Day 19: What about de-confinement?

Saturday, 4th April

The strange dreams are back. I wake up tired.

Otherhalf is home for the weekend, so I leave the kids with him and go to the shops to buy food.

The cherry blossom is out, there is a smell of spring in the air.

Spring has sprung and the cherry blossom is out in Lyon.

I put on my headphones and choose a podcast. Everything I listen to at the moment is Covid-related. I should disconnect, but I find it difficult to do as I try to make sense of what is happening, and of what is to come.

De-confinement

The French government is considering several scenarios for de-confinement. What is certain is that nothing is. What is almost certain is that de-confinement will occur in stages: experts are afraid of what they call a potential « second wave » of the epidemic.

De-confinement could take place by region, and it most likely will depend on age: elderly people, considered to be among the most at risk, would probably be asked to stay home a little longer. But the whole process will depend on how much testing is available, and that is where the problem lies: nobody knows how fast they will manage to develop simpler tests, including so-called serological tests, that will make it possible to detect whether someone has had Covid-19 from a blood sample. Only this will allow de-confinement to go ahead in order to not put vulnerable people at risk.

What also seems to be increasingly likely is that kids will not be going back to school after the Easter school holidays in early May. But that remains to be seen, as do all other plans in the coming months. For now, my kids’ scout leaders are still planning summer camp. We, as a family, are waiting to see whether any kind of trip will be possible. Normally, we go camping in the summer.

Grandparents must keep a distance

The hardest is for the grand-parents: this morning, I spoke to mum-in-law in Paris who has been very brave about the whole confinement until now. Today, for the first time, she said what makes it hard for her is the lack of perspective: as she is over 70, she is not sure she will be able to leave her flat at all this summer, to come and visit her grandchildren or travel to Corsica, where she has her roots and holidays regularly. She says it would be too silly to die of such a ridiculous virus. So she stays home, and takes no risk. As does my father, except for the daily one-hour walk. They are right. I hope we will see them again soon but not before it is safe.

Day 18: Half the world in lockdown

Friday, 3rd April

Half of the world’s population is now in lockdown – that’s nearly 4 billion people.

Again, the figures seem impossible to grasp. Just over a month ago, I confess to having no idea we were heading for this. Like many people, I just didn’t realise what was going on.

Here in France, we are now in our 3rd week of confinement. I am growing weary. I love my children more than anything in the world, but I am not a teacher at heart. I’m not very good at explaining the proportionality principle or French grammar. And I’m lucky: mine are still relatively small, they’re not passing any important exams like the baccalaureat for example. For those kids, the education minister announced this morning there would be no exams but a « contrôle continu« . Which in essence means they will be assessed on their results up until schools were closed on March 16th.

It is reminiscent of what happened in 1968. That year, following mass student demonstrations in May, exams were abandoned, and the pass rate increased enormously. We will have to see what impact this all has on the education system.

After a bit of a struggle to get started and focussed, my kids finally finish their schoolwork. We head over to our basket ball court for our daily game. There, we see a couple of strangers sitting between the flower boxes of our shared garden. They are having homemade pizza. We wish them « bon appétit ». This gives my son an idea: why don’t we do the same? At first I refuse. We’re not supposed to hang around, we have just one hour to get some fresh air. He pleads, the sun shines relentlessly, and I yield. We pop home, grab some leftovers in the fridge, and go back for a picnic. The three of us sit on a cloth in a large, empty flower box – which we will fill with plants and flowers once lockdown is over and we can get our hands on some soil – and we enjoy this silly, improvised moment of freedom away from the four walls of our flat.

My 8-year old waters the strawberry plants in our shared garden

In the evening, Otherhalf returns from work with a surprise. Though all the reporting he does is Covid-related, today was not so bad: he and his colleague visited two of Lyon’s main « chocolatiers » to find out how they are weathering the crisis and preparing for Easter: one is offering a pick-up service, the other proposes online orders. Of course, he brought us some samples to taste. Not sure they’ll make it to Easter!

Easter treat

Day 17: Stealing masks

Thursday, 2nd April

The sun is out again, shining with a vengeance.

As the children and I head to the basketball pitch for some fresh air, we see a car with a shattered window. On the driver’s side, there is a sticker featuring the nurse’s caduceus and a scrap of paper with a phone number scribbled on it. A woman passing by at the same time as us calls the number. A young woman’s head pops out of a window above us answering the call. It’s her car.

