duomo in Milan, Italy, on May 4, during phase 2 of the lockdown.
Image: Getty Images/Roberto Finizio

ANDREA CARAVITA ON LIFE IN MILAN, ITALY

Caravita is a communications director.

Until early 2020 my city was the "place to be" in Europe — the capital of fashion, finance, a rising destination for luxury tourism, with new museums, exhibitions and concerts.

Then, during Milan Fashion Week in February, editors who'd flown in from all over the world started rescheduling their flights. They were in Milan but wanted to escape as soon as possible. They found themselves in the city that was the epicentre of Covid-19 in Europe.

In early March, I woke up to see a picture of Milan on the front page of an important US newspaper. It reported that the capital of Italian glamour had become a ghost town. Streets were empty, stores closed and trains full of people escaping the city.

Andrea Caravita.
Andrea Caravita.
Image: Supplied

Milanese people began expressing their love for the city on social media, on balconies, clapping hands for the Italian national health service and flying the national flag from their windows.

After a couple of days the national lockdown started. The night our prime minister addressed the nation on TV, I ran to the supermarket to stock up on food. I felt like a thief during a robbery. I was just buying bread and pasta but I was shaking, panicking, and had no idea what the future would hold.

WhatsApp chats were filled with confidential information from hospitals: doctors were struggling to save lives. Hospitals were full. To help, we all had to stay home. I spent two months at home alone.

I have dedicated my life to fashion. Fashion is Italy's second-largest revenue stream. Covid-19 started its spread at the beginning of the summer shopping season in Europe. Stores have been closed since early March and this means no clothes have been sold. The factories have also been closed. The virus has stopped an enormous sector, often seen as just sparkle, frivolous in comparison to the serious pursuits of life, but it is a huge industrial engine for my country and provides jobs for a large number of people.

We went back to the office for the first time this week. It was empty and clean. Savvy old seamstresses had left their homes for the first time in months to come back and try to rebuild the fashion industry's dreams. Managers are trying not to fire employees, and publicists (like me) are trying to find creative ways of communicating to get the idea across that fashion is so much more than a nice dress. Fashion is personal expression, a way of life and an unlimited source of creative freedom that lifts the spirits of the world. How? We will do it digitally. Hopefully tech will save the dream.

CRAIG WILSON ON LIFE IN NEW YORK, US

Wilson is a news editor at Input Mag and a freelance writer.

New York, I love you, but you might get me killed.

If you're going to move somewhere new just before a pandemic hits you should aim for somewhere affordable. Who knows how low the economy is going to sink, how high unemployment is going to climb, or how long it's all going to drag on for. Low population density is good, too. Aim for somewhere with a garden, and pick a city temperate enough for you to enjoy it. In other words, don't choose New York.

Craig Wilson.
Craig Wilson.
Image: Supplied

No reasonable person sells everything they own and moves to New York to stay inside. Until they do. Until I did.

Just when New Yorkers (and I) thought the worst thing that could happen to the city — or to the rest of the US — was Donald Trump, Covid-19 turned up and made one of the global epicentres of art, commerce, culture, cuisine, and other things you need to leave home to enjoy, the epicentre of the US's share of a global pandemic.

Sure, it's poetic that the self-described Greatest City on Earth in the self-anointed Greatest Country on Earth is now home to the Greatest Number of Infections on Earth. It's this sort of irony-drenched tidiness that only fact, not fiction, can deliver.

The cracks of a system that tethers health insurance to employment and couches systemic inequality in meritocratic rhetoric are showing. Hell, they're glowing and pulsing, like the vein on the temple of the latest White House press secretary tasked with spinning suggestions made by their boss that the nation considers mainlining cleaning products.

The scale of the pandemic is, like New York, unfathomable. So we don't try to fathom. We try to control what little we can

The scale of the pandemic is, like New York, unfathomable. So we don't try to fathom. We try to control what little we can. We've created new routines. We take days off from the news cycle. Practice the new rituals of cleansing, protecting, and being unified in our efforts to stay apart to expedite the day we can come together again ... and complain about it. But social distancing is hard. Not just because there are so many of us in so little space, but because New Yorkers hate being told what to do.

The changing seasons don't help. Here spring and summer are celebrated and savoured through socialising on the city's sidewalks, stairs, and streets. Summer looks set to offer misplaced relief. New infections are likely going to dwindle without disappearing, and as the days get colder they'll escalate all over again.

Meanwhile, despite his chronic ineptitude at crisis management, Trump will likely win again in November, because his opponent — aside from having lost the same race twice before in 1988 and 2008 — is a septuagenarian sex pest without the benefit of also being the incumbent.

