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Come out and Play | Kay Ugwuede

Come out and Play | Kay Ugwuede

Come out and Play | Kay Ugwuede | Agbowo Art | African Literary Art

We are working remotely from today.  And while I am glad I do not have to enter the  danfos’ to and from work anymore, the dread that this virus has finally caught up with us is now bigger. 

  • Friday, March 20, 2020

I could not envision Lagos on hold. Before the government brings itself to enforce a lockdown, businesses who can afford to, begin closing shop. Large gatherings are banned, schools are closed and four days before the government finally enforces a total lockdown, Lagos is already a ghost town. As I drive around the Lagos island one evening for groceries not too long after, there are no tired drivers impatiently honking in gridlock traffic as hawkers shove their wares in the faces of commuters behind car windows. The bus parks are not overflowing with agberos or tired Lagosians hurrying home to catch whatever semblance of a normal life one can in a city like this. There are no car bumpers kissing ever so slightly as their owners hurtle spit and venom at each other leaving a line of incensed drivers waiting. The overpriced restaurants are closed, as are the roadside vendors who sell steaming ogi or jollof rice astride stuffy drainages and under makeshift stalls. The suit and heel-wearing staff in high-rise office complexes enveloped by glass have been sent home as have their less glittery counterparts. The church speakers are silent as are the minarets. Lagos is almost quiet. It is surreal. 

In my neighbourhood, muffled voices from television sets are all the sounds accompanying whistling leaves and bird chirping. Children don’t squeal on their bicycles, calling to each other as often as they have so that I can match their voices to their names without having seen or knowing any of them. 

Ten days before the government announces a total lockdown, my office sends us home. Thankfully. With the okadas that speedily and solitarily delivered me to the office driven out of the state by hostile government policy, I had to rely on a circuitous bus route that meant trying to claim space for myself in spaces that should not have been shared with that many people. It meant hugging myself tightly, leaning so far forward to avoid sweaty shoulder shoves or wrapping myself in the thick red scarf I bought at a tea farm in Bangladesh earlier in the year when we could still travel.

I follow the National Center for Disease Control on Twitter. It would be months later before the gorging on pandemic updates takes a mental and physical toll. A virus has enveloped the world in a terrible, deadly disease but my countrymen have more pressing issues. The unbearable traffic. The subtle, very subtle increase in the price of tomatoes and rice. The not so subtle increase in the price of onions. A currency in free fall. Insecurity. Unlatched containers falling on innocent people about their business.  

People stare at my large-red-scarf-wrapped body, at my sweaty face and incessant shifting, their eyes laden with mockery. There is a continued disregard for personal space, sneering at the mention of the virus, this esoteric blight the government wants to co-opt so they too can get the United Nation’s COVID-19 funding. I do not have so much faith in my country’s government and I cannot vouch for their intentions, but I do not doubt a viral infection that has been declared a global pandemic. Our borders are porous, on controllable land, in the free skies, porous.

I canceled an introductory swimming class. It was last year that I thought swimming was such a basic life skill not to have. But the thought of my body in a bikini at a public pool surpassed my desire to learn how to glide in water or a faint likelihood of drowning. So, I stalled. But a few weeks prior, a friend had offered to teach me. I bought a bikini and we went back and forth trying to fix a date to visit the Olympic sized pool at the National Stadium. Ironic, I know. 

The virus was spreading at snail-pace. While it took the healthy by the hundreds and thousands someplace else far away, by the second week of March, there were only three documented infections in a country of 200 million. It was enough to cause us to shelf our swimming classes. 

Three days after my first diary entry, inbound flights from outside the country are banned. Ten days after, the government issues a statewide lockdown. Only the states where cases have been recorded go into lockdown. A few others follow suit just for good measure. Interstate travels are halted and the pandemic is, at last, in full swing. 

I need not tell you why I began keeping a diary. I’m grasping at ways to make sense of this reality that I haven’t lived before. It is one thing to have an Ebola crisis ravaging West Africa or a deadly flu, East Asia. It is another thing to have not one region spared from this viral attack that has kept researchers and scientists on their toes trying to decipher this hostile guest. Given, nations aiding lesser capable counterparts are oftentimes anything but altruistic. Yet, the thought that whatever wealthier nations may have possibly devoted towards pseudo-altruism would be forced inward weighed heavily on me. And if they were sinking to their knees under the weight of this semi-living organism spreading unhinged like air, what chance did we stand?

