A New Reality

One former fellow wrote from Oxford, in the United Kingdom, where life has "completely changed within just two weeks."One former fellow wrote from Oxford, in the United Kingdom, where life has "completely changed within just two weeks."
March 31, 2020

We asked Radcliffe fellows around the world to write about the life-altering effects of COVID-19.

“The virus is a wake-up call”

Rana Dajani RI ’18, Zuzana Simoniova Cmelikova International Scholar, University of Richmond, and professor of molecular cell biology, Hashemite University, Jordan 

I am stuck in Richmond, Virginia, while my family is in Jordan. I am in touch with my family, medical friends, educators at the universities in Jordan, and everyday people and women in the villages and towns in Jordan.

The level of education in Jordan is very high. The approach by the government to send a message to the people of Jordan was to explain in a scientific and logical manner the situation in Arabic. Therefore, the majority understands the gravity of the situation and took all precautions and agreed to the full lockdown as the only way to avoid escalation of the problem.

Lesson learned: education and knowledge are the best way to face this challenge because it is about every person doing their part.

I have heard amazing stories of people leaving food outside for others, soldiers taking care of the sanitary workers, medical personnel volunteering. One woman called up a pharmacy to give money to a neighbor who did not have money. The pharmacy obliged. When there was a wedding in Irbid and everyone was reprimanded in the town, the newlyweds apologized publicly. Irbid was treated like the child who had understood the gravity of their deed and had repented, with the whole country telling them what you did was wrong, but we love you.

These actions are part of our culture and history. We are proud that neighbors know each other, families take care of each other, elderly people live with their children and grandchildren, which results in fewer mental health problems. In today’s world, where many countries have missed out on this, Jordan has a huge capital in human interaction. This is in our DNA and the reason we survived as a species. The virus is a wake-up call to the importance of these relationships.

March 31, 2020

“This virus will definitely leave a scar in our souls if not in our lungs”

Tuna Şare Ağtürk RI ’19, archaeologist and Marie Curie Research Fellow, University of Oxford

We are in Oxford, in the United Kingdom, and our lives have completely changed within just two weeks. The lockdown has been especially hard on my two very active boys (ages 9 and 5). Schools, parks, and all playgrounds are closed. We are allowed to leave the house only briefly once a day, for shopping or for exercise. After homeschooling in the morning, we go out for a 10-minute “rainbow hunt” in the neighborhood with the boys. Houses in our neighborhood have red or green cards hung on the windows. Elderly people who cannot go out at all change the green card to red if they are in need of help. Houses with children (like us) also hang painted rainbows on the windows, so that when kids are allowed outside they can do rainbow hunting, a strange way of socializing that has turned this bitter situation into a bittersweet game for my boys.

Worrying about all the uncertainties of this new life—about our extended family in Turkey, about closed borders, about the health system, about already sick friends—and at the same time trying to homeschool kids, continue my research, clean, and cook all day will definitely take its toll on me. This virus will definitely leave a scar in our souls if not in our lungs.

March 30, 2020

“An unexpected space for reflection”

Mauricio Pauly RI ’15, composer and assistant professor, School for the Contemporary Arts, Simon Fraser University

Things here have ramped up very quickly, very suddenly. Just two weeks ago, my wife and I were in Montreal rehearsing and performing for a show we did without a hitch; people attended like nothing was off. We came back to do a show here in Vancouver, ran a workshop with several students and a guest ensemble, and then suddenly, the day after, we were all voluntarily isolating. We stay at home most of the time. Only leaving for brief and cautious walks outside or for necessary grocery shopping. The university remains open, but all my teaching has been moved online. I see my students one after the other over Skype or similar and advise them on alternative ways to realize their composition projects. 

 
It has, however, created an unexpected space for reflection, for slowing down, perhaps even resetting some routines from automatic to manual. We take turns between hanging out with little [four-month-old] Isa and going out to our studios to keep our creative projects going, come up with new ones, learn some new skills. 
 
It’s strange not knowing when or how this will end. We stay sane (somewhat) by focusing as much as possible on day to day.
 
