Thoughts on Social Distancing and the Coronavirus Pandemic – Part I
…just me and my dog wandering the night streets
like Will Smith in I am Legend...
In the meantime, “Murder Hornets” have invaded the US.
I’m guessing the biblical locusts can’t be that far behind…“
Art & Words by Fanitsa Petrou
Remember those diaries we used to keep as kids? Those of us who were lucky to have been born in the late 60s, early 70s, in the time before the “shift”. Before screens started sucking up everything around us, back when we were allowed to live unrecorded lives, have innocent secrets we were not meant to publicise, photos we would never share with strangers, habits we were not meant to advertise. Words and thoughts, which were meant to be for us. A sense of self, that was not formed by likes and followers.
We would usually receive them as Xmas gifts, from clueless aunts who thought we needed even more reasons to be introvert and unhealthily focused on every minute detail of the things that hurt us. They usually had tiny, flimsy keys (that were obviously supposed to protect our privacy from tiny little elves), and ponies with rainbow manes on the cover. And if not ponies, then drawings of girls with huge eyes and ponytails that came down to their knees, who were holding flowers while having pensive thoughts – no doubt – about boys.
We would be vigilant at first, choosing quiet corners, writing furiously, hand capped over the page protecting our secrets from thoughtless adults and nosey siblings, but by the third week of January, we would predictably get bored with them and give them up. Because let’s face it, how many times can you begin each entry with “Dear diary, I hate my life!”? Usually on account of not being Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, living in a bookstore (this alone could do it!) and being discovered by (a preferably younger) Fred Astaire (even as kids we could recognise the ridiculousness of that mismatch) who would take us to Paris to meet existential philosophers and be photographed at Champs-Élysées, holding balloons and pigeons. Or to be more precise, to be the one who came up with the idea… (Which might mean the “Think Pink!” lady! was the dream, not Audrey Hepburn…)
Well it’s been decades (four to be exact), and here I am again attempting to keep an isolation journal of sorts, marking time on a hypothetical prison wall, as it were. I got another one as a gift. I’m actually not kidding. It’s a leather bound notebook actually. It’s hand-stitched, and has markings and seals and yellowish – no doubt recycled – pages, and a smell… Tree-free and acid free I was told – never mind about the water buffalo that had to offer it’s skin. It even has a crystal in the middle (amber? citrine?) like something out of Harry Potter. The “memoriae stone” or something like that… One of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received! (Thank you A.) Writing longhand in it, makes me feel like one of those female explorers who were crossing the Sahara on camels, stopping at Cairo for tea, and writing nostalgic prose about sunsets on the Serengeti. Now I wish I was wearing a riding culotte, or at the very least, a safari jacket. Or that I had something more romantic to write about, involving the beduins’s song rising in the night, and not the purchase of toilet paper…
I don’t know why, but 2020 just feels lucky, you know?! Yes sir! 2020 is going to be spectacular! I feel it in my bones! Something great this way comes! I’m never wrong about these things!
News of a new mysterious decease is being reported. People in far away lands (China, then Thailand) getting sick, leaving scientists perplexed, and the rest of us feeling mildly interested, sad, but still safe, you know? Talks of bats and snakes being eaten in weird meat bazaars being the cause of it add an exotic touch, and the vague certainty that this won’t affect us. This sort of thing doesn’t happen here. This has nothing to do with us, we tell ourselves. This is still going to be a great GREAT year! No doubt about that one. Plus the mean thought: Meat eaters. What do you expect?
The mysterious virus had made its way to Europe, Australia, the USA. In pharmacies, people begin to casually ask about masks. In the week that follows, they will be less coy, less eager to prove they are not really scared, less self-conscious about how they will look if they buy whole boxes of them.
The city of Wuhan, the city of patient 0, is mentioned daily in the news, and gradually so are the numbers of confirmed cases in Asia, Australia, France, America.
58 millions living in four cities in China are quarantined. We are still surprised by this news; not quite believing it might affect us. This is after all our year!
I start a new illustration with Frida Kahlo wearing a mask.
