A few weeks back, when the Corona Crisis had hit Italy badly and other Europeans were first considering the possibility of isolation and quarantine, I was joking that I could not wait to be quarantined – all the books I could finally read.
Five weeks later I have not read many books. I am home, restless from sitting too much indoors and, as a researcher, get my good share of reading news, analyses and policy papers anyways as ever before. I had to interrupt a two-month stay in Skopje to travel back to Warsaw before Poland suspended international (air) travel and also, more importantly, before North Macedonia went under full lock-down. While, when I was still around, Macedonian authorities had handled the crisis with reason, most recently strict curfews have been introduced locking people into their flats for as much as three days in a row. Back then, when the scope of measures was not yet foreseeable and when, at the same time, news chased news, the idea to be potentially locked-down in an improvised living arrangement without even a desk gave me chills. I am glad that I decided to book a flight back, before I became dependent on the embassy flying me out.
The two days between the decision to leave for home and the actual journey I experienced an extremely high level of anxiety, faced with border closings and potential travel route lock-downs. Being born with a German passport and having travelled the world, I was used to the privilege that I could go anywhere I wanted. Even if I would not have caught that last plane, I could have trusted in authorities to bring me home. The majority of people stranded (with or without Corona) do not have this privilege. Right now, refugees are even less cared about than before.
For me, this spring and summer were supposed to contain a lot of travelling, a lot of mingling and networking and lot of workshops with different groups of people, my post-graduation professional awakening. Ah well. It helps that I can’t even be tempted to hold myself accountable for failing my plans. At the same time, I really would not want to complain, because I am doing well. When I travelled last minute back home to Poland I was stressed and, being greeted by military upon arrival to check my temperature, my heart rate only normalized once I entered my flat, determined to self-isolate myself for two weeks (as I did with my husband who had done the shopping before). I had just attended a large international conference which should soon become one of the last events to happen for months. All in all, I am comfortable at home.
Six weeks into staying at home, talks of lifting measures are all over the place while Poland still fails to measure the actual numbers of Covid-19 infections or Corona-related death toll. Parks are opening again to provide space for mental well-being and I like that face cover has become obligatory. It gives even the last person a sense of urgency of this global pandemic. I hate that I cannot have friends over for brunch and the thought of being separated from my family in Germany for months to come is heart-braking. But, everyone I know is healthy and safe (knock on wood!) and I know that we will not be separated for years to come.
As a freelance project coordinator I am missing out on remuneration for cancelled events, but in my case that just means that the savings account is not fed at the moment. I can still do my research from home, working in a perfectly furnished home office including a stable desk, an external monitor and an ergonomic chair. I do not have to worry to not being able paying rent or groceries. I do not have a business to lose. My sheer existence is not threatened, I do not even have to go through economic hardship. At the end of the month we have more money left in our accounts than usual, because we only spend money on food to cook at home and a few skeins of yarn every now and then to keep me busy knitting.
My husband is in an equally comfortable position (only that he, other than me, actually had a stable income before Corona and remains to have through the crisis). As white collar worker, a software engineer, he can easily transfer his office home where the biggest inconvenience is the renovation of the flat above us (think: constant drilling and hammering, emphasized by vibration of your own walls). His income does not depend on him going out or mingling with other people just like most upper-income professions and white-collar jobs.
The comfort of staying home, staying safe is a privilege. It is even more of a privilege if staying home actually is not that bad. The Corona crisis keeps revealing all the systemic inequalities of our societies, including the fact that the majority of what is now classified as “essential workers” belongs to low-income groups who, for many reason, cannot afford to stay home and isolate – not only because our systems would collapse. Some countries are better with social protection during this crisis than others and, not surprisingly, groups with lower income, small business owners or self-employed people struggle more in those countries with bigger pre-crisis flaws in their social welfare system. But also in Germany where crisis response mechanisms have been installed quickly and widely, my sister has observed longer queues outside foodbanks who, at the same time, lacking volunteers to respond to increased needs.