She knows it has been vandalised. She is a nurse, she explains, but she is in self-isolation because she has suspected Covid-19 and cannot go to the police to make a statement. Her bag was stolen, containing all her equipment including masks and hydro-alcoholic gel. The lady calling her says she knows someone and will help. I have read on social media that this is not uncommon, as thieves hope to find valuable masks and other material in health personnel’s vehicles.

It beggars belief.

Thieves break into a nurse’s car looking for masks and medical material

The sound of the ball bouncing seems to mingle increasingly with the ambulance sirens. As I mentioned earlier, we live very near the Croix Rousse hospital, one of the largest in Lyon, so we are used to the sirens. But bizarrely, the silence since lockdown makes them sound louder.

Day 16: A child’s diary

Wednesday, 1st April

Today, my 10-year old daughter is taking over. Here are her thoughts:

« Today is the 1st of April: coool! I wake up extra early to start getting my tricks ready. First, I cover the toilet seat with cellophane. Mum nearly gets caught but sees through my trick at the last minute 🙁

« Then I fill the cushions on the couch with nice, hard books so that anyone sitting on them will regret it! Finally, I carefully place toys on the top of the door for them to rain down on anyone trying to enter my room. I also put chili on my brother’s cake. Unfortunately, he finds it tasty!

« More seriously: in the beginning, I found confinement difficult. Now, I have got used to it, and we have found lots of ways of not getting bored: we go to our shared garden and water the plants, we run, we play. My friends and I have created a WhatsApp group where we talk about the sci-fi book we’re writing together. My mum and I bake cakes. I write in a diary. And I even play with my little brother! We managed to convince mum and dad to swap bedrooms – I’m really happy to have a bigger room!

« I hope school will open again soon so I can see my friends. I’d like to go back to volleyball and scouts, and hope we’ll still manage to put on a play with my drama class at the end of the school year! »

Day 15: Drive-in tests

Tuesday, 31st March

Otherhalf is returning to work today after two weeks in quarantine. He was asked to stay home after one of his close colleagues displayed Covid-19 symptoms. Though his colleague was never tested, it appears he had the virus. Fortunately, apart from what looked like a cold, Otherhalf has been fine. His first reporting job was at a drive-in test center south of Lyon, where they are screening key workers, notably health personnel. The potential Covid-19 carriers don’t need to leave their car: laboratory personnel take a swab from their nasal conduct with what looks like an elongated coton earbud. This is sent to the lab, and they get results back within 24 to 48 hours.

The race is on for labs in France to develop simpler screening tests that will hopefully play a crucial role in helping de-confine (what a strange word…) the population gradually. Authorities say the goal is to be able to test up to 50.000 people a day by the end of April, and 100.000 by June. With 500 Covid-related hospital deaths a day in France, we haven’t reached the peak of the pandemic yet. As I write this from the silence of my home, I can’t quite fathom the figures.

It is so difficult, as a mother, to know the right thing to do. We know elderly and fragile people are at risk of this virus, but we also hear about young, fit and healthy people falling ill and dying. Should we stay holed up inside our flat all day? We tried that, and it had a negative effect on the kids and myself. The routine we have found, which includes exercising every day on the disused basketball pitch that is our shared garden, seems to work for us. We are not putting anyone else at risk. Not to mention that I am now an ace dribbler and rekindling my lost love for basketball. Considering we have at least two more weeks to go, probably more, I think we will keep it up. I live on the top of a steep hill in Lyon, in what used to be the village of la Croix Rousse. You have to climb a lot of steps to get there, and most people here are reasonably fit (we have no choice). Today, on their request, I took my kids running up and down the 440 steps that link riverside to the « plateau ». It’s a run I often do by myself, and they wanted to give it a try. While they took on the challenge, they decided basketball is definitely more fun!

Day 14: Yearning for a return to normality

Monday, 30th March

This evening I spoke to my neighbour who is a teacher. His students are either about to pass their baccalauréat or in what the French call a « prépa » school – preparing to enter some of the country’s most prestigious universities. Since all schools and universities closed two and a half weeks ago, he has been teaching remotely. He has been working long hours to try and make sure his students don’t loose out. Last week, his prépa students found out there would be no entrance exam – an exam they have been working very hard for. Instead, they will have to submit an application form, which he is helping them put together. He sounded saddened by the situation: these kids, who are just at the start of their lives, don’t know whether all their hard work will pay off or how this will affect their future. As for the baccalaureate, the government is expected to announce later this week how it intends to organise exams due to take place in June.

