Life in lockdown: 'Every horrible situation offers a lesson to grow from'
In the face of COVID-19, a Canadian journalist in Rome shares lessons she's learned from previous lockdowns
I had just come back from an amazing weekend trip to Portugal that left me feeling light, contented and at ease: things I hadn't felt in a while.
On the flight from Lisbon back to Rome, I reveled in these sentiments. But moments after the plane touched down, my euphoria was sucked out of me.
My phone blew up with messages from colleagues and friends: "Did you make it back?" "Did you hear?" "All of Italy is now under lockdown."
This wasn't my first lockdown and probably won't be the last. But it wasn't a situation I thought I'd find myself facing in Italy.
I had moved to Rome in mid-January after two and a half years in South Sudan and another two years in Turkey before that. In my mind, Italy was going to offer me a chance to slow down and live in an environment with less stress, more free movement and no danger.
That changed when Italy became the European epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak. We had been monitoring the situation in northern Italy, where around 16 million people were already under government imposed self-isolation for weeks. At work, we were discussing having half of our team work from home. But up to that point, life in Rome had gone on as usual.
When I heard about the lockdown, I did what I usually do in times of crisis: Don't panic. Take a few deep breaths. Do a mental walk through of things I'll need to do.
But I couldn't help having the most selfish thought I've possibly ever had: "Why is this happening to me again?"
Of course, the reality is this isn't just happening to me. It's affecting people globally. But in my personal world, I felt frustrated and defeated.
My first lockdown
Istanbul is one of the most magical cities I have ever seen. But I arrived during a precarious time.
I was working for the new international English network of Turkey's public broadcaster.
Shortly before my arrival there, reports of terror attacks had started circulating. It was a devastating trend that continued in parts of the country for the next year. When it started happening in Istanbul, fear and paranoia started brewing within me.
My colleagues and I started changing our habits. We avoided large crowds and stopped going to clubs and bars. We requested more security at work after ISIS released a manifesto placing media near the top of its target list.
Lockdown came in the middle of 2016. On July 15, a coup d'etat was attempted in Turkey. Key institutions were targeted first, including the media. My program was live on air when dozens of soldiers stormed the building, corralling me and other staff in the parking lot, holding us at gunpoint, and eventually kicking us off the premises.
The rest of the night felt like being cast as an unwilling extra in a war movie, accented with gunfire, explosions, low-flying fighter jets and tanks rolling through the streets. I remained in lockdown until I was told it was safe to return to work.
Security fears in South Sudan
My colleagues in Istanbul joked that I was moving to South Sudan to escape the stress of Turkey. It sounds crazy, but, at the time, it was true.
I was hired as the head of a media development organization in South Sudan, training journalists and civil society organizations on human rights reporting.
I knew living there wasn't going to be easy. The daily life of the average foreigner working for an international NGO follows a number of strict rules. The United Nations enforces a 7 p.m. curfew for its staff, with some other INGOs and diplomatic missions stretching it to 8:30 p.m.
During the day you need to use a driver since walking in the streets can be risky. You can't go to any establishment that is not approved by security advisors (basically any local club or bar). And you must live in accommodation approved by the UN Department of Security and Safety — which involves having 24-hour guards, a thick wall around the perimeter and lots of barbed wire.
Soon after I arrived in late 2017, there was a three-day lockdown sparked by the sacking of the country's then military Chief of Staff and his ongoing house arrest.
It was a Friday evening and I had joined some friends at a popular place to sneak in a few post-work drinks before the impending curfew. Suddenly, a wave of panic rolled through the crowd and everyone filed out of the building. Apparently, a large group of soldiers loyal to the former military Chief of Staff had formed outside his residence, demanding his release — a demand that could be met by force.
I now had to come up with a hibernation plan for my team and myself, which included a possible evacuation if things escalated. I spent the next few days on a constant cycle of phone calls, gauging the situation until it eventually settled.
Several similar incidences played out during my time in South Sudan. Security was constantly at the forefront of my brain. Even without an active threat, the restricted lifestyle made you feel otherwise.
I found ways to cope: jogging at a gated sports centre, doing yoga and committing a majority of my time to work. There were always parties. But add a bunch of stressed-out humanitarians plus a copious amount of alcohol and you can do the math.
Things became repetitive. Everyone knew your business. Self-preservation kicked in and people treated each other poorly. You were under surveillance in all aspects of your life. Every move you made was calculated and had to be meticulously planned ahead. No room for whims. I felt trapped. I was burned out. I was numb. It was time to move on.
Lockdown in Rome
So here I am again, under a lockdown in Rome, now entering its third week. But this time I'm hiding from a danger I can't even see. I can't take any action to mitigate the risk except for staying behind closed doors and washing my hands — a lot.
I've made peace with the situation and, with the help of an online meditation class, I've managed to keep my anxiety at bay.
It still stings to see the usually bustling city bare. You can't help feel a bit insulted when someone crosses the street or lifts a mask over her mouth when you pass by.
These are lonely and confusing times.
But, there are far worse places to be trapped than Rome. So I consider myself very lucky. I can still go jogging in open air spaces where social distancing is possible. I can go out for groceries every few days and I can work from home.
I'm also extremely grateful to have my oldest friend, Tommy Gough, trapped with me through this experience. Tommy had arrived, anticipating weekends eating pizza in Naples or sipping wine in Sicily, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Instead, our weekend adventures revolve around going to the market or throwing out the trash, savouring a few minutes to feel part of the city around us.
Tommy is writing a book, so lockdown life suits him well. He's teaching me to embrace "the ways of the recluse," as he calls it.
And I am embracing the quiet time: to sit with my thoughts, reflect on things — who and what I appreciate.
I've taken this as a chance to do things I haven't had time for, or was too stressed to prioritize. I even made a to-do list to keep me motivated.
Our bodies are indeed locked down, but hopefully our minds aren't.
COVID-19 has forced us into a lockdown, kept apart from each other. But, it has also forced us to stop and slow down — to re-evaluate the way the world works, or rather, how it doesn't.
Maybe this experience will give people a small idea of what people living under daily restrictions go through on a regular basis.
Every horrible situation offers a lesson to grow from. That's certainly been the case for me.
In every crisis you will see the worst of humanity, but you will also see the best. I choose to focus on the latter. It's not that hard to find if you look for it. It's in the 6 p.m musical flash mobs organized across Italy's balconies, or in the hand-painted banners hanging from people's windows in Rome that remind us that "we are not alone" and "we will get through this."
About the Contributor
Laura Bain is a Canadian journalist currently taking a break from the newsroom to dabble in the world of communications. She's an eternal cautiously-optimistic human being, a mindset that serves her well when caught up in unexpected predicaments in different parts of the globe.
This documentary was produced by Acey Rowe.