Running Late for Work

“Here, take this”, my brother says, casually slipping a 50 ml bottle of sanitiser into my backpack. “There’s only 10 ml left in it” I gently protest. “Sorry man” he says unapologetically “that’s all I have right now”. I respond with an air of resignation. “Fair enough! Beggars can’t be choosers”.

Sanitiser has been in short supply of late, as has toilet paper, paper towels and a range of other products. Since when did the haves and the have-nots become about whether one has enough toilet paper or not? Even though national supermarket chains are operating on restricted business hours and limiting purchases of staple foods to two items per customer, stock levels have not yet returned to normal. A harassed staff member at Woolworths recently told me that the best time to shop was at 8 in the morning. But the thought of queuing up for the bare essentials at that time of the day is demoralising.

I’m running late for work, but I allow myself a quick detour to my local cafe. The café owner confides in me that right now “things are so surreal”. I nod in agreement as I sanitise my phone with an anti-bacterial wipe. We usually exchange friendly kisses on both cheeks, European style. But today we’re keeping our distance, carefully monitoring each other for signs of sickness – Runny nose? Sniffle? Sneeze? Cough? “Business has been a bit sluggish of late”, she whispers quietly. She’s going to take the business online. Tomorrow, she has an appointment with an Uber Eats sales representative.

I board the bus and instinctively take the seat furthest away from fellow passengers. Not unsurprisingly, no one sits next to me for the entire 45 minutes of the journey. Erving Goffman would have a field day if he was here. We avoid making eye contact, but the look of fear and anxiety is difficult to conceal. None of us want to get sick because we’re afraid of falling into the small percentile group of sufferers who have reportedly died.

It’s early days. Few of us know anyone who has been sickened. At the present time the pandemic is very much here-say and rumour: Something that happens to someone else, an exotic illness that afflicts strangers. It’s an alarming news headline, a raw number, a decontextualised statistic.

But there is a palpable sense of dread that no matter how vigilant one tries to be, at a specific time and place the virus will breach the levee of our personal hygiene routine and embed itself into our lungs. What will the turning point be, we fretfully ponder? Will it be a door handle? A shelf item in a supermarket aisle ? A stanchion or hanging strap on a bus or train? A stray droplet? Will I inadvertently touch my face?

Lately, the autumn sun has been reassuringly warm. I walk past neighbours who are pottering in their gardens, greeting them from a distance. Like me, they are afraid of viral transmission and the unspeakable spectre of death. Having the long trajectory of our biography prematurely halted by a virulent bug that has effortlessly leapfrogged oceans is profoundly unsettling. There is never a good time to die. So, in a state of heightened paranoia, we will do whatever it takes to avoid social interaction as we have historically known it. We are all suspect. Social niceties are being dispensed with. “Socially distance yourselves” the health experts regularly implore. Is it still possible to be kind? [1]

I arrive at work. It’s ghostly quiet. My university has mandated that students go on furlough two weeks earlier than the scheduled break. In a few weeks time classes will resume, but these will be delivered online. I navigate the grey carpeted corridor of my building. Offices are darkened. The doors are locked. Most staff are working from home or other remote locations. The only people required on campus are those providing essential services that cannot be delivered remotely. Although I don’t really fall into this category it personally suits me to be at work today. I respond to email, speak to IT, make a few phone calls.

It’s lunchtime. I pick at the microwaved lasagne on my desk. I stare outside my office window into the sunny courtyard, reminiscing about this time last year. Compared to now, there wasn’t a care in the world. The wave of uncertainty that this pandemic has unleashed, has reduced anxiety around internal reviews, restructures and budget cuts to a mere trifle.

Life as we know it has changed overnight. But it’s important to remain calm and carry on as best as we can. As I’ve said in a recent post, we should make every effort to keep doing the things that bring us a measure of joy. I look forward to the day when this pandemic will be marginalised to a footnote in history. Years from now I wonder what our society will have learned from this earthquake of change.

[1] I recently heard a psychologist on television calling for us not conflate the social with the physical. In other words, reframing risk management in relation to the virus as physical distancing, and not social distancing.

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