At home, stalling the spread of the virus was an interdependency required of people accustomed to looking out for their own first. And, with the state of our healthcare system, religion, wealth or both were more reliable insurance. 

It takes eleven days to go from the index case to the second; nine days from the second to the third; three days from the third to twelve cases; another three days to climb from twelve to twenty-two and by April 2nd, as the global numbers inch towards a million, there are 184 cases in the country, with Lagos as the epicenter of the outbreak. 

The response to the pandemic has been a mix of incensing, unsurprising, debilitating and worrying. 

I’m anxious. Worried a lot. 

  • Sunday, March 22, 2020 

I know, in the four years I spent studying microorganisms as a reluctant undergraduate, that there are very few places where they can’t thrive. Human guts, refrigerated food, thin air, ocean floors. Crude-contaminated sites. 

My undergraduate project supervisor, a doctor of environmental microbiology, was a recluse whom we saw only during lectures or in examination halls if he was burdened with invigilation. Upon learning he was going to supervise my undergraduate project, I am unsure if I had been elated or indifferent. I was most assuredly thankful. There were lecturers who turned the only opportunity students had to get practical hands-on knowledge, after four years of theorising, into a dreadful endeavour that left them anxious about their final grades. 

In his office, tucked into a corridor of offices and laboratories in a bungalow belonging to the final year microbiology class, he wrote out a few topics on pieces of paper, rolled them up into balls and asked us, his project students, to pick. I was tasked with finding if there are microorganisms capable of degrading crude oil in soil samples, and for the first time in the three years prior, I was genuinely excited about school work. 

In the weeks that followed, I took a bus to a laboratory about 30 minutes outside the campus to work. The laboratories on campus did not have adequate equipment to support the kinds of experiments I needed to run: extracting concentrates from the soil samples with varying degrees of crude pollutants, introducing these into sterile Nutrient Agar media and monitoring growth as the colonies multiplied visibly following the streaks of my swab stick. I was excited to isolate them, smear them on a glass slide and peer into a microscope marvelled by the living, breathing organisms which on the surface looked like miniscule clumps of milk. My supervisor was pleased with my progress on the project. I succeeded in isolating and identifying  two classes of bacteria: Pseudomonas and Bacillus. There might also have been a weak fungal detection. These fascinated me. I thought there was nothing to find.

Oil spills destroy all kinds of life in aquatic and terrestrial environments. Then the crude makes it into human bodies through soups and broths. But here were these organisms thriving, breaking down complex hydrocarbon connections to create energy for their cellular activities.

Another kind of organism that fascinated me was viruses. We must have begun learning about them in our introductory microbiology course and the more I learned, the more they intrigued me. Viruses are not quite dead, nor are they fully alive. They are genetic material encased in capsid, a protein exterior able to shapeshift and latch onto living cells in many different ways. A virus comes alive and keeps itself alive inside another living organism often pulling a vicious hostage takeover in the process. This is how it survives its environment. It tricks its host into replicating its genetic information and to begin reproducing until the host cell no longer can. And it isn’t easily gotten rid of. Viruses are guests you stage an emergency for to remind visiting hours are over. Or else, they take up space, really take up space, across time and borders, leaving millions of unsaid goodbyes in their wake. 

Breathe. The numbers are nearing a million. 

  • Thursday, April 2, 2020

For simple diminutive organisms, viruses attack in very complex, almost intelligent ways. Consider the human immunodeficiency virus. When it gets into its host cell, it makes its way to the host’s defence headquarters and attaches itself to a critical immune system cell. In taking over that cell’s genetic activity and causing it to reproduce viruses instead, it compromises the entire immune system so that a common cold can become as life-threatening as a severe respiratory infection. The herpes simplex virus, once it gains entry, refuses to exit its hosts and is quick to remind that they are still present, still leeching, still multiplying. And while coronaviruses are not entirely new to researchers’ proddings, the COVID-19 strain spreading around the world with no regard for our nice-sounding or divisive partisan and identity politicking is a squirmish wonder.

