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  • Writer's pictureGarima Raghuvanshy

#21 Salma

(Names have been changed to maintain privacy)

Salma is a teacher and researcher working in Karnataka. She was awarded a 6-month post-doc fellowship at University of Ghent, Belgium, and is there at the moment.

Salma arrived in Ghent on 24th Feb with her 7-year-old son. It’s not as if she had not heard about coronavirus and Covid-19. From what she remembers, about a week or so before she left India cases had started off in Kerala. She hoped they wouldn’t create problems for her at immigration because of this obscure disease with 3 cases in India. She hoped they wouldn’t realise how close Mangalore is to Kerala. But of course, to her great horror, within about a week of her arrival in Belgium, Italy began to show news. Even after the first week of news coming in from Italy things were still fairly relaxed, nobody seemed to be reacting with great panic or any sense of urgency per se. But at the end of the first week of March, there was definitely some uneasiness coming in, and some alert. Her husband suggested that she come back. She told him, oh, come on, it’s not that kind of situation, there’s nothing here, really, it’s perfectly safe. That was pretty much the way she saw it until they actually declared lockdown in Belgium. She completely, completely undermined the significance of the news items and what was being said. All the announcements across the world and she had no clue that it would go in this direction. On the 24th of March Salma thought she should go back. But India had stopped all flights from the EU on the 23rd. She was just one day late in waking up to the fact that there were real issues. But yeah, that’s how it turned out.

In Belgium a lockdown was announced on the 13th or 14th of March. Immediately after the announcement, the youth had what they called ‘lockdown parties’ across the country. A large number of people also went from Belgium into Netherlands, because petrol is cheaper there, to buy and stock. Several cases that came up 2 weeks later were related to the lockdown parties. The terrible news that was pouring in from Italy, it made people think how terrible the situation would be for the health services there. But Salma doesn’t think that it had sunk in that this is a pandemic, it is spreading and its going to be extremely widespread. She wasn’t very bright herself but at least she caught on by that time. It took some people longer than that she’s pretty sure. She remembers being out on that Friday before the lockdown to get some necessary signatures for her health insurance. With the pandemic and the lockdown, she thought, I HAVE to do this! And when she was out to get this work done, she noticed that the restaurants were absolutely full. All of them. And she wondered, is it a holiday?

If the lockdown hadn’t happened, Salma would typically go to the department. There she had a designated table, laptop and computer. She is a social science researcher, so she doesn’t have a lab to go to. Her work has a lot to do with reading. Since her son is with her, around 8:15 in the morning she would drop him to the school that he’d attend while in Belgium. She’d be in the department by 9 or earlier. She’d work until around quarter to four, then she’d leave to pick up her son.

Since the lockdown it hasn’t really been possible to continue her work. Salma doesn’t know too much about other peoples’ experience, but the lockdown definitely hit her hard. It took her time to figure out how much adaptation would be required. She has experience with home schooling her son before, but, at that time she hadn’t tried to do it alongside trying to keep full-time work goals in mind as well. She has to say that it’s still difficult to figure out. There are times when she does manage to read, there are days when she doesn’t manage to read anything relevant or keep any continuity. Focus suffers a great deal. She has realised that she can’t keep up the kind of work she would have wanted to do at such a time, and she has tried to do more, sort of, broader reading, so that she doesn’t feel constantly on edge that she is not able to do focused reading continuously and make the links. She would have wanted to do some writing as part of this, but, working on some major article or something like that, she does not think it will happen.

Salma’s university accommodation is pretty isolated. She can come out of her apartment and go down the entrance without meeting a single soul. Since she moved in during the lockdown she has not really tried to meet anybody. Infact, when she moved in she met a Bangladeshi researcher who was with her son, who must be about 5. They had a brief conversation that day and told each other what numbers they live at, and they said okay, maybe we’ll meet up, our kids can play together. But Salma isn’t too keen. She is fairly sure the other researcher is social distancing too, but she didn’t want to start off something that she would then find very difficult to keep double guessing. How does contact with this person pose a risk, how much is this valid, not valid? All these kinds of things. Plus, the rules make it fairly easy. Residents are not allowed into each other’s housing. They cannot have meals together. Inhabitants of different rooms/apartments have to use the elevator separately. So, they’ve had fairly clear-cut, substantial rules for the residents and Salma thinks that largely these rules are followed.

