The unbearable emptiness of life under lockdown

Ideas

The unbearable emptiness of life under lockdown

‘I am looking for assurance in every corner and mostly finding them empty’

Journalist
An illustration for 'The Old Man and Death', from an early 19th-century edition of 'Aesop's Fables', a source for the saying, 'Be careful what you wish for'.
Cautionary tale An illustration for 'The Old Man and Death', from an early 19th-century edition of 'Aesop's Fables', a source for the saying, 'Be careful what you wish for'.
Image: C Whittingham

Ancient Greek storyteller Aesop said: “Be careful what you wish for.” In 2020, I have come to understand what this means.

When I slaved away at the office, I fantasised about working from home, resenting the daily grind and, not least, the Cape Town traffic. Now, under lockdown, I have been given a taste of the life I craved, but underestimated the value of having my colleagues around. Frankly, the whole exercise has left me anxious.

I don’t know how journalists work from home. Maybe we are not cut from the same cloth (or paper). During a virtual meeting the other day, a colleague asked: “Philani, why are you a silhouette?” I responded: “It’s my shield.”

The reality was that I was confronted with my worst nightmare: technology. My shadowy outline was being beamed into my eight colleagues’ living rooms. This was after I fiddled with my ageing laptop to get a clear picture (and, as expected, failed). The IT guy’s number was engaged. I guess another colleague required his assistance.

My view has too much glare, the vineyards are eerily deserted and the birds are noisy.

Indeed, my life has turned into a silhouette. I have always looked forward to spending time in my flat,  savouring the sweeping views of the vineyards and enjoying bird song.

Now there is too much glare, the vineyards are eerily deserted and the birds are noisy.

At one stage, I thought my neighbours had left the complex — it’s so quiet, you don’t even hear a child’s voice — but the parking lot is full. Everyone is home, invisible to one another. I even found myself missing the irritating boys who always kick a ball close to my car.

Now I realise that one of the perks of my job is being surrounded by colleagues, people who have to listen to my stories, whether they like them or not. Being homebound has spawned a new me, and I don’t like the person I see in the mirror. He worries a lot and overthinks things.

Too often, journalists write about industries shedding jobs and the plight of retrenched workers. Seldom do we write about our situations, fears and hardships. All our audiences see of us is what we've written for them.

So my home has become the incubator of wretched ideas about our industry’s grim prospects and life after the coronavirus. Often I wake up the middle of the night paralysed by the predicaments of colleagues at other media houses who might not get paid at the end of the month. Others might have their salaries slashed by up to 45% and many freelancers’ gigs were cancelled soon after Covid-19 hit SA’s shores.

I imagine this period has evoked unusual thoughts in others. Testimony to this is a text message from my high-school girlfriend — at 3am the other day — asking: “What was the reason for our break-up?” Hayibo, uright?

My home has become the incubator of wretched ideas about our industry’s grim prospects and life after the coronavirus.

I also worry about my productivity. Until a few weeks ago, health reporters wrote about the coronavirus while I mined the high court in Cape Town for salacious stories arising from  judicial skirmishes.

I had to quickly bring myself up to speed about the virus. But it still takes me a long time to generate copy for fear of getting things wrong — information about it changes frequently, as does editorial appetite.

Editors love figures and stats, but no one wants to commit to specifics. The other day a fellow journalist asked police minister Bheki Cele about the number of police officers who have been deployed to enforce the lockdown. His response ... “You know I will never answer that question. I am not going to give you numbers here and information about who will be where. These are forces, not all here by the way. But numbers are not for you.”

I flip TV channels a lot and have seen health minister Zweli Mkhize so often I have started to believe we look alike. Well, that’s the 10-year-old boy, in the face of this invisible, scary enemy, looking for a father figure, any father figure, because his own was absent. I am looking for assurance in every corner and mostly finding them empty.

Even so, in all this fear and overwhelming isolation, what I have found is the pronoun “we”, for myself and all other South Africans.

It’s rare for journalists to be able to speak collectively about the national mood. It’s reserved for those proud but rare moments, usually on the sports field, when we are all of the same mind.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic encompassing millions of individual fears, we’re in another “we” moment, even if we’re all isolated in our own homes, reaching out across the quiet space.