Lessons from Lockdown

Three people from around the world told Asparagus how they hope society will change after the pandemic.

Illustration—2 windows in a brick wall show a family separated by a wall, and 4 roommates playing board games, drinking wine.
Illustrations by Stella Zheng

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Paul squints into his cell phone under the midday sun for a Zoom call from Quezon City, Philippines. His baseball cap shades his brow and spotlights his big smile as he stands against a concrete brick wall. Roosters crow in the background as he tells me how he became one of the over 203 million people in the world to contract Covid-19 as of August 2021.

Over 10,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean, the pandemic has made it almost impossible for Margo — a sex worker in Vancouver — to make a living. Government relief programs have never been easy to access for sex workers. Now, options for support seem more limited than ever.

A time zone away in Albuquerque, New Mexico, actor Noah Anderson remembers the energy that drew him to New York City and the shutdown that eventually pushed him out. He recalls the calm of isolating in his apartment and the powerful experience of marching for the Black Lives Matter movement with his roommates.

This global epidemic made our worlds smaller. It forced us to stay in our communities, limited our contacts, and in too many cases, took our loved ones. But while public health officials ask us to stay in the bubbles Covid-19 has created for a bit longer, it’s time to burst them figuratively.

Asparagus reached out to three people around the world about their experiences of the pandemic. They shared their unique challenges, stories of resilience, and lessons they hope society learns as we start to imagine life after Covid.

Spread kindness, not misinformation

“The discrimination is so rampant,” Paul says. We’re publishing only his first name because he worries revealing he had Covid could make him and his family a target and scare away potential work. His wife works in the finance department of a hospital, and health-care workers in the Philippines have been locked out of their rental units by landlords, denied public transit, or refused service because of fear and misinformation they are spreading the virus.

In a few cases, they’ve been violently attacked with chlorine and bleach.

The flood of information and misinformation about Covid has been called an “infodemic”; spreading as quickly as the virus itself, and with deadly consequences. Misinformation has sparked deaths, injuries, and assaults — as well as discrimination against health-care workers — worldwide, but it’s hard to know its full effect. At least 800 people died and over 5,000 were hospitalized in Turkey and Iran after treating themselves with false coronavirus cures, according to a July 2020 estimate published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

The Philippines is the seventh worst country in the world when it comes to the spread of misinformation and the first in Asia, according to the news organization Rappler. Rappler works with the International Fact-Checking Network to track what, where, and how misinformation about Covid is spread globally, compiling it in a public database. They found the top falsehoods are about cures or treatments, and conspiracy theories. One false theory that has spread widely on social media is that the pandemic is part of a conspiracy to control the public.

Paul says he and his family have open conversations about the information about Covid they see online, and whether it is true. So when he started getting a headache, fatigue, and loss of taste, he knew he might have Covid-19. He immediately moved into a separate room, quarantining from his family. After three days of persistent symptoms, he was admitted to the hospital.

“My family was very much worried,” he says. He was isolated and no visitors were allowed. He had chills at night. After seven days, he was released to the care of his family. He quarantined as soon as he got home. His wife delivered food and water to his door and cleared out of the way when he had to use the bathroom, sanitizing it before and after. Luckily, his wife and daughter didn’t get sick. Paul believes he might have gotten the virus on public transit.

Today, he’s feeling better but says he feels a strain in his heart while doing chores. He’s back at work as a consultant helping cooperatives with marketing, and says he’s even donated his plasma twice.

One false theory spread widely on social media is that the pandemic is part of a conspiracy to control the public.

The neighbouring capital city, Manila, has been transformed. Before Covid, Manila was the city that answered your calls. The business processing outsourcing industry — including call centres and IT support — was booming in the Philippines, accounting for 9% of GDP and provided over 1.2 million jobs. It was an active city, says Paul, where you could find people roaming around almost every hour of the day or night.

Once the virus hit, the government put a strict mandatory curfew into place. Some call centre employees were able to work from home, but others reported sleeping at work in order to make their shifts.

Paul hopes sharing his story will counter misinformation. “I hope people will learn that Covid-19 is real, because others still pretend that it does not happen,” he says. Kindness and generosity can be contagious too, he adds. “Be kind and do what is good, so that it would spread to other people just like paying it forward.”

Leave no one behind

Even behind a mask, Margo’s smile is apparent as she introduces herself. “I was transgender… started taking hormones when I was 16. Got breast implants when I was 19. Worked the street all through my life, on and off. I’m now 54. Hopefully a little wiser. I know a lot smarter.” Margo pauses before adding one more detail. “I can tell you one thing: these are the oldest implants you will ever see in your entire life.”

Margo is sitting at a table in a long room at WISH, a drop-in centre society focused on improving the health, safety, and well-being of women in Vancouver’s street-based sex trade. Her friend Jasmine, who is also a sex worker, is at the other end of the table for emotional support. Colouring-sheet posters of Rosie the Riveter and Wonder Woman line the wall behind them.

For safety reasons, Asparagus is using pseudonyms for Margo and Jasmine.