She is very lucky, she has a balcony so she can look out on the street. And, Salma was surprised, she must say. She was surprised that there is a lot of activity, walking, running, jogging, cycling, sunbathing when its sunny. People did not feel daunted to be out. But it’s within the rules. The rules in Belgium are that people can go out for a walk, take physical activity, they can also go to the park, but the play area in the park is sealed off. After the initial 2/3 weeks, sitting on park benches was no longer allowed. So, if you go to the park you keep walking. And of course, you maintain distance from other people. Families can go out together, but as an individual you’re allowed to meet up with only one other person, one other friend. Salma honestly doesn’t know how the authorities keep track of this, there must be loopholes she is guessing. But they did try to keep people within very closely-knit social bubbles as they call it.

View from Salma’s window PC:Salma

Every week Salma goes to the super-market to replenish her stocks. Supermarkets are fairly normal, but there are some changes. The standard government instructions are that only a limited no. of people will be allowed in, and nobody is allowed to take more than 30 mins inside. But not all supermarkets are monitoring this. Some supermarkets are sanitising all trays, they’re putting out sanitizer for people to use before they enter. At the payment counter some supermarkets have put up plastic sheets in front of the person manning the counter to protect them and the customer. They are definitely encouraging self-paying kiosks. So, they have done many things to adapt. But there were problems. An employee of one supermarket chain died of covid-19. There was a lot of discussion about supermarket staff and the conditions under which they are working. But not all of the news gets translated to English, so Salma doesn’t know how that developed. In Belgium the government has not made face masks mandatory yet. They’re talking about it now.

Her son’s school went online when the lockdown started. The advantage is that Salma now has insight into the kinds of interesting things that you can do with kids. Typically, her son would go to school and if she’d ask him, how did it go? She’d get nothing in response really. Now she is sitting right there, so she is learning. What are the kinds of things that teachers are trying to get the kids’ attention to, how are they going about it? It’s a nice thing to see and learn from. But the lack of social contact is definitely a challenge. Well. Salma don’t know if it’s difficult for her son, frankly, because he doesn’t talk about it as being difficult, or show any signs of it being difficult. Let’s say that as a mother she finds it sad that he does not have social contact, he doesn’t meet other kids, he’s not able to play, or play outside. That said, kids are highly adaptive. But Salma does think the lack of access to and communication with the outside world sort of makes it even more challenging for kids to keep up electronic communication. Even during video chats her son loses interest, because he doesn’t have contact with people. So that is one of the challenges that Salma faces. Keeping her son interested in communicating with people. It’s not self-evident for a child. And she thinks that that takes a toll ultimately. She doesn’t think its visible in a week or a month, but she thinks it will probably play a role in the longer run. If it becomes a longer run. Let’s hope it doesn’t, not too long a run.

Salma’s son flies a kite she improvised from a large plastic bag PC: Salma

Salma’s family is spread out across the world. She hasn’t heard of any cases from the people she knows, touchwood, thank god. People in India are going through a similar experience as are people in Belgium. She thinks there are even stricter restrictions in the Indian context than in Belgium, even though the pandemic is stronger here. But it was interesting for Salma to find that there is a general perception in her family that she is safe in Europe, that she in good hands since healthcare is good in Europe. For Salma this was really surprising. Because, well, before it shifted to the US, she was in the epicentre of the pandemic, so, no she’s not safe. This was a very misplaced notion.

Salma does think that Belgium has done a very good job with health services. They ensured that hospitals will not be overwhelmed. From what she has read, they did this by hospitalising only cases with severe symptoms. So, they did a very good job in that sense. If Salma needs a ventilator, or if she needs to be in a hospital, depending on which hospital she goes to in India, she may be worse off than she would be in any standard hospital in Belgium. But, overall does she have better access to healthcare? It’s very difficult to say, but Salma doesn’t think so. The standard instructions in Belgium are, 1) if you have any of these symptoms, isolate yourself, then, 2) call the doctor, 3) once you call the doctor, he will guide you about what to do next. She thinks in India she would have been able to get a test more easily than she would have been able to in Belgium a month ago. Now ofcourse their testing capacity has increased so it’s better.

Overall, Salma found it very interesting to be in Belgium when this outbreak was happening, because it really gave her a perspective on India which she didn’t have. If she was in India she would be going with the flow of what the media and the general opinion seems to be, and that’s fairly negative. When she sees from the perspective of a tiny well-developed country in Europe and the challenges they faced, and yet, the news coverage. Its news where she gets a sense that the government is trying, here is what we’re doing, and here are the challenges. There’s a sense of problem solving, discussion, of, yeah, knowing, that this is a real situation that we have to cope with. Instead in India it seems like a joke when she looks at the media. It seems like the media doesn’t have a clue what it means to shut down a country. They don’t give people any idea of what that involves.