March 26, 2020

“We are already battle-hardened”

Neal Hovelmeier RI ’20, writer, educator, and academic, Zimbabwe

I am back in Zimbabwe—it was difficult returning as I was caught in that timeframe when every country was in the process of closing its borders. I managed to squeeze back in via Ethiopia, so I was lucky. I am now settled back home and in isolation for 14 days at least. I am very concerned about Zimbabwe: it is a country which is already weakened economically, and I fear we will not have the infrastructure and capacity to cope with a health crisis the likes of COVID-19. We already have a very deteriorated health sector—underfunded hospitals, a chronic shortage of equipment (14 ventilators, apparently, for a population of over 15 million, and some of those not working!), health workers, electricity, and water. We have so far had two confirmed deaths, but due to a lack of testing facilities, I would imagine there are many more cases and fatalities unreported.

The country is starting to shut down and people are very aware to self-isolate and avoid social contact. Unfortunately, a country like mine does not have a sophisticated retail sector so deliveries of food and medicine is not possible—people have to “make their own plan” and venture out into shops which now tend to be crowded as people are panic-buying to some extent. As it is, we have regular shortages of various commodities, and this will only place additional pressure on the availability of staple foods. We also have a massive electricity shortage here so keeping food fresh in the fridge is a challenge, meaning people have to venture to the shops fairly regularly to buy fresh food.

The biggest concern I have is for the fact that a large number of our population lives in very challenging circumstances and in high-density areas where they are forced to congregate in large groups to acquire supplies of water and other necessities, so enforcing isolation policies here will prove very difficult. Access to medicine for many people is also very taxing and so there is fear and panic setting in should a loved one fall ill. The government is making recommendations for social distancing and has shut schools, banned public gatherings, and closed borders, but it will add a strain to people who need to commute in order to get by from day to day. 

However, we have hot temperatures and a dry climate right now, so there is hope this may slow the spread of the virus. Zimbabwean people are also incredibly resilient, have calm temperaments, and know how to survive so we are already battle-hardened after surviving regular outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, typhoid, malaria, and other tropical diseases over the years. As a nation, we all pull together in times of need.

March 24, 2020

“Normal life in Spain has ground to a halt”

Mary E. Prendergast PhD 08, RI 17archaeologist and professor, Saint Louis University—Madrid Campus

A live webcam of the Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s normally bustling center of social and political life, shows only police cars and pigeons. Two weeks into lockdown, normal life in Spain has ground to a halt: Semana Santa religious processions and beach holidays cancelled, springtime primera comunión celebrations deferred, end-of-year exams and graduations hanging in the balance. We may leave home only for a few reasons, like taking out the garbage or buying food; dog-walking memes fly across WhatsApp groups, humor our coping mechanism. For those privileged to keep their jobs and work from home, #quedateencasa means a chance to hug loved ones a little longer in the mornings, no longer harried by Madrid’s crushing commute. But for those who deliver packages, pick strawberries, stock grocery shelves, collect rubbish, and care for the elderly and the sick, life goes on, under new pressures of children at home, fear of contagion, and looming job cuts. Every night at 8 PM, across the country, we applaud these workers from our windowsills and balconies. It’s a moment to greet our neighbors at a distance and to bid them good night with an optimistic ¡hasta mañana!

March 23, 2020

“Self-care, walking the dog, meals, and news-watching”

Julie Guthman RI ’18, professor of Social Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz

I’m one of those people who have had their work commitments nearly evaporate since the onset of the crisis. Most of my days are spent in Zoom meetings or writing e-mails to address cancellations and postponements. Soon, though, those will be cleared up, and all I will have to do—besides self-care, walking the dog, meals, and news-watching—is write and, maybe, get to read all those books sitting on my shelf. Honestly, until the California governor issued the statewide stay-at-home order, I wasn’t feeling that unnerved by it all. Now I’m not so sure. My first impulse, though, was to stock up on wine, not toilet paper.

March 20, 2020

“We have to retreat, be cautious, turn inward”

Min Jin Lee RI ’19, novelist, New York City

On September 11, 2001, I lived not 10 blocks away from the World Trade Center. The day after the towers fell, my husband, Chris, and our three-year old son, Sam, evacuated our apartment, then returned a week later to face the wreckage of our neighborhood. In 2007, we moved to Japan. On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region of Japan, and a week later, Sam and I returned to New York. Chris joined us shortly afterwards. This year, an invisible pestilence upended the lives of everyone in the world it seems. Unlike ’01 or ’11, this time, we can’t face our troubles by carrying on just as before; for a time, paradoxically, out of love for friends and strangers, we have to retreat, be cautious, turn inward. Brokenhearted, I return to my desk. I am grateful that I have one at all. As a writer, I believe it is my task to turn chaos into cosmos. It's vanity, perhaps, to see it this way, but it is my own.

