I’m writing to you from Lagos, Nigeria, where the government confirmed five new cases of Covid-19 on Wednesday, after a very slow climb from 1 to 3 cases over the previous two weeks.
The numbers are small, but the exponent is not. And the response, from the government and the public, has been to contract; shut down schools, shut the borders to certain countries, pull back from public life. It is of course the responsible thing to do, but the psychic effects are palpable already.
Public life in Lagos is very, very public. In this tightly packed, extremely dense city, we do so much in the street. We have parties, watch football, sell food, style hair, fix cars, grocery shop, sew clothes, play games in doorways and on corners, on curbs and on the white dashes between lanes on the expressway. There is almost nothing that happens in the course of life that does not happen on a Lagos street. Perhaps the one exception is sex, but even that is uncertain.
The idea of a mass pull-back from public life in a place like my home city is incomprehensible to me. Most of us live cheek by jowl with one another because there’s just not that much room. And, more urgently, the vast majority of the city’s residents live precariously on daily incomes which are generated as a result of how public life is here. There are many layers to the knowledge that we can afford a quick spread even less than the other places that have been hard-hit. Lives and livelihoods are at stake, and they are at stake immediately. So the fear is growing as the city starts preparing for the possibility of shuttering itself.
I myself have been quarantined for a few days already, because my daughter came down with an unrelated viral infection last week. I imagine several weeks spent like this, with us indoors, bumping into each other every five minutes, unexpectedly discovering new ways to be in each other’s space. And I think: I need to buy us more books. Where’s my yoga mat? Maybe we should start practising together. I try to stay present and remember that worrying changes nothing, but I can feel my anxiety and depression lurking in the wings, breathing quietly, waiting. I’m sleeping badly.
Then, this morning, my daughter wobbled into my bedroom in a pair of my high heels, with a tiara perched on top of one of my old wrap skirts which she had draped across her head like a fall of long, straight hair. She’s Elsa today, apparently. Later on we’re going to play Bananagrams, which I never let her win, build a pirate ship (or princess party) with her Legos, and eat Greek yoghurt with jam in it.
This afternoon, I got on a work call with my colleagues across the world and in Amsterdam, which concluded with hysterical laughter about side lovers and koalas with chlamydia (the two jokes were completely unrelated–or perhaps they weren’t). As we wiped our tears and disappeared from our screens because we were falling over, one of us said, "this is what I’ve been missing. Laughter."
The thing is, even when life contracts only to its most private forms, it’s still life. We’re still alive, cooped up though we may be, facing brand new uncertainties, united in unprecedented ways. If there is room for fear, there is room for joy. If space exists for survival, then surely we can carve out a corner or two for the kind of silliness that reminds us that life is still full, even when it is smaller than usual.
I’ve been asking my friends a lot these days, how are you coping?, and now I’ve decided to follow up the question with a bad joke or random gif. I’ve been writing long emails, making memes, eating strange snacks, washing my hands; perhaps I should add silly cat videos to my daily activities. I’m distracted and unsettled, trying to remember to be gentle with myself. But it’s so easy to be gentle when my face is breaking open into loud laughter. It’s so hard to worry when my eyes are closed to keep the hysterical tears in. I texted my friend, I’m not okay today. I listened intently to her response, generous and full of humour, and felt held even though there were no arms around me.
Things are strange, but today I’m grateful that laughter has not left us. And especially for the reminder, from the people I love both near and far, that it never will.
Stay well, dear ones. And remember to laugh with someone you love.
Till next time,