This was bewildering for Salma to begin with. Whereas the rest of the world is facing greater challenges and is able to keep up self-respect and positive attitude and talk about how we need solidarity, the India media is sitting there tearing India apart. For the first time Salma realised that it’s really a deep-seated sense of, she doesn’t know how else to put it but, self-loathing in the Indian context. The way they were going about reporting, what they found significant, and how they reported what was significant. All of it was just a way of talking about how stupid we are, or how stupid the government is. So, you really have to think, who is intelligent in all of this? Where did all the intelligent people go? They weren’t in Europe, they weren’t in America, they’re not in India, they’re nowhere. Who knew better and did something really right from the beginning and had no challenges? She realised, we don’t have a realistic assessment of ourselves, and of the world. In the middle of a pandemic, if Europe is the epicentre, we really think that that’s still the place where you’ll get good health services. How? Have you looked at the news of Italy. Just having good doctors or good hospital facilities is not all that it will take. We’re blind to the reality of what a pandemic is, inspite of it hitting us in our faces. Sheer numbers. Sheer numbers of people who are sick. That’s what you’re dealing with. It’s not about, you know, machines that can keep you alive. It’s not only that. As Indians we really don’t have a realistic assessment of the world. Because we’re constantly caught up badgering ourselves. That’s all we do.

Salma’s sister in the US is now in the epicentre of the pandemic. So ofcourse, Salma worries about her. And there are thoughts that would have come anywhere, whether Salma was in India or in Belgium, that someone in my family could catch it, I could catch it, my son could catch it. These are all thought scenarios that you play out in your head. So that is not different. What is different is that, for instance when she speaks to friends and family in Bombay, they know where cases have been found. Those buildings, those streets are closed down. So there is some sense of relevant information coming her way when she speaks to them. It’s the government that has made this possible. Right from shutting a building when there was a case. There is security outside, the street is being sanitized. The police officer will not allow you to go in. So, it’s not just by word of mouth. It’s the way the crisis has been administered.

Salma doesn’t have that in Belgium. In Belgium there are about 50,000 cases, and it’s a tiny country. So they have cases in all of the various regions. But nobody knows where there is a case. There have been two occasions when Salma was almost paralysed because she heard the ambulance starting off from either her building or the one next to her. She thought, okay, so, there might be a covid case, and it might be here. But there is no talk, there is no further indication, so she doesn’t know. They don’t tell you anything about where or whom. ‘Hotspot’, ‘red zone’, in Belgium they’re not using this kind of language. By the time the lockdown came, the epidemiologists tried to do some contact tracing, but stopped because it was too widespread, it was too difficult to track cases. They didn’t have the resources to be able to cope with the crisis and track cases at the same time. So now infact they are going to begin contact tracing as they lift the lockdown, but they didn’t have it when the pandemic hit. So, Salma would not know if she is living in the middle of a hotspot.

Salma understands that in Belgium it works very differently with notions of privacy, but it makes her feel like she is at a disadvantage because she doesn’t know. If she comes back to India today, she is going to have to quarantine herself. She is going to have to be traceable through her phone at all times, and yeah, for a period she is going to have to give access to information about her health. And she sees that as reasonable. In such circumstances. You cannot take the kind of risks that Europe will take in the name of human rights right now. But yeah, that’s only to say that she finds it less relevant to talk about human rights. There is a whole discussion happening in Belgium about these contact tracing apps and human rights, and also criticism of countries like Korea for using apps that are intrusive. Salma doesn’t think that privacy is unimportant in the Indian context. It’s important that why you have debates. But there is a clear sense that there are other things that are much more important at the moment.

Salma is still being paid by the university, so thus far the lockdown has not affected her economic situation. She does foresee that it would in the long run, but right now she can’t say how it will go. She doesn’t think that universities will go online. She does expect that a lot more online teaching is going to happen in the short term, and that might set up some possibly beneficial trends for the future. Some useful tools will be developed, and it will allow for people to learn about online teaching. It’s good in that sense. Universities will open up in India, it’s just not clear whether they will be able to keep up a full academic year. She thinks that could have some positive consequences. For instance, maybe we can begin rethinking the way we’ve been going about with the 10th or 12th exams. Fewer centralised exams, more autonomy at every level.

