The Covid-19 pandemic did not only kill more than four million people globally in 2020, it also shut down social and economic activity as governments across the world announced national lockdowns and travel bans. While mortality and morbidity statistics reflect the tragic death toll of the pandemic and the collapse of gross domestic products reveal its dire economic consequences, far less is known about what ordinary people thought, felt and experienced at the onset of this extraordinary period.
In March of 2020, I instructed my Economics 281 students to keep a daily diary. The instruction was based on a tweet the American literary critic and biographer Ruth Franklin had posted a week earlier:
A suggestion for coping with COVID-19 anxiety: write down what’s happening. Whether you call it note-taking, keeping a journal, whatever – it’s calming and also serves as a useful record.
— Ruth Franklin (@ruth_franklin) March 12, 2020
The idea to record people’s lived experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic would later be echoed by academics and journalists across the globe. My students wrote their diaries and submitted them to me in May. After reading through them, I immediately knew that I had to publish their thoughts. With then Masters student Laura Richardson (now a PhD student at Cambridge), I collected 335 diary entries and turned them into an anthology. Laura and I also wrote an introductory chapter. Life under Lockdown is published by African Sun Media this month.
The entries expose the fears, hopes and beliefs of young people living in South Africa during the first month of the national lockdown. The aim of this anthology is two-fold: to preserve and to reflect, both for those who experienced Covid-19 and for future generations. Below I copy five random entries to give a flavour of what to expect:
On 26 March 2020:
This morning at 1:30 am I was still awake. My mother texted on our family group that they are moving her to ICU. I replied to her message to calm her down, but I knew that she would not be able to answer. After about half an hour I fell asleep. The next morning my father explained to me that they moved her so that they could check on her oxygen levels at all times. At 10:13 am my mother sent a voice note. In her voice you could hear all her fears. She urged us to clean the house and not to underestimate the virus. After that I sent a voice note to my mother praying for her and telling her not to be scared. At 2:00 pm my father and I decided to exercise. We had so much fun. I could feel the strain on my body because I have not exercised in a week. While my father and I were cooling down from our exercise my mother sent another voice note. She sounded happy, positive and ready to fight this battle. She said: “I hope you are all exercising because when I come out of here, I will come out running. I am ready to lead a healthy and fit life. There are so many adventures I still want to go on with you all.”
On 3 April 2020:
For the first time since its inception, I participated today in clapping and whistling for those going out to work. I had initially decided not to do so as I didn’t want to mindlessly follow a herd mentality, but today I whistled as hard as I could at 8:00 am. If felt therapeutic.
I wonder if the apocalypse were to begin tomorrow, and the lockdown were therefore to go on indefinitely, would these cheers become the new form of church? Or take over another form of social integration? It produces a simple pleasure knowing that you are not alone; there are other families too outside the four wooden fences encompassing your home.
I think I have mentioned it a few times before in this diary, but I am really missing the outside world. My house has never felt so much like a claustrophobic environment. I miss the feeling of getting lost in places and finding new spaces. I think most of all I miss unfamiliar faces.
On 5 April 2020:
I celebrated my birthday today. I am twenty … twenty! It is at least good to know that I shall not be dying soon. I don’t feel death creeping up on me yet, and I have not been out of the house. I have not chatted to anyone on social media. It feels sort of good to not feel pressured to please people.
On 10 April 2020:
Today I discovered a hidden talent.
This morning my stepdad was mentioning how badly he wanted to go and have his haircut, but of course all the barbers are closed due to Covid-19. He asked me if I could give him a haircut instead. At first, I was extremely hesitant. I didn’t want to completely mess up his hair.
About an hour after he asked me, I decided I would give it a try. I certainly learnt a lot about how to cut men’s hair, using the different numbers on the shaving device. I was very impressed with myself in the end. My stepdad agreed that I had done a great job.
On 23 April 2020:
Personally I do not like Mondays, but who does! The usual, I woke up late, did the basics. I had a brunch together with the other ladies from res [student accommodation]. There are just eight of us left. We thought it would be a nice thing to do, as some of the ladies haven’t been eating well. […] We had an interesting conversation. The international students are worried. They are facing a lot of uncertainties and the all rumours and fake news are making things worse. Many students are also worried that if this pandemic continues, they might lose their bursary. That’s also my worry.
Life under Lockdown is available from African Sun Media or can be ordered through your local bookshop.