In the first few months from March, the virus is said to be mutating quickly, throwing new curve balls by way of what symptoms patients present, the severity in various demographics, whether reinfections are possible and what long term effects could look like for patients who recover. 

First they say young people cannot get the virus, then it is young African people. It is a disease of the elderly. As if the virus can hear this, deaths start occurring in younger demographics too. They say one in six patients will require a ventilator if they are to stay alive. Much of what we know does not come from laboratories or research institutes in the country. Young adults with microbiology degrees like myself do not work in laboratories. We are reporting for digital media businesses, running successful YouTube channels, working banking halls or glass-encased office complexes seeking daily bread where a more assured table has been set. 

This is beside the point, the country has n-ventilators. n is about 100 or less than 500, no one can say for sure but whatever amount it is is not enough. A technology startup decides they can find n, that they should find n. It equals 243, a small fraction of which are out of order. Influential individuals in the industry rally around to build a prototype. A government agency says with a prototype they can have local manufacturers make the ventilators we need because across the world, people are making theirs and no one knows if they will have anything to spare. 

Private healthcare practitioners set up testing centers too because here, the government’s efforts are not enough. They are ever barely enough. They are also hardly ever transparent. They announce a stimulus package for businesses and another for individuals for whom movement has always meant survival. They announce that they will transfer cash into millions of bank accounts. It’s a paltry ₦25,480 ($52) but at least they care. They announce they will distribute food and relief materials. They announce one measure after another after another but barely 2% of Nigerians receive any of the things they have promised. Well-meaning Nigerians and philanthropic organisations step in. They line people two meters away from each other, masked and at the mercy of their elaborate production teams. A plate of food and bag of supplies for a photo so that benefactors can see how impactful their monies have been. 

Masks are a must and this is easier to handle than a ventilator so mini factories spring up in people’s backyards and sitting rooms. The masks take on our gaiety. Instead of the clinical green and white model, they come out in bright Ankara fabrics and other kinds of unbreathable or too breathable fabric. A celebrity even makes a leather prototype, unintelligently adds a wallet feature for good measure. Wear a mask but make it fashion

And there’s this feeling of dread: will it get here?  When will it get here? 

I hope it doesn’t.

  • Monday, April 13, 2021 

The numbers are now climbing rapidly and my fear climbs alongside it. A present-day remake of The First Purge is silently spreading through the city by the second week of April; armed burglars attacking homes in large groups. They call themselves One Million Boys and pre-inform of their presence with photocopied notices in pidgin English embellished with an image of a pistol and a pocket knife. We hear it is a group of hungry Nigerians who can no longer survive the lockdown which has been extended by two more weeks. Pictures of night watch bonfires make their way to Twitter. People make jokes because only laughter can best convey the frustration and fear these tweets cause. The Police say there are no robberies. Either this is a large scale scourge of misinformation or a lot of Lagosians are having pandemic-induced hallucinations and imagining robberies. 

It is Saturday, April 18, 2020. 

Abba Kyari is dead. From the coronavirus. 

A mass burial is ongoing in Abuja with a potentially dangerous corpse. 

  • Saturday, April 18, 2020

The president’s Chief of Staff dies but his kinsmen crowd around his linen-wrapped body and his grave to mourn because he cannot be abandoned in death. Days prior, a popular actress is under heavy fire for hosting a birthday party with her production crew and some friends in attendance. She is paraded in courts and is sentenced to community service because she was the face of a campaign that urged people to social distance, wash their hands and wear a mask. 

A spate of deaths in Kano has brought about questions but the government says it has nothing to do with the virus. Elderly people going through elderly disease. Healthcare facilities that would’ve catered to their hypertensive hearts and weak blood vessels are mostly closed so they say this may be the reason. A journalist makes a Twitter thread saying there is a high possibility it is the virus. It is a constant dance between what is said, what is, what could be, and it is tiring. 

It doesn’t take long for insomnia to come. A friend says exercising might help so I begin to exercise in the evenings confined to my room and watching an instructor on YouTube.  When it doesn’t work, I increase the intensity of the routines. 