What is it about her that fascinates all artists? We all love creating portraits of hers (God knows I have created my share!) Those eyebrows, those flower crowns, that hair, those skull earrings, those clothes, those shawls. That defiant stare. That fragility! It’s like one of us has created her in our minds… No wonder we all love painting her… She is still being rediscovered by generations of artists who are keeping her memory alive.
New cases are confirmed in Canada, Germany, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Singapore, Russia, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, the US, the UAE. The tally of deaths shocks us daily. This is getting serious. This is now real!
I decline an invitation to a dinner party, on account that I would rather stay home… Dinner parties still take place, yes. And I still hate them. Especially this kind: a room full of accountants and bankers – my basic nightmare – who think there is only one way of doing things: theirs. Me, being the hostess’s attempt at proving to them that she is open-minded really, and “cool”: “Look everyone I invited an artist!” (as in a three-eyed alien who speaks in tongues) The entire room cornering me, giving me those looks that are a strange mix of envy and utter contempt, asking me in total disbelief “and you make money out of this?”…
I start a new painting. Another Fantasy Art piece (An Art Nouveau inspired Mermaid, titled “Mermaid Dreams” – Because that is what the world needs during a pandemic: mermaid art…
I decide that I will record the process. Be one with the times for once. Betray my principles and break the fourth wall… (Being an artist is no longer enough. You have to be watched being one, as well…)
China’s Health Commission reports that there are at least 80,651 confirmed cases in China!
The first local confirmed case. The shadow is approaching our doorstep. In the meantime, Iran releases 70,000 prisoners because of the coronavirus outbreak in the country! Wow!
Much like people in WWII movies, we now can’t leave home unless we have a permit and identification papers. So retro. So scary! You are half expecting to hear the policemen (who are suddenly patrolling the streets) to bark at you “Ihre papiere, bitte”
The World Health Organization declares that it considers the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic. (Yethink?!).
“Mermaid Dreams” is finished. I post an Art process video on Youtube. It gets no views. Am I supposed to let anyone know that it's out there? I haven't a clue. The fourth wall is safely up… Not even a crack…
As I’m searching through old paintings, I come across two, which are meant to offer a theoretical glimpse into the future. They both depict mask-wearing people. They were both made in 1999… (otherwise known as “my last good year” before I was apparently cursed by a gypsy)
I start a series of designs inspired by what is happening around us.
Europe is now the epicentre of the pandemic. Italy is mourning 4,825 deaths! We hear stories about doctors being forced to make tough decisions: Who gets the ventilator? Who gets to live? Who dies? It has come to that…
The first death is reported here, and a curfew is imposed. The irrational, selfish thought: like they couldn’t do this on th 1st of the month? What a brilliant excuse it would be for declining that dinner party thing! “I’m so sorry, the government says I shouldn’t! It kills me, as there’s nothing that I want more than spend 4 hours with a group of people who bore me to the point of tears and cause me to have dark thoughts about the future of humanity, but there you go. It’s forbidden.”
Time to follow the global trend and stock up on toilet paper. And tea. And biscuits. The apocalypse won’t find us unprepared…
The lockout measures become even more restricting, after a bunch of idiots were discovered by the police having a bingo block party. (I kid you not!) Now we are only allowed to go out once a day, and each time we do, we need to let the government know via text! Much like when women are dealing with a jealous and unreasonable husband: we are being infantilized for our “own protection”.
New cases are recorded daily. Time to stop pretending this is not serious and invest in some masks. Pharmacist says they are out of stock. It pays to panic early.
After going to three pharmacies, I was finally able to buy two disposable masks. Two!They are rationed like sugar during wars… Thank goodness for the countless scarves I have bought (and designed!) over the years. I knew there was a reason. Floral is the new black.
We are now banned from leaving our home after 9.00 in the evening and until 6.00 in the morning. Which prompts the question: where the hell would I go after 9.00? And also: why??
Going to the supermarket feels like you are suddenly on the set of a dystopian movie. People in masks, blurry eyed tellers hidden behind glass windows, whole sections full of now unreachable to you goods being cut off by yellow police tape.
Who would have thought that in the face of an apocalypses, we would all be united in our belief that our most precious commodity is toilet paper?
Upon returning home I spend an hour and half sanitising every single item. Maybe death by coronavirus is preferable to this?