Covid-19 is having a “dismal” impact on sex work, says Jasmine. Before the pandemic, they earned enough money to live; Margo estimates she had two to three dates a night. Now, work is sporadic, sometimes with no clients for a week or more.

“My bills aren’t getting paid. And usually they’re always up to date,” says Margo. Over 46% of sex workers living around Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside said their business has been significantly impacted by the pandemic and many were unable to work, according to a March 2020 survey of 95 sex workers conducted by a consortium of five service agencies.

The Canadian federal government created the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB, to help people who lost work because of Covid-19. “But there are a lot of folks who got left behind, especially sex workers,” says Jasmine.

Artists, recent immigrants, and some part-time workers also said they were excluded from government relief. Labour unions, activists, and academics say the pandemic has exposed inequalities in how we design economic and social supports and who we design them for. Some people didn’t meet certain qualifications to access CERB, like a minimum annual income of $5,000 or providing tax records.

Other barriers to accessing emergency economic programs include not having a bank account or fixed address, according to a Covid-19 needs and risk assessment of Metro Vancouver sex workers. Advocates pushed for changes to CERB and found some success; the criteria were updated to include students and self-employed people like artists and musicians.

There are a lot of folks who got left behind, especially sex workers.

Now, in her mid-50s, Margo’s looking to focus on something new. She’s not sure what’s next but says, whatever it is, she wants to help people who are suffering. The social distancing restrictions have been in place during a particularly lonely time for Margo. Her two toy Pomeranians passed away last year. “It’s a family member. You’ve had these animals for, what, 13 years. All of a sudden, they leave you. And you put everything that you have into these animals.”

Margo does hope Covid will teach people to recognize challenges others may be facing. “Put yourself in the other person’s shoes… You have to realize that there’s two sides to every story. There’s your story, and they have a story to tell. And you should damn well listen when we they have one to say.”

A different show must go on

“It was perfect,” says Noah Anderson as he reflects on his first few months living in New York City. It had taken some time for him and a friend to save enough money to move to Brooklyn from Westchester, a suburb about two hours north by transit. He would go into the city almost daily, “doing auditions, hanging out with friends, exploring, looking for work.”

His first job was handing out flyers in Times Square for Broadway shows. He eventually got a few more gigs: the part of Romeo in a play, rolling silverware for a dinner theatre show, the lead in a movie. Finally, he earned enough to move to Brooklyn.

He and two friends found a fourth roommate online and moved into a four-bedroom apartment. “A bunch of young actors, very excited to be doing auditions, and living in the city, and living in Brooklyn, and building our community and our network,” he says.

The hustle, bustle, and grit of the city drew him in. But a few months later, in mid-January, the first case of Covid-19 in the US was reported in Washington state. Within weeks, he and his roommates lost their jobs. Theatres shut down. Broadway closed. The arts industry worldwide ground to a halt.

Can we gather now? Can we sit next to each other in the theatre? Can we stand together at a venue?

The culture sector, which includes film, theatre, art galleries, and music, employs more than 30 million people around the world. At the end of 2020, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) urged governments to create targeted policies to help the industry through the pandemic. “Culture has helped us out of the crisis. Now we have to help culture and support the diversity to which culture owes its strength,” said UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay in a statement.

After losing all his work in March 2020, Noah remembers, “lying on the couch and going well, shit. Like, you know, excuse my language, but we’re fucked… We’re broke. We’re actors.”

“Everyday funds are getting lower and hope is getting tighter,” he says. The “light at the end of the tunnel” was when the government announced the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Eligibility extended to contractors, freelancers, and part-time workers, meaning some arts workers qualified. Each day, he’d open the government website to apply, but the site was struggling with the volume of visitors. Luckily, he got some money from a tax refund to cover him until the benefits kicked in.

During the lockdown, he and his roommates stayed indoors; sharing meals, watching movies, and playing lots and lots of Monopoly and Settlers of Catan. Then, in May, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer and the Black Lives Matter movement brought people outside. Noah, who is Black biracial, decided to join marches in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

“I went with my friends and it was powerful.” As big as the marches were, for Noah, the most powerful impact so far has been the conversations that opened up between him and his white roommates. “It’s not a part of American culture yet for Black people and white people and everyone in between to talk about the misconceptions [related to race].”

Without an end to the pandemic in sight, Noah moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to live with family. He isn’t sure how long he’ll stay or where he’ll move next.

“Can we gather now? Can we sit next to each other in the theatre? Can we stand together at a venue?” he says, like he’s on a long trip wondering if it will ever end.

In February, almost a year after the pandemic was declared, some movie theatres in New York City opened their doors again (at 25% capacity). No matter how much we relied on streaming services during the pandemic, Noah believes people will come back to movie theatres.

He hopes the society on the other side is different from the one he lived in before the pandemic. In addition to hoping for more reasonably priced popcorn, he hopes we’ve learned some practical things like good hand-washing and better sanitation practices. He also hopes people will be open to conversations about universal income and racism.

“We’ve learned a lot and there’s no point regressing once the masks are off,” he says.

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