In Belgium the lockdown will be eased in stages. On the 4th, the 11th, and the 18th of May. The first phase of opening up the lockdown has begun. From her balcony Salma sees more people, more vehicles, people meeting each other, greeting each other, stopping to talk. There is some distance ofcourse between people. But yeah, it looks different, it looks very now normal compared to earlier. In the next phase she thinks they will allow home visits. But they want people to stick to only the same 2 individuals who will be allowed to come home. They’re creating something called social bubbles or something like that where they can then trace immediately the contacts of an individual who has tested positive, and then put constraints on them. Shops have not opened yet, they will open on the 11th. The university is not opening so Salma’s work situation remains the same.

Some of the provisions being discussed in the news are that they want to open schools for some grades before the 18th. They think they should start by opening schools for the 6th grade, and the 1st and 2nd grades. Frequent sanitization will happen, and they should open only if classrooms can contain no more than 10 students kept at a distance of 2 mtrs from the other. She thinks that is the new reality. There will probably be some breaches to begin with but children are amazingly adaptable. They will learn to do these things. So, in that sense she doesn’t think they will have huge challenges keeping children away from each other. She just doesn’t know if it’s worth it. For 1st and 2nd standard students especially, to go to school under such circumstances. They want to open the 6th standard because it is like a transition to high school, so that year is important. She doesn’t know why they have picked 1st and 2nd standard. Ofcourse, the overall sense is that because they see children of this age as being at low risk, and they feel that schools should be able to reopen. Another dimension is that as businesses open up, parents will have to go to work. So, some children at least, will have to have some school options possible.

Her son’s school sent them an email saying they will reopen, but Salma is not planning to send him. She has to get public transport to be able to take her son to school. Which is probably the case with most parents. And, it doesn’t seem worth the risk to her. If she was going to stay the whole 6 months as originally planned, she would still think about it, but now with the idea that they will probably take a flight as soon as an evacuation is possible, it becomes even less of a priority.

Salma has been in touch with an official from the Indian embassy since the lockdown began and day before when she asked him he said they’re waiting for clearance from the Belgian side. Yesterday the embassy sent her an excel sheet for details to be filled out. The official she is in touch with told her the evacuation flight will not be before the 15th but he can’t say when it will be. So yeah, things are moving quite quickly. That’s her impression. The embassy official is connected with Salma on WhatsApp. He replies to messages and she can call him anytime of the day. Her family in different parts of the world is very amazed by this. These officials must have a lot to cope with. They have to respond to queries, but they could have set up much more cumbersome procedures, which they didn’t. They are being incredibly responsive, and the way they are handling the crisis is very humane, and comforting. They’ve done a good job of it so far, let’s see how the rest of it goes. The idea of coming back to India and spending 14 days in a quarantine facility is not daunting because she hears about the different kinds of facilities. That you can pay and get a facility that suits you. So, to that extent she is not scared. It doesn’t make it pleasant, but she is not scared.

There have been plenty of good things in the lockdown. The help that she has received from friends, the support, the fact that, you know, you keep in touch with family regularly. She wishes she could say that she has gone back to yoga. She would have liked to report a more enlightened self, but no, that is not what has happened. But the general sense of support, kindness. There’s plenty of gestures of that.

Salma has access to everything she needs. That’s not the question so much as, how things could improve, on a daily basis, on an overall basis. That is…yeah, that is also fairly experimental no? Salma can only speak from her own experience, and the fact that although she has a brother who is a doctor and a sister who is a scientist, she did not see the pandemic coming. Even though she had the news at every point. It was just not a reference point in her experience, what a pandemic means and what it will involve. In that sense, most of the advice given in hindsight is of the nature of being a bit obnoxious. For instance, Italy, it’s a terrible tragedy. What they could have done differently, what would they have done differently, it’s irrelevant to talk about it at this point in time. At least in terms of the way it has been talked about, lockdown earlier, later, that she thinks, is just not relevant to talk about.

What we should focus on is to realise that, for atleast the next year, two years, our reality is going to be redefined. In a big way. And Salma thinks it’s important that we stop thinking of the lockdown as the constraint. The lockdown is not the constraint. The virus is the constraint. And until we have enough knowledge to manage that, the constraint is there, the challenge is there. So, we shouldn’t talk just in terms of how we will emerge from the lockdown in terms of just trying to get back to normal. Instead we should talk about really addressing the challenges that will remain for a while.


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