The thought to create a collaborative journal at lockdownjournal.com was spurred by the sudden closing of borders in March 2020 – a dramatic shift that forced many of us to realise we had not truly imagined lockdown until it was upon us. In my own household in Sri Lanka, we had just decided it was time to confine ourselves, only days before our government decided for us. We prepared (not very well) for ourselves and for my parents who were poised either to return to Colombo on the last regular flight or settle further into the home they’d made while working in Dhaka, depending on which was more possible in the circumstances.
As we headed into physical isolation, I felt we were more conscious than ever of our connections to each other across the world. In Sri Lanka, the public first took real notice when a local tour guide caught COVID-19 from a group of Italian tourists he had been showing around the country. The spread of the virus itself spoke more intimately of our interconnectedness than the platitudes or the shackles of globalisation. When we spoke to friends in other parts of the world, we found shared preoccupations. I had often bemoaned the geopolitical dispersal in these conversations – for a change, it seemed we were all living in precisely the same world.
Would the journal become a repository of bourgeois minutiae from across the globe?
The journal I set up was a minor attempt to reach across our closed borders and record parallel experience, and in a very small way resist our shrinking to national realities. Anyone, anywhere, could contribute an account of a day lived in lockdown or during the continuing spread of novel coronavirus. ‘Solidarity from at least two metres away’ reads the tagline.
The idea seemed to me a cliché of the sort of thing we do online – one might joke that we now even gather to write our diaries together, unable to do anything at all without outward display. I was sure there must already be many such repositories; indeed, I was a little surprised to find that in mid-March 2020, the URL lockdownjournal.com was still available. But here was a crisis that was actually new to most of us and one craved a longer, quieter form to reflect on it than breaking news or social media feeds would allow – a chance to think in days rather than moments.
I did the obligatory rounds of second-guessing. We could not possibly create a detailed chronicle of a time. By necessity, those who would contribute would only be those who had the spare time, resources and mental space to do so – to say nothing of online access, easy literacy and the option to express themselves in English. We would be writing about a pandemic from which we weren’t suffering acutely – it was unlikely the sick would be keeping a diary, much less the carers, front-line medical staff, daily wage earners without work, stranded migrants, the ‘illegal’ stateless or refugees in worsened camp conditions. Would the journal become a repository of bourgeois minutiae from across the globe? My anxiety was in part that self-defeating, oversimplifying, contemporary fear of the fragment – we do everything in the knowledge that someone will point out that we are not representative enough. But it was also a purer fear of ourselves and what we have become. Would we, the privileged, be exposing ourselves? In fact, this second question tempted me. I drove through my hesitation for the sake of a possibility we might paint pictures of our lives without being able to anticipate how we would look back on them. We might tell a story we could only understand later. When I reflect on these impulses now, I wonder if I dared to hope the world would change more quickly than it has.
Entries began arriving immediately, initially in response to a test balloon sent up on social media and before I had even configured the journal site. Within a week, I began to receive accounts from total strangers, beyond the interconnecting circles of friends of friends. It was not surprising that articles about the journal in The Hindu and Firstpost should expand the network of contribution, especially from Indian and Southasian diasporas around the world. But asking contributors where they heard about the site, I was struck to find, for example, that a number could apparently be traced to a pair of posts on Facebook and LinkedIn by the British Psychotherapy Foundation (to which I have no known connection). Of course, news itself spreads along hidden lines of close contact. Over eight months the site has gathered over 200 entries by close to 75 different writers. They came from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brunei, Bangladesh, Germany, India, Jamaica, Jordan, Kashmir, Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Peru, Portugal, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Looking back at the entries now, I see they begin anxiously. They show how little we knew in March about the virus, how unknown the bogeyman. A BBC journalist on his way to work in London, deemed an essential worker, is acutely conscious of space: how he and two women walking towards him will share the pavement, whether the guards at New Broadcasting House have enough space, how a huddle of homeless people are gathered together by necessity. A woman over 70 is disoriented by her classification as a vulnerable person: Will the neighbours report me to the police when I get in my car or walk out to see the sunset? The young shop assistant said I didn’t look 70. How absurd to be so ridiculously pleased.
At this point, everyone, everywhere, is checking case numbers. A Kashmiri doctor records the chaos and stigma in a ward of the hospital where she works in Dhaka, following first suspicion of a COVID-19 positive patient. Another Kashmiri woman, this time in Bangalore, reports on 22 March: After 9pm, when the Janata curfew ended people started to show up at our house or on the roads. Almost everyone who comes here or calls asks, ‘How did you Kashmiris survive the lockdown for six months?’ I shrug my shoulders. The gesture is defensive but the journal is full of people worrying about the places they are from but may not live in, or places in which other people live whom they love – a map of geographical intimacies.
