The slow rumble of the kettle syncs to Freddie Mercury’s tenor in ‘Under Pressure’, in perfect acknowledgment of current times. As I sip my morning Darjeeling tea, the day’s first messages inundate my mailbox, welcoming me to Day Five of quarantine – March 27, 2020.
I am Sangya Chatterjee, writing from the heart of pandemic-struck Europe in the state of Baden Wϋrttemburg, West Germany.
I arrived in Germany as an aspiring scientist in November 2019. Heidelberg, an international town thriving with students, reminded me a lot of my alma mater IIT Kharagpur. In January 2020 when COVID-19 hit Germany, I remember not being alarmed. It seemed a lot like chickenpox season in the student hostels during spring – a season of intense panic and heightened hygiene awareness which vanished as quickly as it set. Soon enough, I was proved wrong.
For the next one month, the situation was a contained cluster in the state of Bavaria. It had people’s attention, but nothing more. COVID-19 was something which was still a foreign concern. Apart from tram and lunchtime conversations, it seemed like a distant nightmare that China, Iran and Italy were primarily battling with. To people in the scientific fraternity (including me), it mostly seemed to arouse academic interest. ‘What does this virus look like? How similar is it to the SARS-CoV? Would a vaccine against MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV work against SARS-CoV-2 as well?’ To others, it was more of a question on whether the non-refundable flight tickets for the Easter holidays were worth cancelling. But it hadn’t impacted our everyday agency, not yet.
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On March 1, the number of recorded cases in Germany doubled to 117. By the third week of March, it stood at a staggering 30,000. This span of three weeks saw not only an exponential rise in cases, but a paradigm shift in the psychological impact on and actions of people. The federal governments decided to shut down all stores except for supermarkets and pharmacies, where a mandatory personal distance of 1.5 metres had to be maintained. Many supermarkets restricted the number of entries as well. Restaurants introduced limited takeaway options. Schools and universities shut down and offices started the minimum operation mode. In a lot of workplaces, chairs, desks and tables were rearranged to avoid interpersonal contact. A special pass was introduced for workplace-entry and in some cases, daily travel.
On March 20, as I entered my office, I was greeted by a mail saying that from the coming week, all laboratories have been closed indefinitely. I felt a lot of emotions (relief was one of them, I admit), which were hard to put a finger on. But we shall come to that later. A limited curfew was imposed, where in people couldn’t move in groups of more than two, unless living under the same roof – in an uncanny resemblance to Section 144 imposed in India in a not-so-distant-past. We were officially at war – with an enemy about which we were learning new things everyday. And like all wars, it brought out the unexpected in people.
Quarantine meant a lot of things. But mostly free time. Most people used this time at the supermarkets. It was also a means to get out of the house. While there wasn’t a disruption in the demand-supply chain in terms of production, hoarding induced it. With people ravaging shelves empty, there was no option but to buy in excess when fresh stocks arrived. The first thing that stores ran out of was toilet paper and canned food. I found it mildly baffling as to how toilet paper could be our Noah’s Arc in case of a biological apocalypse. Stress-induced diarrhoea? Maybe. Or a bad stomach from all the canned food. What were mostly left were perishables.
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I saw this as an excuse to upgrade my diet to fresh leafy greens and make my mother proud. Hand sanitisers and soaps were like bars of gold. So I gave in to my Indian sensibilities of frugality and did what I swore to myself I’d never do – dilute my handwash (okay, shampoo as well) with water. I mean, desperate times call for desperate needs.
Keeping the capitalistic commodity fetishism aside, there was another not-so-humorous undercurrent. While the medical infrastructure in Germany is coping pretty well with a capacity for 160,000 tests per week, the sudden loss of normalcy was palpable. When our daily lives are disrupted and we are forced to cope with a new routine that is imposed on us, a sustained stress inevitably arises. Especially as an international student on an employment visa, there is a feeling of insecurity regarding the inability to work. The financial insecurity is more impending in people working in self-employed or private ventures where the state cannot ensure coverage for the employees.
As far as research is concerned, funding became more unreliable and many institutes saw employee cuts. Compounded with this, is the loss of familiar ground in a faraway place miles from home. Also, since the current situation demands self-isolation, it isn’t possible to rely emotionally on others or be gregarious. Although I wouldn’t describe the atmosphere as one of mindless chaos and panic, there is an air of anticipatory grief and fear as to what new decree the state would pass and how our lives would further change over the next few days. And the cherry on top is the obvious health risk and the realisation that in case I do fall sick, I am on my own. The streets, buses and parks lying empty are reminiscent of a ghost town that waits for the devil to strike at night. Or the next night. Or the next.
Quarantine also means a break. A lot of those books sitting on the dusty shelves came down. The kitchen saw a lot of experiments, many of which admittedly failed. And I could type out my story to reach out to you. While many communities, especially in a class-distinct society like India, can’t afford extended periods of unemployment – and here I acknowledge my privilege in saying this – quarantine wasn’t all bad. Even when it came at a hefty price.
Is the worst over? I don’t know. No one knows. While reports on the ‘flattening case curve’ seem like a silver lining, the only thing we can do right now is wait. And wash our hands. As for me, I am waiting for the day I can book my tickets for the Dussehra holidays and go back home.
Sangya Chatterjee is an aspiring scientist who loves reading, singing and going to cinema while digging into a big tub of popcorn.
Featured image credit: Eduard Militaru/ Unsplash