Feeling dizzy and tired. It could be the guy who coughed on me at the supermarket the other day, has given me the coronavirus. Or possibly the bubonic plaque. Or it could be the fact that I haven’t slept in days and have eaten my weight in biscuits.
Now I wish I have vacuumed. If I die during the night, the ambulance people will be faced with a serious accumulation of dust bunnies, should they feel the urge to look underneath the bed. My mum was right all along. Always be prepared. In case you die.
Random thought: do celebrities and billionaires force their staff to be locked with them during the quarantine? Like Egyptian Pharaohs taking their slaves into the grave with them in order to serve them in the afterlife? I bet they do. I can’t imagine any of them doing laundry or scrapping the dog’s vomit from the carpet… I bet they keep them locked up with them, so that they will be kept in a constant supply of superfood smoothies and insanely complicated Keto salmon dishes.
16 new confirmed cases, all people working at a bakery chain. I have now stopped buying bread.
Introverts are finally taking their revenge: extroverts are having a tough time as are unprepared (and possibly unable) to sit still for five minutes and be alone with their own thoughts… Nobody laughing at their jokes, nobody urging them on, nobody praising them, nobody becoming the mirror on which their self is reflected… Must be tough.
Yes, this is easy for me. I was social distancing long before it was cool. In fact I’m a fucking pro! What does it say about you when a quarantine is imposed, and your life is not dramatically changed? Or that you can’t help but think “this lockdown business is not half bad” on account of now being certain that everybody else is also at their home and not attempting to come to yours uninvited and unannounced. Were ever more scary words uttered via a mobile phone, than “guessed where I am now?” followed by a knock on the door? How difficult is it for people to get it that you work from home? When did I ever randomly dropped by their office, the bank, the classroom, the shop in which they work, expecting to be fed cake and proceeded to talk for four hours and a half about my ex? How come I’m supposed to get it, that this is not right, but they never do?
Say what you want about the corona virus. It at least saved us from the random“pop-ins”.
The fact that going out for purposes of exercise or for walking your dog are two of the few things we are still allowed to do, has turned people into athletes all of a sudden. Is it because gyms are now closed? It could explain it. Or maybe it’s just cabin fever that turned all these people into marathon runners and dog lovers. The streets are suddenly full of joggers, bicycle riders, roller skaters, dog walkers. Where were all these people before the lockout, you wonder. And more importantly: where were all these dogs peeing for all this time? Are they borrowed? Are these the same 10 dogs? Do these people take turns taking them on walks?
It’ s young people mostly, in their 20s, early 30s. In trendy gym get-ups, proper running gear, gadgets and no doubt, apps, that record every step (because did they really run if you don’t know how many steps they took?). Everywhere you go, they are coming at you from every street, like shiny, robust zombies. It took them a couple of days to discover this new obsession mind you (or for the Amazon packages with the running gear to arrive, possibly). In the first days of the lockout, the streets were eerie, empty, deserted. No cars or pedestrians, just me and my dog wandering the night streets like Will Smith in I am Legend. Finally feeling free to sing out loud as I’m walking. I want to pretend I was singing along some obscure band, or at least something properly cool, like early David Bowie or Cult, but sadly it’s mostly showtunes, Billy Joel and Abba. Yes. Abba. Shut up! That’s the soundtrack of my happy place… Give it a go before you laugh at it… ) while thinking guiltily that this new isolation business is a delight! Oh, I could get used to this. In fact I’m loving it! No waiting at the traffic lights, no other dogs barking at yours, no creepy strangers scaring you in the park. (A night street without men feels suddenly safe! Who knew it was possible to feel that in one’s lifetime?) It didn’t last long. The hordes of young joggers have descended upon us. All of them mask-less / scarf-less mind you.