March 19, 2020

“We are consumed with worry”

Katherine Turk RI ’19, associate professor of history and adjunct associate professor of women’s and gender studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

I’m in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where this bustling college town has slowed to an eerie stillness. I am most struck by the contrast between the natural world and our new circumstances. Since the students left for spring break, our environment has begun its annual preparation to welcome them back. Spring is the best season here. The robins, bluebirds, and finches have returned. Their joyful singing seems louder than usual since it's not competing with the regular traffic on our street. The azaleas are out, their bushes covered in shockingly bright pink and white blossoms. Trees that were covered in buds just last week are now blooming purple and red. It still cools down at night, but the daytime air is balmy. These changes usually accompany one last burst of energy to wrap up classes and celebrate graduates in time for a slow, relaxing summer. But we are consumed with worry.

March 19, 2020

“The individual human sounds straining to connect, bind, weave hope. It was beautiful and eerie.”

Ben Miller RI ’15, writer, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

The pandemic is such a bizarre wrinkle in the adventure of this year. Anne [Miller’s wife, the poet Anne Pierson Wiese] is safely tucked in her Paris apartment, writing, being cautious, and stoic about it all. I’m attempting to do the same here in Sioux Falls (with our Maine Coon cat Pilar) after a fantastic France trip in February. We’re in touch daily: it helps keep us going. While at a moment like this you want those you love to be nearest, by far the safest thing is to each remain where we are, looking ahead (when possible), and writing. I have a ticket to return to Paris in May. If it is still too dangerous to travel at that time, I’ll bump the trip into the summer.

We’re on different sides of a closed border, but letters get through. It’s an opportunity to write many of them and feel like I’m slipping messages through a fence. E-mails are great, and Skyping, but hardly as dramatic! Today when I called Anne, it happened to be the moment when the French open their windows and clap and bang pots to maintain solidarity and thank health-care workers. I could hear that clamor from her window. The individual human sounds straining to connect, bind, weave hope. It was beautiful and eerie.

I work three days a week in a tele-health ICU unit that supports 36 different small hospitals in a number of states. It gives me a unique view of the wild scramble to prepare for the hit this virus could be to rural areas with limited resources. Part of me wishes I did not have it, but having it, I am trying to observe and absorb the details.

March 18, 2020

“So far, we are sane, but if you ask me in two weeks . . . ”

Raúl Jiménez RI ’16, ICREA Research Professor in physical cosmology, University of Barcelona

Spain ordered an official lockdown starting Monday [March 16]. It is a very restrictive one: nobody is allowed on the street for any reason besides shopping food and going to the pharmacy. However, people are allowed to go to work, if open. On the other hand, all shops besides supermarkets are shut, so are bars, restaurants . . . everything. The university and schools are shut. The girls—the twins are 8.4 years old now—are at home and being taught online. We are working on our research. To make it fun, we have a very strict routine. Wake up, get dressed, have breakfast, and then we all sit at a huge table in the living room—next to the terrace overlooking the city and the Mediterranean—and start working. In the afternoon we have a break to do our gymnastic routine and the girls also do yoga. Then after dinner we all have free time, which means Netflixing, reading, or just being bored. The isolation is very strict and both the police and the army are patrolling the streets to ensure it. I am very impressed how amazing the health care system has been so far. I think one problem with the high death rate is that both in Spain and Italy the grandparents live at home with their families (not our case though), so they are too exposed to the virus.

So far, we are sane, but if you ask me in two weeks, we might all be nuts by then. Most people seem annoyed by the situation and only now are realizing the amazing comfort level we have been enjoying in Western society, but I like to tell them that 80 years ago our grandparents were asked to go to war while we are just asked to stay at home for one month. I think we still got the better deal.

March 18, 2020


Responses have been edited and condensed. If you are a fellow and would like to contribute to this report, please e-mail senior editor Ryan Mulcahy or associate editor Ivelisse Estrada.

Photo by Tuna Şare Ağtürk

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