Empty streets in New York City.
Empty streets in New York City.
Image: Getty Images/Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

But all is not lost. There are people selling handmade masks in the doorways of their now-shuttered stores in my neighbourhood. Restaurants all over the city are doing assemble-it-yourself meal kits. And every evening at 7pm my neighbours come out on their balconies and whoop and clap and whistle for the city's scrubs-clad heroines and heroes. It doesn't matter if any medical professional witnesses the outpouring of support or is buoyed by the sentiment. Because in doing it we lift ourselves.

We remind one another that we live here because we can't imagine being anywhere else. We live here because nothing is static and that means anything is possible. The effects of the coronavirus will be felt here for a generation. But New Yorkers will speak in reverential terms about how they endured. Because endurance is the price of admission. It's the cost of getting to say "I live in New York".

Every day you wash the city off you so you can bathe in its muck anew the next day. These days, we're all far too clean. But there's going to come a time when we can get dirty again. We're all going to get so dirty.

ESE H ROY-OWEDE ON LIFE IN LAGOS, NIGERIA

Roy-Owede is a change consultant and businessman.

Social distancing and self-isolation in Nigeria are for the privileged. The Nigerian economy isn't made for things like remote work. The oil industry is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy but the majority of Nigerians are in the informal sector.

The pandemic exposes faults in countries all over the world. In Nigeria, it's exposing the extent to which education and health care have been underfunded. We're playing "catch-up", relying on policies implemented by developed countries.

Some businesses have reopened on the first working day after the easing of the lockdown imposed on urban areas like Abuja, Lagos and Ogun. The Nigerian Medical Association has described this as "very premature".

Ese H Roy-Owede.
Ese H Roy-Owede.
Image: Supplied

On Monday in Lagos, traffic jams were absent — many stayed home. A ban on large gatherings is still in place and there is a curfew between 8pm and 6am. People must wear masks in public. The government says this is the first phase of easing the lockdown and that the situation will be assessed in the next two weeks. Sound familiar?

There'll be no eating out, no clubbing, no live bands, no musical shows or any social gatherings, probably until there is a reliable vaccine available. It will have a huge impact on the economy, added to the effects of the collapse of the oil price.

President Muhammadu Buhari said the lockdown has imposed "a heavy economic cost", but the government can now carry out more than 1,000 tests a day — a pittance in a country with 200-million people.

As in most places, the hardship is felt on the ground. More than 90% of the workforce are employed in the informal sector with no access to government support.

The heavy congestion in Lagos and Abuja does not promote social distancing. Nor does the architecture

Many people flouted lockdown guidelines; in fairness to them, the heavy congestion in Lagos and Abuja does not promote social distancing. Nor does the architecture. Markets and shops are open-plan and people are used to exercising outdoors. In some areas of Lagos, where people live in close quarters, attempts at social distancing were chaotic - and abandoned after the first few days.

As the president said, Nigeria doesn't have the resources for a long-term lockdown. Like in SA there's a tussle between saving a fragile economy and an ailing health sector battling a deadly virus. It seems the government has hedged its bets on saving the economy and riding out the virus.

DOMINIQUE LE ROUX ON LIFE IN LAO PEOPLE'S DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

Le Roux is an editor, writer, consultant and publisher.

Slowly it dawned on me — I was being tailed on the runway of what was once one of the busiest airports in the world and one of it's most secret places. I'd been photographing a family of ducks strutting across the airstrip (such an irresistible metaphor: flightless birds at an airfield with no planes). A Lao man in silky boxing shorts and white T seemed interested in what interested me, until I realised I wasn't inspiring him to see his surroundings with new eyes or teaching him to find beauty in the mundane. No, he was tailing me because I wasn't to be trusted, I was to be reported on.

Dominique Le Roux.
Dominique Le Roux.
Image: Supplied

I wasn't supposed to be there. I'd snuck in to Long Chen a few hours earlier through deep mud and night forests with four motorcyclists. A bottle-blonde, short-haired chick in jeans and boots on a dirt bike with a camera sticks out in rural Laos.

Soon a younger man sidled across the runway to "greet" me: "You should go," he said. "Leave now."

This is the story of Laos's survival.

It's a place of secrets and evasions, of steering away strangers, of more than the eye can see — a place where spirits drift off and shadows merge with mystery.

The Lao People's Democratic Republic has been my home for six-and-a-half years. It's a strip of land the size of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal combined, hemmed in on all sides: China to the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia and Thailand to the south, Myanmar to the west. It has the muggiest aspects of KwaZulu-Natal' s climate with the Eastern Cape's rural poverty.

