ISLAMABAD – Everything moves from surrealist to true-y fiction. Yes, I found that word. Just because I feel like I’m watching Armageddon-style Hollywood movies without a big tub of popcorn on my lap.
The policy of social isolation really started last week. VOA ordered all its foreign staff to start working from home. Until then, we have kept the Islamabad bureau open, although with reduced numbers and strict SOPs. People come on alternative days and take turns to minimize interaction and optimize social distance. We disinfect all surfaces and especially door handles three times a day. Everyone has a mask, gloves and hand sanitizer on their table. No one will conduct a briefing or meeting.
However, there are several activities. Because I live upstairs in the same house as the bureau, everything seems abnormal. No longer.
I try to maintain my daily routine. Every morning I get ready for work and walk down to my desk, resisting the urge to put my laptop on the kitchen table and work in my pajamas.
In the room opposite me, where some of my co-workers usually sit, the lights go out. There was silence in the air that seemed to remain even when I turned on the TV. I don’t know how much I will miss the conversations of my colleagues or watch the occasional person walking through my glass window.
Even then, I was the lucky one. I have a room, a full house for myself. I don’t have children who are bored at home who need constant attention, or parents who need extra care. If I want fresh air, I can walk to the terrace, or in the garden. Not everyone has that luxury. Many are trapped in difficult circumstances, having to work from home with little personal space and all the distractions that accompany children and a house full of people. Large families, often with aunts, uncles, grandparents all living together, are the norm in this region.
One day I had to go out to buy important supplies. I feel like I’m in a video game Pac-Man. Every human being on the street or in a shop came out to eat me and my job was to avoid it in any way. On the sidewalk, I zig-zag from right to left, trying to keep a distance of 2 meters from pedestrians. Near the entrance, I stopped. Am I touching the door handle? How many people touched it in the past three days? When will this handle be disinfected?
Finally I chose to open it with a tissue but then stuck with it. With no visible trash can, I have to hold it in my hand the rest of shopping.
Inside, the game is getting more intensive. Every time I see another customer walking down the hall toward me, I will turn around and walk the other way. When the sales representative who wore a mask tried to help me find the item I was rejecting, motioned for them to stay away.
At the cashier, I was stuck. How do you get your wallet out of the bag? I have touched soap bottles and shampoo, toothpaste, and shopping baskets. The cleaner is in the front pocket. I only need to open one zipper to remove it. I sent a mental memo to myself: next time, hold the sanitizer in your hand.
When I got home, I washed all the plastic bottles with soap and water. Whatever cannot be washed, all the tissue boxes and toilet rolls, are stored in the corner of my sunroom. They will stay there for at least four days. The mental amount of a little shopping is enough to make me feel physically tired. I feel less stressed traveling through unsafe areas in Afghanistan.
Speaking of Afghanistan, this is the time when I should be there. I was forced to cover remotely that required an in-depth look.
The corona virus pandemic affects millions of people in this region. I had to be out there to cover their story, but I was worried about the safety of my crew. My cameraman has a small child. I could not be careless with his health. Every day I struggle with getting safer information to my audience.
How do I show the human face, the human costs of this pandemic to the public without jeopardizing my own health or the health of the people I work with? How do I do my work when it’s more important than before to do it? There are no easy answers.
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