I read, sometimes absentmindedly. I binge-watch movies I’ve seen before and know the endings to. I try to work on unfinished essays but journaling comes easier so I turn to that instead. I come across talks about this pause as time to ponder, to reflect on life and what we attach meanings to and I feel angry because there is no time for me to pause and reflect. There’s only time for the world to sit still under the gaze of these tiny organisms, to unravel its power and wealth disparities, the shortcomings of our supposed global powers, the selfishness and greed of capitalist systems and the machines that power them. There is only time to mourn and grieve a world falling apart in hate, time to be reminded that death is busy. There’s only time to pray, to find God in masses said from a computer screen on a coffee table in my living room. There’s only time to miss someone intensely, to miss the intimacy of a kiss or a touch or a head tucked into the crevice of a neck. 

Unsurprisingly, the lockdown is going to be gradually lifted from May 4 and a night curfew imposed from 8pm to 6am. Whether this virus works with a schedule is left to your imagination but it is not that simple either. 

Of course, Nigerians are tripping on Twitter with the memes and hot takes and intellectual threads but this is either an economic decision or a lazy one, one of defeat, a government saying, you guys deal with this because we can’t anymore. 

  • Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The problem with Nigeria is a problem of leadership, wrote Chinua Achebe in his last book There Was A Country, but I think it is a lot more complex than that. A host, whether it wants to or not, is often complicit in a viral hostage takeover. And because the virus can shape-shift to fit perfectly into its host cell, extricating it without destroying the host is a difficult task. It is how we are in this country, the led and the leaders; the hosts and the virus. 

Once the government announces the lockdowns will be lifted, I know I am not going to leave my house if it is not absolutely necessary. I do not begrudge the lifting. There are people for whom survival means movement. But I do not trust that people will keep their distance, or wear masks or wash their hands as often, or not want to handle cash. For all the seeming grounds made with going digital, the large corporates and government officials holding virtual meetings for the first time in their decades-long existence, there is an unfathomable surge to the banking halls on the day the lockdown is lifted. It baffles. From the images I see, people shove against each other in a sea of heads pressing into the metal bars of bank gates like a sluggish wave. My colleague goes to a bank near his home to find a story. Some are piling up cash in case another lockdown ensues but many others have issues an app cannot solve. 

The Zoom conferences continue, talks about a new normal powered by all these light-bulb moments and digital awakening the one month lockdown unraveled. I find these amusing. Viruses can lay low in a host cell, halt reproducing itself just long enough to trick a host into thinking it has finally gotten rid of a troublesome guest. Until it rears its head again. Ta-dah! It is how it is with us in this country.

The government announces a phased lifting but in reality, it is anything but phased. Businesses resume first at half their normal capacity to obey state orders, then their full capacity because there’s a lot of catching up to do. The markets reopen. Religious organisations follow suit. I become one of a group of people who, paranoid about contracting the virus, refuses to leave my home save for the market. And when I go, a black mask across my face, I am one of a few people still wearing a mask, still believing there is a virus to be worried about contracting or spreading. But as May rolls into June into July, and as my office starts asking for occasional physical meetups which I desire to honour because I oddly miss people I work with, Lagos smoothens back into its irregularly shaped self with very little dents if any at all.  

I’m catching my breath in between sets during a 20-minute cardio session with a YouTube instructor. 

It’s a little after 6:00pm. I am officially off work. I’ll be done with the workout session in 20 minutes. 

I’ll take a shower. Have dinner. Maybe make a cup of tea because, with the kinds of insomnia I’ve developed in the last four months, it’s just foolery to have another cup of coffee.  It is my semblance of a routine. Some days it works, on other days, my will is tethered to a sinking rock and I scroll mindlessly through my phone looking for laughter. This evening, however, I can hear it through the open window, children playing, running after each other. Laughing. There’s a jolting realisation that indeed they are outside. Playing. Chasing after each other. Squealing in delight.  Trying to match their names to their voices, I smile, a small smile. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Kay Ugwuede

Kay Ugwuede is the author of travel chapbook A Substance of Things Unseen (Invisible Borders Press, 2018). Her essays and memoirs have been published or are upcoming in The Arkansas International, Bloomberg CityLab, The Smart Set, Citron Review, The Forge Literary Magazine and Taxi Drivers Who Drive Us Nowhere anthology (Bakwa Magazine). 

Social media accounts: @kayugwuede

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