Instantly – even in March – the effects of lockdown, rather than the virus itself, tell in people’s personal lives. A wedding cannot take place as planned, grandparents are not able to meet their new-born grandchildren, and people who find themselves in different countries from their partners, holding different passports, face up to the prospect of prolonged separation. It seems that across the world people are already facing disruption to the previously accepted essentials of personal life, and doing so with an equanimity usually known only to people and places in explicit conflict. But on 2 April, an introverted software engineer in Bangalore finds that a postponed wedding also allows him and his fiancée a little more time to get to know each other, over the phone, before the wedding:
Night falls and I talk to her. Did I mention she is also an introvert? That we both have difficulty keeping up a conversation? Although we have come a long way since we first met in October 2019, we still find difficulty in talking about things. Sometimes we let the silence take the driving seat. Sometimes we hit on something that just takes us till morning. And sometimes we say something so beautiful that waking up next day does not feel tiring or frustrating or, dare I say, lonely.
There are recurring concerns in entries, especially in the anticipation of prolonged lockdown – it seems the young everywhere are worried for their elders (so much for clichés to the contrary). It goes without saying that we are all preoccupied with food: the sourcing, substitution and cooking of what can be found. Of course, all of this takes place at the least urgent or inconvenienced end of the spectrum of need; that fortunate state in which we cook for literal sustenance but also as a process through which to calm, pace, nurture and entertain ourselves. Just as inevitably, many contributors are also preoccupied with parenting their children, without school, reprieve or access to the outdoors – in this case, parenting as a process through which we question, doubt, fail and disintegrate.
One contributor commented on the role that the journal itself played in his early lockdown days: he said that reading it was something to look forward to, a note added to life at a moment when the tendency was for things to be taken away. He said he also welcomed the warming of a locked down, self-absorbed world with accounts of other people’s days from elsewhere on the planet. Indeed, it is a rarity, pandemic or no pandemic, that we have a chance to chart the rhythm of a whole day lived by another person.
One sometimes wonders if our heightened contemporary awareness of privilege helps us avoid actually addressing inequalities.
This still does not explain why people wrote to the journal. Was it precisely for solidarity? Did they have more time than usual or were they in fact more pressed? More than one contributor mentioned in a note accompanying a submission that they were writing while their children slept or stealing time from precious working hours – suggesting that what the journal offered them was a quiet place to retreat and reflect.
I used to teach a cabinet-of-curiosities class on the journal form; in it I would use James Boswell’s London journals of 1762-1763 to illustrate self-conscious performativity and Virginia Woolf’s wry entries on the end of World War I in her own journals, to debate the uses of personal impressionistic accounts in helping us to look back on historical moments. Woolf’s entry for 11 November 1918 begins “Twentyfive minutes ago the guns went off announcing peace” – over that day and the next, she paints a vivid picture but does so from a high altitude, the account coloured in with class prejudice. If I am forced to identify an intention for the Lockdown Journal, it probably was to spark this form of revelation in which we reveal more to the reader than we can necessarily see ourselves. Except that in the case of a collaborative journal, there is a dynamic exchange of roles between writer and reader, both understanding more and searching further as entries accumulate.
The submission guidelines for the site offer an apology that selection will be subjective: that self-consciously literary efforts may be turned down, that preaching, activism and performative blessing-counting are discouraged and that the barometer will be whether the editor deems a piece bearable to inflict on a reader. But, despite the bossiness of these guidelines, I am wary of claiming a precise or grandiose intention: the instinct to start the journal was also influenced by a small diary I found a few years ago, written in pencil on a child’s pink stationery (Japanese-made kitsch, the height of luxury in 1980s Sri Lanka and lovingly reserved for special occasions). I had written it as part of a homework assignment set the last time schools here were closed for as extended a period as they are now (during the Beeshanaya / JVP insurrection of 1987-1989). The banal listing of activities by a middle-class Colombo nine-year-old turn out to be more interesting now than one might have expected, especially in relation to a conflict of inequalities — a tiny fragment of a moment.
Time extends in the Lockdown Journal and a woman leaves a bowl of soup for her COVID-19 positive neighbour. Another is angry at the lack of COVID-19 protocols at local council elections in Queensland Australia. On 7 April, there occurs a painful symmetry of pieces. In Modinagar, India, a young man writes of his friend who has been sent to quarantine along with others in his hostel, all Muslim, because neighbours have raised suspicion of a ‘corona jihadi’ in their midst. The very same day, a woman in Sri Lanka finds she can’t concentrate on the chores she’s set herself:
The Prime Minister had made a speech last night that I only heard today. In that speech, all two million Muslims in Sri Lanka were told to forget about their burial rights. This was not the time to ask for respect of religious laws, we were told; it was the time to come together as a country. Today, therefore, is another day where I can do nothing. The weight is heavier than it has been and I do what I can to function. I pace my living room, forgetting my plans to clean.
Reading this early April entry again, I realise that one positive facilitated by lockdown was the intrusion of the personal – whether in the form of children butting into Zoom meetings or this ability to trace political mood through our most minute domestic rituals. The journal form also permits the weaving of public and political consciousness through the most mundane – and essential – tasks of getting a family through a day. Having to clean one’s house is not a matter to be discounted (or palmed off on underpaid domestic workers) it is another thing that has definitely to be done. So it matters that it is disrupted by violent and bigoted politics in the public sphere. I wonder if this is why people have written to me repeatedly over recent months to say that the Lockdown Journal offered them an alternative to the news – a compensation that troubled me slightly at first, given the distance between the two forms.