I work with my kids on their homeschooling, but am growing increasingly anxious about preparing my own return to work after the confinement is lifted. One of my main clients has put all production on hold. A magazine I write for sent all freelancers an email informing us they are suspending publication of upcoming issues and asking us to put any work we are doing for them on hold. But I remind myself that this will pass and that work will pick up again after the crisis.

I call my father – we speak every day. He is a very social being – always has family and friends visiting – and I worry he will get lonely in his big house in the South of France. He reassures me: says he’s had 25 years to get used to his own company since my mother died in 1995 and that it doesn’t bother him. He goes for the authorised hourly walk every day, speaks with friends and family abroad, gardens a lot (he has a lovely garden), and keeps the grandchildren entertained with his contest: he has challenged them to find the names of various plants, flowers and fruit-trees from his garden, using all the tools at their disposal (including the internet). The kids love it and look forward to his emails.

We also speak to my mother-in-law in Paris on a daily basis. A former schoolteacher and headmistress, she gives my kids daily lessons via Whattsapp. All three are delighted – my kids miss their grandma, who often comes to look after them when I travel for work. Though she is extremely resourceful, and would never dream of moaning, I sense she is getting tired of being indoors. There are only so many books you can read a week!

An example of a spelling and drawing class given by Grandma via WhatsApp

Though I understand and accept the situation, and though I learned early on in life that some things are irreversible and one has to just cope and get on with it (my British half), I catch myself yearning for a return to normality.

Day 13: It is cold

Sunday, 29th March

I just spoke to my friend in Lombardy, the epicentre of Italy’s contagion. She is very worried about her elderly father. He has been unwell since yesterday and she cannot get hold of his doctor. They have been living in isolation since mid-February. She describes the situation as nightmarish.

In France, two high-speed trains left from Mulhouse and Nancy this morning, heading for Nouvelle Aquitaine in the West, which has the lowest number of cases. They were carrying 36 Covid patients suffering from respiratory distress. The aim is to free up beds in France’s worst affected North-Eastern region. Here, in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, we are gearing up for a peak around the middle of next week, and hospital beds are being freed up to make room for the expected surge.

It is Sunday and I decide to stop reading the news. The kids and I go out to our shared garden to water the plants. Temperatures have dropped, the sun is not out. It is cold. I play football with my son, who teaches me a few tricks. I move fast to keep warm. I will soon be able to add dribbling to my confinement co-lateral skills. My daughter writes a message to the world on the garden’s blackboard: « Meet you here for a coronapéro after confinement. » I can’t wait.

A message of hope on the blackboard of our shared garden

Day 12: Man is an adaptable beast

Saturday, 28th March

In a strange kind of way, my family and I are finding our feet in this temporary, new world.

Today we’re taking it easy because it is weekend, after all, even though nothing indicates this but the calendar on the wall. I call my cousin in Denmark. She has breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. She has been in my thoughts a lot since the start of the crisis. Denmark – like Norway – has closed all schools and universities, as well as shopping centres and restaurants, but the government has not imposed any confinement. However, from what my family tell me, the Danes have gone into self-isolation of their own accord in a bid to slow down the virus’ spread.

My cousin is homeschooling her young children, while her husband works from home. She is on sick leave from her job as a psychologist, but, she tells me, she doesn’t feel ill. Apart from some nausea, the treatment is going well, she is exercising every day with a group of other cancer patients – they continue to meet online in order to respect social distancing guidelines – and she says she feels strong. Her oncologist agrees with her: apart from the cancer, she is in great shape, she tells me jokingly. We discuss plans to meet for our biennial cousins’ reunion this summer, and agree the current situation is not in our hands. We will have to wait and see. She sends me a picture of herself, and she does look amazing. I send her this one of a gingerbread man I made with my kids yesterday, whose face sums up the way most of us feel right now:

A gingerbread man’s reaction to the coronavirus crisis

Before lunch, the kids and I grab our « attestations » and head over to our shared garden to water the fruit and veg that’s started growing – special attention is given to the strawberry plants, in the hope that they will return the favour. We kick a ball around and return home within the authorised hour. The sun is still shining very bright, as it has done every day since the start of the confinement period.