It's a place where people have survived through the centuries by shunning change. Few strangers appear via the unnavigable Mekong River or through the jungled mountains to the north. When the occasional stranger straggles through, they keep their head down and stay at a distance.

Long Chen in Lao People's Democratic Republic.
Long Chen in Lao People's Democratic Republic.
Image: Dominique le Roux

When the CIA's Air America planes took off from that secret runway and tried to obliterate the Lao from the skies because they misunderstood the war in the next-door country they melted into the forest or moved into the mountains, building hospitals, homes and printing presses in caves.

The Lao people won the Secret War by waiting it out, quietly. For nine years, bombs fell. Equivalent to half a ton per man, woman and child. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than 2-million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions — equal to a plane load of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day — making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

That's the way they roll here: dissolving into obscurity.

Social distancing? They've got this. I crave the South African hugs and handshakes, but the Lao "nop": hands together with bowed heads, as if in prayer. The kids' stony-faced stares do my head in. Poker faces all round.

There's no physical contact in public, not even between a man and his wife. Every tuktuk taxi passenger breathes nervously when I get in, in case I don't know that women mustn't touch nor make eye contact with monks.

Lockdowns? Closed borders, enforced disappearances, censorship and curfews have eased over the past few years, but they're still part of the DNA of this communist state. Is the new norm just a return to the old norm?

In Laos, the Northern Heritage Route passes through villages with many different cultures.
In Laos, the Northern Heritage Route passes through villages with many different cultures.
Image: Dominique le Roux

There have been changes since I've been here — there's a cinema, some fledgling shopping centres, coffee shops on every corner defining the new urban cool.

In this Covid crisis, the government has been proactive and transparent, despite the cynicism of expats. But I fear that rural Laos will return to hiding for safety and that new-fangled ideas of gender equality, vaccines, family planning and high-school education will be seen as just more foreign invaders, just like this strange and dangerous disease brought in by Europeans though China (all 19 confirmed cases here so far trace directly to Europe and the UK).

Now, if the government did allow people to travel to the next province, villagers wouldn't let them in. They have scarecrows on the roadsides, and woven-grass messages to bad spirits: "Keep out. Your type isn't welcome."

I keep thinking about that strip of tarmac, which sent and received bombs and opium, rice and mercenaries, loyalty and heroism, and death in bizarre barters, strange even four decades later, after the declassification of documents and published memoirs.

That tarmac is deserted now, save for the ducks, but the legacy of the war remains. It came from the air but is still in the soil, waiting for the industrious and the playful. Rusted unexploded ordnance is still killing rural people: farmers ploughing their rice paddies, children playing with scrap.

Long after this Covid "war" is over, and China and Europe have survived their economic depressions, the lethal virus "bombs" will still be killing villagers: women will die in childbirth because Covid prevented distribution of contraceptives, kids who didn't get vaccinated will get ill, malaria tests won't get made because labs were churning out Covid-19 kits.

And yet, somehow, this quiet heart of Southeast-Asia has evaded the global tragedy thus far. It's part of the mystery in this land of secrets.

ANDREW DONALDSON ON LIFE IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, UK

Donaldson is a South African journalist who wants to live in Scotland.

The English, it's said, refrain from shaking hands with strangers lest this be mistaken for friendship and we pitch up at their homes uninvited for tea. This behaviour runs deep; sociologists point to elaborately coded discussions on the weather which enable them to avoid conversation altogether.

While they consider this reserve acceptable, polite even, the rest of the world, the Scots and Welsh included, deem it standoffish and rude. Social distancing is, in other words, second nature in the Home Counties.

Andrew Donaldson.
Andrew Donaldson.
Image: Supplied

While not as hard as in the cities, the lockdown has affected village life. The schools, community centre, library, shops, restaurants, gyms and nearby malls have closed. So has the pub and the chippy, both revered local institutions. The supermarkets remain open, although we're advised not to shop there too often.

There was a bit of panic-buying at first. As queuing is hardwired into the English DNA, this was all quite orderly.

There was an initial spike in busybodied pettiness. Self-appointed impimpis posted photographs and clips of lockdown transgressions on the neighbourhood WhatsApp group. The school prefect zealotry and public shaming has waned over time.

Life is normal-ish; we work from home, the TV's great, the home deliveries are regular and we get out for walks. The newspaper supplements offer some distraction. The Guardian Weekend magazine's blind date feature continues, but on webcam. The Times Magazine recently reported on the delights of virtual adultery, cheating online and video sexting. There are features on hosting dinner parties on Zoom and travel stories on places we'd never go to anyway.

