By Rani Drew
COVID-19 tales from Cambridge, UK
On the 28th of February, 2020, my husband and I returned to Cambridge from a short holiday in Gujarat. For two weeks we had travelled nonstop to popular tourist places. We explored Indian history and enjoyed the culture of hospitality.
When we got back to the UK, we were surprised that our Chinese guest, Jicheng Sun, was still in the house. He was a scholar who had come to Cambridge to do research. He had intended to leave for China while we were in India, but there were no available flights on account of the Coronavirus. We suddenly became aware of how serious the virus was. While on the road, we had heard murmurs about a virus in China, but we hadn’t paid any attention. Soon, scientists were warning the British government that the virus might soon enter Britain. The government ignored them. At the time, many thought there was no chance that the virus would make it all the way to Britain. By the third week of March, the virus had arrived, and we began social distancing. Meanwhile, conditions in China began stabilizing, and our guest was able to head home.
Every March 21st, my family celebrates my birthday by coming together at our place in Cambridge, or at one of our children’s houses. With the lockdown in full force, the party had to be held online. My birthday became a virtual celebration with real cake and drinks! It worked pretty well. My children, their partners, and our grandson all showed up in front of their cameras. In the past we had all shared one big cake, but now we had to eat separate cakes. Still, they sang “Happy Birthday” in turns as they always did. What a joy amidst a global threat!
Suddenly, my daughter Sandhya suggested to her sister Anita, “Why don’t we act out one of Mummy’s plays?”
“What a marvellous idea!” Anita nodded, “Which play should we do?”
“What about Shakespeare & Me?”
“Yes, good choice, better two characters than ten!”
My son Iqbal said, “I’ll be the director.”
Everyone cheered. Listening to them plan for the performance, I smiled with joy. What more can a playwright dream of!
On March 23rd, the first lockdown began in Britain. All bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants were closed. All schools and childcare facilities closed. The government claimed that the next review would be done on May 7th, although another lockdown might happen.
The virus continued. The demands on doctors and nurses increased. The death toll rose rapidly. Every Thursday, Channel 4 reminded people to thank the NHS for their care and work by clapping together from their open windows and doorways. Soon, a number of nurses and doctors themselves died. Saddened by the news, I suggested to the people on our street that we take two minutes of silence to honour them for their sacrifice.
The death toll continued to rise, but misfortune brings out the compassion in humans. Our neighbours would email or telephone to check if older residents, my husband and I included, needed any shopping done. The darkness of misfortune lights up the heart!
Yet with the rapidly increasing number of cases, the lockdown became even more restrictive. Schools, colleges, universities and workplaces were closed down. Everyone was warned to stay home or suffer the virus.
The pandemic continued into April, and became even worse than it was in March. A letter from Jicheng arrived. When he arrived in China, he had to be quarantined for two weeks before he could return to his home. He had finally gotten out of quarantine and was reunited with his family. I felt happy for him.
On April 26th, we celebrated our grandson’s birthday on Zoom since it had been a great success on my birthday. Through the camera, we saw a delicious-looking chocolate cake with birthday wishes written in coloured sugary letters and 15 gleaming candles on top. My husband and I proudly presented our own homemade cake, and thought that our version matched the grandeur of the one my daughter had made. Our grandson looked delighted when we sang “Happy Birthday.” We cut ours pretending it was the one he was cutting and served ourselves at the same time. We heard cameras clicking, chatting, and laughing just like everyone was in the same place. Samuel told us that since school had shut down, he’d taken to cycling with his friends, increasing their distance each time. On their last ride, they covered 100 km! He showed us pictures of them cycling. Wow! We applauded him and took more photographs.
These Zoom meetings with the family were so successful that we started organising more virtual visits with my family in India. Soon, more surprises came as friends from Spain, Italy and India started getting in touch. We felt such joy amid the gloomy air of death and devastation.
When the lockdown was expected to ease in early May, we saw no sign of it lifting. People looked at each other in confusion, wondering what was going to happen.
Jicheng wrote to me again. It seemed that China was recovering from the pandemic. His family was fine and he was returning to work. Good news. I thought that I should get back to my writing, no matter what. Maybe I could look into how the evil pandemic started, and find out when it will leave us. Will it leave behind a common vision for humanity? Has it been worth the hardship and suffering we have gone through? After all, writing is a way of healing, isn’t it?