The minor courage of people willing to tell minor truths about themselves.
Perhaps what they meant was that the journal revealed news differently to them, and at a gentler pace – for example when a public servant in Canberra, Australia, wonders how the ‘essential’ government services he performs will be reconceived in a coming exigency or a doctor in Pennsylvania, USA, drives two hours to buy a box of masks, still in short supply. This particular box, she will keep to protect her family, she writes, in case a time comes when she gets sick. The flimsy reassurance of a box of masks in a bathroom cabinet offers us a brief glimpse of professional and personal anxiety closer to the front-line.
Towards the end of April, the first personally-known COVID-19 death, though not the first death, is mourned in the journal. Around the same time a woman faces the isolation and elongation of everyday heart-breaking loss, due to the pandemic, needing to attend alone an appointment where she discovers the baby she is carrying has stopped growing. She writes:
As the doctor ran me through my options, I realised that in the last hour I had spoken to more people in person than I had in weeks…By the time I left the hospital this number had grown considerably: the receptionist who checked me in; the two nurses in the scanning room; the nurse from the fertility unit who came by to see how I was; the doctor who was so kind to me; the pharmacist who saw my prescription and told me that everything would be ok; the nurse outside the pharmacy who saw me weeping and got me a cup of tea. Essential workers doing essential work, god bless them.
Throughout this account there is an attention to the detail of others’ inconveniences that is admirable in the circumstances – among them are nurses who want to offer a hug but can hardly give a satisfactory one in full PPE (personal protective equipment), even if it were allowed in a pandemic.
Indeed, more of the world begins to register in the journal around the end of April – in part due to an easing of restrictions in some places. The writers of the journal begin to test out the world again, with altered eyes. A woman in Berlin receives a manual from a friend on how to wear a mask properly. In the same entry, she looks up at the sky and notes there are no planes in it. For our doctor in Pennsylvania, or rather for her patients, things have intensified. She rings a family to confirm a positive COVID-19 result. She says:
In our neighborhood, many families are a few paychecks away from being poor. They look like me, but our lives are very different. Their labor makes fresh bread, pints of blueberries, summer corn, and garlicky dumplings cheaper for the rest of us. For the past two months, society has called them ‘essential’. But this hasn’t led to higher wages or better working conditions. Instead, being essential has led to infection. And fear. Once a worker gets sick, it’s hard to keep the virus from spreading inside small homes. Today, the family’s fear is focused on the children in the household. We talk for a long time.
Afterwards, I struggle with anger and a jittery kind of anxiety. Two months into lockdown, why aren’t my patients safe at work? We know it’s possible. We take precautions at the clinic, and we’ve been successful so far. Why are my patients ‘essential’ only until they fall ill?
Towards the end of May, accounts begin to diverge and tense – life gets more complicated, in fact, when many of us move from total lockdown toward uncertain approximations of normal. A father violates the rules against crossing state lines, to ensure that his children have access to both their parents during this time. He tries to stay positive, pulling against a tide of discontent within himself about the ways our establishments have arranged and neglected their responsibilities to the public. His grief is heightened by the particular time and place in which he finds himself – for this is America, days after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. At the same moment, in Kolkata, a woman writes of her octogenarian neighbour trying to locate the building’s electrician after Cyclone Amphan has left her in darkness. In Los Angeles, a couple put their children to bed before they turn on the TV and watch the city burn. In early June, a woman wakes at 2.30 am in Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka, and finds her teenage son wide awake, reading and doing push-ups. He is pleasantly surprised that instead of shooing him back to bed, she offers to make them both a hot drink. She asks him how many other people he thinks are doing the same in the dead of night. He answers, plenty of people.
In fact, the journal does seem to point to strange symmetries of mood among the comfortable of the Earth. At one point, everyone, everywhere, has a bad week. At another, a stream of people take their first holidays since the pandemic began, driving out to escape the tension and pressured uncertainty of everyday life. These symmetries are characteristics of privilege, no question; indeed, the journal is full of caveats and acknowledgments. One sometimes wonders if our heightened contemporary awareness of privilege helps us avoid actually addressing inequalities. Yet I have come to appreciate the journal for the very particularity I originally feared – the minor courage of people willing to tell minor truths about themselves.
The story of gradual release is already reversed – at the time of writing, cases in India have passed the 8.5 million mark, several European countries have returned to lockdown, and even as the US presidential election is hailed hopefully as a global bellwether, authoritarianism strengthens its grip worldwide. Submissions to the journal have naturally slowed as people become more accustomed to newer realities, have less time and face more concrete challenges than at the very beginning of the crisis. The pandemic has ceased now to be an idea, its novelty worn off. But this is precisely where the story threatens to get more interesting, if we can keep telling it. The Lockdown Journal remains open to submissions indefinitely.
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