A while back I saw a cartoon with a young Corona and an aged Black Death sharing a drink at a bar. Corona says: “My Vision is not to KILL people per se, but to raise awareness around access to public health” to which the Black Death responds snidely: “F***ing Millenials”. To this day this remains to be one of my favourite cartoons, because it got to the edge of the Corona crisis very early, even if the “awareness” is spanning many more areas of our societies.
The Corona crisis unveils everything wrong with our system(s), starting with the inequalities between social class. Not the rich are out now, keeping the country running. The rich (in the widest, very bipolar understanding of richness including comfortable middle class) are cosy in their home offices, with a glimpse of hope that their cancelled Easter vacation might be moved to late summer, thinking “this too shall pass”. Many of the lost things lamented on Social Media among well-earning Westerners perfectly describe the luxury of all our lives – not being able to attend cultural events, not being able to eat out fancy, not being able to travel, being stuck at home (even if that home is pretty, spacious and might even come with a garden).
There are so many things wrong in our world that I cannot cover them all at once, so let’s have a look at people around and just point out a few aspects of hardship for less fortunate fellow Europeans.
In Europe, revealed social inequality is now reflected in income stability, but also in the access to education. Cheap(er) tablets are difficult to buy these days when education has gone online, making those kids who only own a smartphone, but neither a laptop nor a tablet, the losers of tele-teaching. Fun tasks at home are all well and good to keep kids educated, but it still needs parental supervision, parents which understand the task and could potentially find solutions together with their children. Many parents, for different reasons, do not have the capacities to home school their children, let it be time, knowledge or awareness.
In those families where kids are well-tended and home-schooled, the responsibility of childcare falls unproportionally to mothers. I don’t have kids, so I am well-off right now. But many women have called out the “fallback into the 50th” which occurs now that kindergartens and schools are shut down and kids have to be taken care of 24/7. In societies where care work is still predominantly a female domain, the absence of external childcare falls extremely heavy on women’s shoulders. At the same time, women make up the biggest proportion of “essential workers” such as nurses and cashiers, literally keeping the countries running at all ends. One could hope to experience a feminist enlightening, but the opposite is true.
As I said, I do not have children and for the rest of it, I live in a relationship on eyelevel in which housework is well-split. I also live in a loving and caring relationship in which I enjoy the company of my husband and vice-versa and even if we do get too much of one another we shut doors in our spacious flat and enjoy some alone-time.
The spike in domestic violence against women all over isolated and locked-down countries is outrageous and extremely worrying. Quarantine is worst if home (with your partner) is where you are the least safe. Alcohol consumption grows, everyone’s nerves are raw and the situation in tense families gets worse with the days. Women predominantly are the victims and now do not even have moments alone at home when they could potentially dial the emergency phone or simply rest.
The Corona crisis magnifies all our existing inequalities and governments have responded differently to the needs of their societies. In all of that, I worry about the state of our world, but I do not worry about my personal well-being, even if I would be slightly more comfortable in a country right now where Corona statistics are actually representative of the actual situation and where the health system is prepared for sick people (aka not Poland).
For the time being, our income is stable. Our flat is beautiful and I have time to spare to decorate it even nicer. We have a big balcony and since I am, for a change, not travelling all the time I can really get into urban gardening, enjoying the steady growth of baby beans in times of global standstill. I am not a woman now burdened with multiple chores at once, not because I do not have children, but mostly because I share a caring relationship with a person I like to be around.
I am not worry-free and I am not always happy. I have down moments and I accept my sadness over missed opportunities and cancelled plans. But at the same time, I do not experience an existential threat. Instead, I can find simple things to cheer me up: tulips on my table, sun painting rainbows in our flat and creative creations out of my own hands.
I remain mostly calm, positive and comfortable during the Corona crisis, possibly the biggest privilege during these unprecedented times.