Columnists moan about nail salon withdrawal syndrome and wanting to kill their husbands. The health writers warn of blobbing. Opening another bottle of wine, they say, is not exercise. Speaking of which, off-licence sales soared by a whopping 30% in March.

St Mary the Virgin church in Buckinghamshire, where even the chippy is closed.
St Mary the Virgin church in Buckinghamshire, where even the chippy is closed.
Image: Getty Images/Steve Parsons

But a tragedy is unfolding. The Covid-19 fatalities are catastrophic and the country is on track to record the worst death rate in Europe. Downing Street, like some other governments, is tackling the pandemic as if it's a war and not a health crisis. Not just any war, mind, but that war, and Boris Johnson has styled his response to the crisis on that war-time leader. There is much Blitz bluster; the island will never surrender and the coronavirus will be fought on the beaches and in the hedgerows.

The Churchill schtick continued even as Johnson took ill. When he emerged from hospital, he did so as a symbol of pluck and resilience. The birth of his son shortly afterwards was another tonic for the troops. "Good news at last for Britain," said The Sun.

Except that it's not. A major row is brewing over the government's lack of preparation and its Covid-19 planning failures. In a development that has been described as "very worrying", coroners have been told that inquests into coronavirus deaths among NHS staffers should avoid examining the systemic failures in the provision of personal protective equipment. Doctors and nurses have complained for weeks they do not feel safe at work because of the countrywide shortage of PPE.

Every Thursday evening, people across Britain are urged to stand outside their front doors and applaud the NHS for a few minutes in an expression of gratitude for their heroic work. One nurse recently appeared on the news to share her disquiet about this. "Don't call me a hero," she said. "Heroes die."

BAMBINA OLIVARES ON LIFE IN MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Olivares is an author, journalist and brand and media strategist.

I wake up every morning to piercing blue skies and candy-floss clouds, my bedroom window a frame for a canvas of lush green leaves, and I think: "This is the Manila of my dreams." It's a blissful, soothing yet deeply unsettling sight. The slight sliver of street I'm able to glimpse from the guardhouse of my gated community is deserted, and the air isn't choked with pollution.

Just before dusk, the sky is streaked with bands of soft pink and violent orange and I can only imagine how glorious the sunset must be over Manila Bay. It's an alternate Eden, where everything is just picture-perfect but dystopian. Where are the people who give the city its soul?

A city on lockdown is a city silenced. The pandemic has even dictated its own dress code: face masks, face shields, disposable gloves, accessorised with disinfectant wipes and alcohol spray or hand sanitiser. For those who take their fashion cues from Naomi Campbell, a hazmat suit could become a wardrobe staple.

Manila Bay.
Manila Bay.
Image: Getty Images

I'm not sure what the "new normal" will bring, but the pandemic normal, I confess, rather suits me. As the days blur into each other, they go swiftly and I haven't once been bored in the almost two months of what the government calls "enhanced community quarantine". Perhaps it's because work takes up a lot of time, but there's also a marked absence of the frenzy and stress that typified a regular day for me during the old normal.

Comfortably caged as I am in my home with its bamboo-fringed garden, there's a side to the pandemic normal in this country that's become increasingly alarming. Granted, the lockdown was necessary to flatten the curve, but is militarising the official response to so-called quarantine violators — the joggers in the streets, those taking in the sun in their private gardens, or those not wearing a mask - the solution?

Of course, the police in this country only go where they're ordered and assert their right to threaten, arrest, detain and shoot for as long as they have permission to do so. And if that permission comes from the very top, then what chance does the ordinary citizen have?

Bambina Olivares.
Bambina Olivares.
Image: Supplied

If only leaders heeded the science of infectious diseases rather than their own unconstitutional, despotic instincts. Herding people into detention in crowded holding cells is exactly the kind of milieu the coronavirus adores; hand it a cocktail as it goes about broadening its circle of social acquaintances, will you, Sergeant?

It baffles me that men of authoritarian bent think that a campaign of fear and repression is more effective than education and compassion, and yes, ample preparation. You only need look at the example of nations led by women who've responded realistically to the pandemic with a combination of straight talk, common sense and empathy, to see what a difference an extra X chromosome makes.

Here we lack a leader with the grit of Angela Merkel, the kind-heartedness of Jacinda Ardern, the steely practicality of Tsai Ing-Wen, the foresight of Carrie Lam and the quick thinking of other women heads of state like Katrin Jakobsdottir, Sana Marin, Erna Solberg and Mette Frederiksen.

