ISLAMABAD - Things are moving from surreal to downright fiction-y. Yes, I invented that word. Only because I feel like I am watching an Armageddon-style Hollywood movie without a large tub of popcorn in my lap.
The social isolation policy really hit home last week. VOA ordered all its overseas staff to start working from home. Until then, we had kept the Islamabad bureau open, albeit with reduced numbers and strict SOPs. People were coming in on alternate days and in shifts to minimize interaction and optimize social distancing. We were disinfecting all surfaces and particularly doorknobs three times a day. Everyone had masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers on their tables. No one was going to press briefings or gatherings.
Still, there was some activity. Since I live upstairs in the same house as the bureau, things seemed semi-normal. Not anymore.
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I am trying to keep my daily routine. Every morning I get ready for work and walk downstairs to my desk, resisting the urge to plop my laptop on the kitchen table and work in my pajamas.
In the room across from mine, where several of my colleagues normally sit, the lights are off. There's a quietness in the air that seems to stay even when I turn on the TV. I had no idea how much I would miss the chatter of my colleagues or watching the occasional person walk past my glass windows.
Even then, I am one of the lucky ones. I have space, a full house to myself. I don't have bored kids at home requiring constant attention, or old people requiring extra care. If I want fresh air, I can walk out onto the patio, or in the garden. Not everyone has that luxury. Many are stuck in difficult circumstances, having to work from home with little private space and all the distractions that come with kids and a house full of people. Extended families, often with aunts, uncles, grandparents all living together, is the norm in this region.
The other day I had to step out to buy essential supplies. I felt like I was in the video game Pac-Man. Every other human on the street or in the shop was out to eat me and my job was to avoid them at all costs. On the sidewalk, I zigzagged right to left, trying to keep my 2-meter distance from any passerby. Near the entrance, I paused. Do I touch the door handle? How many people have touched it in the last three days? When was this handle disinfected?
Eventually I chose to open it with a tissue but then got stuck with the tissue. With no trash can in sight, I had to hold it in my hand the rest of the shopping spree.
Inside, the game intensified. Every time I saw another customer walking down the aisle toward me, I would turn and walk the other way. When mask-wearing sales representatives tried to help me find an item I balked, gesturing wildly for them to stay away.
At the checkout counter, I got stuck. How do I take my wallet out of my bag? I had touched bottles of soaps and shampoos, tubes of toothpaste, and a shopping basket. The sanitizer was in a front pocket. I would only need to open one zipper to get it out. I sent a mental memo to self: next time, hold the sanitizer in your hand.
Once home, I washed all the plastic bottles with soap and water. Whatever could not be washed, all the tissue boxes and toilet rolls, got deposited in a corner of my sunroom. They would stay there for at least four days. The mental toll of just a bit of grocery shopping was enough to make me feel physically tired. I have felt less stress traveling through insecure regions of Afghanistan.
Speaking of Afghanistan, this is the time when I should have been there. I am forced to cover from a distance stories that required an in-depth look.
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting millions of people in this region. I need to be out there covering their stories, but I worry about the safety of my crew. My cameraman has little children. I cannot be reckless with his health. Every day I grapple with how to safely get more information out to my audience.
How do I present the human face, the human cost of this pandemic to the public without risking either my own health or the health of people working with me? How do I do my job at a time when it is more important than ever to do it? There are no easy answers.