In the afternoon, I speak to my nurse friend on the phone. She says work is growing increasingly stressful, she has found out that a couple of patients and a pharmacist she visits have tested positive to Covid-19. Above all, she says the time and energy getting dressed before visiting each patient (mask, gloves, blouse) and taking all the appropriate measures afterwards are sometimes more stressful than the visits themselves. When she gets home in the evening, she cleans down every surface she has touched in her car with bleach, undresses on the doorstep, puts her clothes in a bag, showers thoroughly, and washes her clothes immediately. She is worried she might contaminate her husband or their son. Some nurses, she says, are not going home any longer and staying in flats that are being lent to them. She is glad to have a couple of days off. They have been told the peak of the epidemic is expected around the beginning of April.

At 8pm, like every evening, we and our neighbours open our windows and clap to thank the health workers and all those working on the frontline in this crisis – in a trend which has now spread throughout the world.

Day 11: More confinement

Friday, 27th of March

As expected, the prime minister has announced an extension at least until the 15th of April. The kids have understood they will not be going back to school any time soon. We are making the best of it, developing strategies and routines that make everyday life ok.

This week, the kids have been very busy with a project they had been planning for ages: they have swapped bedrooms. It may not sound like a big deal, but, for a kid, it’s like changing universe. They now have a whole new perspective within the confines of our home. We were invited to tea in my son’s « new » room this evening. He made us a « café gourmand » and charged us 50 cents for it, the cheeky thing.

The confinement period was extended because « we are only at the start of the epidemic wave », said Edouard Philippe. The confinement measures – some of the most stringent in Europe – will remain the same. If necessary, the government has said it will enforce stricter measures such as curfews in some areas. The French government is relying heavily on the so-called « scientific council » for its decision-making. Made up of 11 members from different scientific backgrounds, this council was set up hastily by Emmanuel Macron on the 10th of March to help advise the government during the crisis.

Over the last few days, there’s been a lot of talk about the effectiveness of chloroquine, a medication primarily used to prevent and treat malaria, in the fight against the coronavirus. In France, a Marseille-based doctor published trials on a very limited number of patients which he said proved conclusive, and in the US, comments by US president Trump spurred a rush to stockpile the drug. But in its weekly Covid-19 media briefing today, the World Health Organisation called « on individuals and countries to refrain from using therapeutics that have not been demonstrated to be effective in the treatment of COVID-19 ».

With no vaccine expected before 12 to 18 months, in the words of WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus,

« We are only at the beginning of this fight.
We need to stay calm, stay united and work together. »

Day 10: What day is it?

Thursday, 26th March

A strange thing about being confined is the way days merge into one another. Despite our efforts to keep up the routine – or maybe because of it – and to come up with exciting activities – and menus!! – you start wondering whether events occurred yesterday or the day before. It is one of the reasons it is important for me to keep this diary.

Day 10 is a good day. On day 9, I had a mild meltdown. So I put on my magic shoes and went running. I actually ran beyond the allowed 1-km radius around my home, up the Rhône river, where the only people I met were a couple of dog walkers. I was carrying my « dérogation » form – with the « physical activity » box ticked – in the back of my running trousers, but I haven’t been checked by police so far.

My magic shoes

Today, I go food shopping and bring back strawberries. Yes, it is too early, yes they are imported from Spain and yes, I am breaking my rule of sticking to the seasons. But those strawberries taste extra sweet in confinement and put smiles on everybody’s face. I also buy a Scrabble board game to play with the kids in the coming days. Though homeschooling is challenging, the extra family time is precious.

Humorous confinement joke circulating on social media

That is not the case for everyone: I call a good friend and neighbour to ask her about living in confinement with her ex. As the crisis reached France, she was in the process of emptying out the house she has shared with her husband for 40 years and which they are selling to move apart. They are now being forced to live under the same roof for an undetermined period of time. She hopes the sale of the house will still go through as planned after the confinement is lifted. Luckily, she tells me, it could be worse: they have a big garden, and two of their three grown-up children have returned home for the time of the lockdown, which lightens up the atmosphere. She puts an end to any romantic notion I had that the crisis might rekindle their love: she is more than ever certain she wants to live her life alone.

Though my friend’s situation is the best case scenario, confinement has led to a surge in domestic violence in many countries, including France. Tonight, Interior Minister Christopher Castaner announced he was introducing an alert system together with chemists (one of the few high-street shops still open): a woman suffering from domestic abuse can raise the alert while picking up medicine. If her husband is with her, she can use a « code » like « mask 19 ». The code system has already been put in place in Spain. Law enforcement agencies have been ordered to provide an emergency response. A chilling reminder that times like these bring out the best and the worst in mankind.