But just as some governments have chosen to weaponise their response to an invisible but lethal enemy, concerned citizens have weaponised the internet and called out the unwarranted abuses of power. And that tells me that as long as its inhabitants express their outrage and fight for decency, accountability, respect and kindness, Manila has not lost its soul. And that the Manila of my dreams is still very much alive.

ROSS DOUGLAS ON LIFE IN PARIS, FRANCE

Douglas is an entrepreneur and all-rounder

I moved to Paris five years ago to start a business promoting sustainable urban mobility solutions. I run an annual trade show, Autonomy Paris, that exhibits alternatives to single car ownership and driving.

In January and February, our team of 10 were selling this year's trade show scheduled for the first week of November at La Villette in Paris. None of our clients, with the exception of two Chinese companies, were worried about the impacts of Covid-19.

Ross Douglas.
Ross Douglas.
Image: Supplied

On March 15 the French government was encouraging its citizens to go out and vote in the municipal elections taking place across the country. The next day it did a U-turn and declared a lockdown.

Like everyone else in the country, we started télétravail the next day and now start our mornings at 10am with the Zoom team meeting.

A lockdown is the last thing you want when you own a trade show that makes money from businesses that move people in cities. The big concern for cities like Paris is that urbanites will return to car use to avoid public transit. The city has worked tirelessly on measures that have reduced car ownership from 60% in 2001 to 35% today and doesn't want that trend to reverse. The city is rolling out additional bike lanes in the hope that Parisians turn to bikes, not cars.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.
The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.
Image: Getty Images

On a national level, the government last week announced a €20m (R400m) plan for repairing bicycles, installing temporary bike parking spaces and financing cycling coaching sessions.

The one major upside to the lockdown has been the clear blue skies - no pollution and no vapour trails. I take my two small children out every day on a cargo bike and ride up to Montmartre to look out over Paris. Now that Parisians and others in Europe have experienced such low pollution levels in their cities, there's a strong commitment from policymakers and citizens to keep it that way when life returns to normal. For this reason, my clients believe that in the long term this will be good for their businesses.

After the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, announced that social distancing will be the primary tool to fight the virus until there is a vaccine, I converted my trade show into an online trade show.

Despite living in a small apartment, with two young kids and having a business that's directly affected by the coronavirus, I have been surprised at the benefits that have arisen. I have more quality meetings as people have more time. I've also been amazed how everyone is now open to collaborating, which is not common in France. I've been able to build partnerships with other event companies that would have been unimaginable a few months ago.

Obviously this is going to be a difficult period for businesses that are unable to go digital. My favourite brunch restaurant down the road used to seat 60 people and employ 12 staff. The owner now sells cappuccinos through a hole in the wall. But for those of us who can go digital, these will be exciting times. We'll be able to reach bigger audiences at a fraction of the cost.

NADINE RUBIN NATHAN ON LIFE IN AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

Rubin Nathan is a former editor of ELLE South Africa, a journalist and literary agent.

When I moved from New York to Auckland almost six years ago, a friend joked I should see it as an opportunity to retire — a joke that filled me with dread as I was only 41 at the time. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a city that thrummed with energy. A whirlwind of dinners with friends at excellent Auckland eateries, art gallery openings, literary events and concerts ensued — not quite New York, but busy.

Our young daughters complained we went out too much. So it came as a surprise to really enjoy being forced to stay at home for the past six weeks since March 25 when our fabulous prime minister, the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern closed the borders and asked New Zealanders to “go hard and go early” into lockdown.

Nadine Rubin Nathan.
Nadine Rubin Nathan.
Image: Supplied

I’ve been tallying the gains of lockdown — quiet streets, time to look inward, quality family time even if just to sit down to lunch together before returning to our different corners of the house to Zoom meetings or lessons, baking cupcakes and bread — and also realising how lucky we are to not be locked in as my family in SA were or to have the traumatic daily death toll outside our door as my sister in New York has.

Staying oblivious in one’s bubble isn’t easy when so many others in New Zealand are suffering with job losses. I worry about those who were already in hardship — one in seven households in New Zealand, including about 220,000 children.

A daily Zoom with three friends — something that started as a simple online catchup to stay sane and have a break from family time — quickly turned into a Covid response when we decided to use fabrics we had at home to sew face masks and donate them to women and children in safe houses as a result of family violence.

The results of New Zealand’s lockdown have been nothing short of miraculous. We ’ve managed to avoid the tens of thousands of cases that could have overwhelmed our health-care system, not to mention the deaths that were predicted in the thousands.

My children are still at home, with us as their teachers. Even with the current results, Ardern has asked that Kiwis remain in their bubbles for now to lock in the gains we’ve made.