Everywhere you go it’s the same. People over a certain age use masks, scarves over their mouths, gloves, sanitizers. They keep their distance, they take precautions. They got the message. They know what’s all about. They get it that this is not just another thing to add on Instagram. This can actually kill them. They are shameless in their desire to be protected by the possibility of an agonising death. Middle aged people are additionally aware that if they get sick, their parents might too, and it might end badly… Most young people, just because they are mostly immune to this fresh hell, just don’t give a damn. The fact that they could be asymptomatic carriers of the decease which they could pass on to older people, their parents and grandparents for example (not to mention every older stranger they meet) who might get sick and die, doesn’t seem to affect them much. Death lurks out there. But not for them. (A definition of youth if I ever saw one. But also of old age… That’s how we are all defined and by which we measure things: by our proximity to death) So they don’t bother with masks, gloves, the like… And they look at you (the mask wearing, careful, sanitising, you) condescendingly, with that mix of arrogance, contempt and amusement. If at all, given that you become invisible to them the minute you turn 45. That’s the thing about youth. It makes you fearless. And a little bit heartless…
They are of course the same people who will pontificate for hours on social media about the melting of polar ice caps, who will organise fundraisers (public and publicized it goes without saying) that ask people to sponsor their every haircut, and every single cupcake they bake, or else set up businesses that have “social impact” angles: with each wooden bow tie (don’t get me started), with each “bespoken” backpack, with each made-out-of-reclaimed-wood bedside table you buy, with each “I-have-just-invented-the-steam-machine- beard” you trim, you rescue a kitten, you plant a tree, you save a dolphin, a baby elephant, the Earth, the universe, or else a trans individual gets a tiara. So when you buy what they are selling, you are not simply giving them your money but also praise! Sweet, life-giving, public, precious, PRECIOUS! praise! (Don’t kid yourselves kids, that’s what is really about. That’s your crack. Because when your own comfort is on the line, or when the good you do is likely to go unnoticed you are not as eager to “give” are you?)
“How about saving your parents and grandparents from a pandemic?” you want to shout to them as they are wandering maskless, gloveless, footloose and fancy free in supermarket aisles, breathing into your face, leaning on you to reach their organic oatmeals, their obscure beer brands, their super-food idiocies… “How about rescuing senior citizens and middle aged women this month? How about making THEM you new mission? If this madness continues, they are about to be extinct too… Give it a rest on the dolphins for a day, and wear a damn mask for the sake of those you have given you life, you thoughtless, self-delusional, narcissistic, self- congratulating fools”!
What if there was an app sending some kind of message on social media (a balloon emoticon, the sound of clapping, the cheering of adoring crowds, or better still the promise of a thousand Likes and a horde of followers?) each time they don’t cough on you, each time they wear a mask when they step out? I bet they would jump on it.
Next time I see any one of them approaching me dangerously close, I swear I will start singing to them: “…Waterloo – I was defeated, you won the war / Waterloo – Promise to love you for ever more/ Wooooaaaaaaterloo – Finally facing my Waterloo…” If that doesn’t put the fear of God into them, I don’t know what will…
I’m quite proud of myself for not going full shut-in mode, and resisting the urge to stay in my PJs all day long. Not to say I’m not tempted…
People are getting dressed to take the garbage out (and of course taking videos of themselves and posting them on social media) It’s actually starting to make a little sense… (While just a week ago seemed ludicrous)
Women all over the world are discovering the joys of not giving a damn about their looks, as they are now working from home (Unless they are married of course. No off days allowed if they are… Gotta keep that man interested, they have been told. (Nobody told men the same, it goes without saying) Though they are not thinking this through. Where is he gonna go?)
This is how men exist in the world I guess. They wake up, have a shower (if at all), eat their prepared by a woman breakfast (a mother, a wife, a girlfriend, a daughter, a sister, a maid), put on a freshly ironed shirt (freshly ironed by one of the above) and off they go to work, ready to conquer the world. While women are getting up 2 hours earlier at the very least, getting everybody ready and fed, and on top of that, doing their hair and make up, balancing on high heels, trying outfit after outfit, always searching for that elusive one that won’ t make them feel invisible, unimportant, undesirable, unacceptable and 10 different kinds of inadequate (too fat, too thin, too short, too tall, too slutty, too serious, too unfit, too fit, too sexy, too unsexy, and (regardless of their age) always not young enough, and generally speaking too anything other than what men decide they should be, at any given moment in time…) Already defeated by their day, before it even begins…Becausebeing accomplished, intelligent, well educated, hard working, good at their job, is never really enough, is it?
“Why does it take you so long to get ready?” we are being asked by the men in our life. “Look at me. I’m ready in 5 minutes” they tell us smugly. Oblivious to the fact