11/04/2020 – Durham, UK
Some days are bad. According to the Department of Heath and Social Care and Public Health England 9875 people have died of coronavirus in the UK. The figure does not cover those who died at home or in care homes so some argue that it should be doubled. I try to get my head round it, let it sink in. 9875 grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, grandsons, grandchildren, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles have died and most probably buried unceremoniously. There is stillness at the beginning as the neurotransmitters in my brain start sending excitatory messages, a drawing of breath, with fortunately I can still do, followed by anger.
Having witnessed and survived so many wars civil and otherwise, pandemics and epidemics, I despair about being a member of such an idiotic and short-sighted human race. This feeling makes death seem like a reprieve. As my late friend Elizabeth Anderson once said, ‘If death is oblivion, bring it on.’
We obviously learnt very little since 1346, when the black death swept many parts of the world. And despite all the pandemics and epidemics inflicted on us: cholera, the plague, Spanish flue, HIV/Aids, Ebola, Sars, we still prioritise amassing arms and protecting ourselves against mostly illusive enemies over our health and that of other species.
Arms manufacturers and dealers have thrived on wars in so many parts of the world from Korea and Vietnam all the way to Iraq. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) the arms industry sales of the top 100 manufacturers reached $420 billion, a rise of 109% between 2002-2018.
That shows that we invested heavily not in science that cures, but in science that kills: the atomic bomb, stealth and precision guided weapons, drones. With billions of dollars at their dispense, arms manufacturers created weapons that can find you, follow you down an alleyway, dance the waltz over your head, and then explode, killing you and those around you.
I read somewhere that the Muslims in medieval Spain (722-1492) were defeated because they made a conscious decision to stop destructive scientific experimentation in its tracks. Whether that is true on or not the war machine, devouring people and capital, must be stopped and funds diverted to a ‘peace dividend’ to be spent on education, improving the infrastructure, providing health for all, and foreign aid. The UK alone spent $50 billion on arms in 2018. How many universities, hospitals, care homes, social housing, playgrounds could have been built with that amount? How many respirators, oxygen cylinders, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for NHS staff could have been resourced? How many lives could have been saved?
Some days are worse. Fear, distilled and pure, for myself and others, races through my veins, sapping my energy. I feel depleted and struggle to go down to have breakfast. I try to keep it together, but the slightest challenge unravels me like failing to open a milk carton. I keep forgetting my rituals, routines and rhythms and start again. Do I normally go for a walk before or after breakfast? Perhaps after lunch? Then lunch comes and goes with me still lying on the sofa watching television and trying to make sense of the random images. They seemed alien as if beamed from Jupiter. On days like this a phone call could drain me, tip me over. I take the phone off the hook, keep my mobile on silent, switch off my PC and iPad and block all contact with the outside world. Do not disturb!
It is a solitude in disquietude rather than tranquillity. Bad thoughts rush in tripping over each other. How would I cope if I lost a loved one in one of many the countries they are in: Jordan, USA, Bahrain, Germany? Would I be able to reach them, attend their funerals, grief with other members of my family? Will I be allowed to see them lowered into their graves, so I could in the fullness of time have a sense of closure. Would I forgive myself for the decisions I made such as making Britain my home, and not travelling to Amman when the airport was open. What about remorse and contrition? Have I loved enough?
Other days are bearable. I wake up fine and can go about my daily tasks. During such respites, death seems distant and, for some reason, I am immune to it, my blood stream is full of antibodies that can fight all diseases including Covid-19. Delusional, I convince myself that this crisis will be over soon, and normal life will resume, whatever that was. My family like going out occasionally to The South Causey Inn in Stanley – the name triggers an eruption of nostalgia – to have Sunday lunch, roast turkey, with all the trimmings, potatoes, sautéed carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli. We reminisce about such simple pleasures, which now belong to the pre-coronavirus era and console ourselves by saying, ‘maybe soon we will be able to go out for a meal again.’ We sit in the garden, thinking of our loved ones in Amman as we listen to the Lebanese singer Fairuz croon, ‘Ba’dak ‘ala bali: you are still on my mind, oh young and proud, oh fragrant basil scattered on rooftops!’
Oblivious to our hopes, fears and nostalgia, the circles of coronavirus on the pandemic meters’ maps are getting bigger, denser and angrier. Death is driving up the highway and will arrive at our neighbourhood soon. I apologise to the grim reaper because despite all his warnings, grey hair, dimming eyesight, and stiff joints, I am still unprepared. What about what I still intended to do? What about the heart’s unfulfilled desires? What about unfinished businesses? There are projects to carry out, books to write, places to visit, words to say, and love yet to be expressed.
My friend G tells me that she group-calls her sisters in London every Sunday. I suggest that we do the same. Few days ago, my sisters and I arranged a group video call with my parents in Amman. When my father saw his four daughters together on one screen, he was overwhelmed. We spoke about the lockdowns and curfews, about being careful, and how far saliva droplets teaming with Covid-19 viruses can travel. My mother said, ‘I stopped going out to the garden. Sometimes children play in the street outside.’
My mother’s ‘game’, as my father once said, is her garden. With the help of my sister E, an agricultural engineer, they created a beautiful oasis in east Amman: lemon and mulberry trees, bougainvillea where sparrows nested, and jasmine vines. Every morning she would feed the tortoises in the flowerbed, water the plants, and fill the small pool so stray cats don’t go thirsty.
‘How about if you wear a mask when you go out to the garden.’ My brother looked for masks in all Amman’s pharmacies but couldn’t find any. My sister W created a mask at home that had two layers of cotton, which could be stuffed with crunched paper towels. ‘You could dispose of the paper towels and wash it in high temperatures after use.’ Amman has many seamstresses and probably most are without income now. We decided to ask one of them to make masks for my parents. Perhaps we can get them certified and then fundraise to make many more and donate them to the old and vulnerable.
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