Another letter from rural south-western Connecticut, USA 4 July 2020

Emilia Sereva

My brief, infrequent and unnerving pilgrimages for groceries and other household necessities have led me to notice an interesting change in local small talk. Specifically, I have noticed a shift in the regionally-conventional greeting: ‘Hi, how are you?’.

For a number of years now, New England retail store cashiers have frequently greeted customers with a, ‘Hi how are you?’. In reply, the customer is meant to say, ‘I’m fine, thank you. How are you?’ This sounds like a nice-enough exchange of pleasantries until one realises that neither party really listens to or cares about the other’s answer. It’s conventionally normative for Person A and Person B say their halves of the exchange, and then both continue on with their days. On past occasions, mainly to see what would happen, I have attempted to highlight the hollowness the ‘Hi how are you?’ exchange by turning it into a mini breaching experiment of sorts: when a person greeted me with ‘Hi how are you?’, I would answer with an honest account of my day and state of mind. It was a relatively pointless exercise that mainly seemed to cause confusion. Sadly, calling attention to the emptiness of pleasantries is rarely enough to change them.

However, soon after Connecticut began observing state-wide stay-at-home rules, I began to notice a difference in the ‘Hi how are you?’ exchange. I first noticed a difference whilst at the checkout counter of my local grocery market. On this occasion, the cashier asked ‘How are you’ with a surprising tone of sincerity. In turn, I found myself responding with sincerity. On that occasion and frequently since then, the cashiers’ ‘Hi, how are you(s)?’ have seemed to convey genuine interest in my answer, and perhaps also some degree of gratitude that shoppers were wearing face masks, following store-mandated social distancing rules, and continuing to shop at their place of work; my reply of ‘I’m fine, thank you. How are you?’, likewise felt relatively honest. All things considered, I am indeed ‘fine’ because I’m not ill with a mysterious virus. I also realised I was genuinely concerned for the grocery market cashiers, and hoped none of them caught coronavirus or lost their jobs.

I have been wondering about how and in what ways the coronavirus pandemic might potentially foster unity, and perhaps the newly sincere ‘Hi how are you?’ exchange is a small affirming indication. On a grander scale, the coronavirus pandemic has presented the world’s people with a common problem and a common set of related concerns. On a local level, at least in my area of Connecticut where people are overwhelmingly sensible, the coronavirus pandemic seems to have encouraged people to act in terms of others’ safety more than they otherwise would have in the past. This could all be wishful thinking, but my hope is that some positive social norms will rise from the ashes of this frightening year.

A letter from Sydney, Australia 11 May 2020

Lucy Nicholas

I write this as a settler colonial person living and working on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation that were stolen, with this theft and its related genocides never acknowledged and the land never ceded.

I’m a queer, child-free person living alone during social distancing in Sydney, with my partner a 10 hour drive away in Melbourne and my family in UK. I returned from the UK mid March and had two weeks of total home quarantine, followed by social distancing and haven’t hung out with anyone IRL for 2 months. Look, I’m doing fine. My job is stable, I can work from home, I have excellent income, I have zoom, but this vantage point allows me a particular perspective on some of the discourses I see coming out of the media at this time. 

One thing that has been irking my sociology of gender brain is the repeated invocation of ‘families’ by Government spokespeople. How they are working to help Australian families. Never people, citizens, always families. They love that discourse here in Australia and we all know what it means: nuclear, heterosexual, white families. Your regular mum and dad Australians. It is this constant barrage in the media of how families can struggle through Covid, how couples can balance home schooling, how it would be preferred if you don’t visit your country / beach property (!!), how women are bearing the brunt of home schooling. And my life is so.far.from.this. And it feels sometimes that even the critical people have slipped in to an extreme reformism, a really liberal feminism where we are talking about how to acknowledge and manage that (heterosexual, parenting) women are unequally disadvantaged by lockdown and will suffer in their careers, and don’t really talk about why they are and how we could avoid it in the first place. And I’m like yes let’s be mad at how institutions don’t acknowledge the realities of heterosexual parenting women’s lives but CAN WE PLEASE BE ANGRY AT THE MEN! But more so at heterosexuality? And gender? It is this constant tension we have in politics or social change in general of dealing with and minimising the negative impacts of the world as it is (heightened in a time of crisis) and avoiding the accidental reification of the fundamentally social things that make the world how it is. It is a constant tension in my work and in feminism and gender politics. That of keeping one eye on the gender order as is and naming it (in my last book with Chris Agius we used the more 80s term masculinism to talk about it), without reifying it so we always have another eye on getting rid of it, of radically altering it. So, I wanna talk about BOTH the reality of how many of my heterosexual parenting women colleagues will be doing even more in this time, and how compulsory, state sanctioned heterosexuality causes this. 

So, I leave my house and I walk down the street in my neighbourhood where I see queer couples holding hands, single people, and big extended Vietnamese families sharing houses and all hanging out in the yard or the restaurant they run (now take away, phew), to remind myself that this Australia of the news is indeed not the Australia I live in. I love my gaybourhood, one of many in one of the world’s gay capitals that I live in, I love the multiculturalism where communities keep their languages and foods and family ties, and I wish the media would stop trying to erase and deny this reality of what makes Australia awesome.

A letter from Glasgow, Scotland 7 May 2020

Carrie Purcell

For me, work is as busy as ever. 

I’ve just finished reviewing applications for Wellcome’s Humanities and Social Science funding stream and the Covid-related submissions were fascinating, not least for how quickly social scientific teams can mobilise and produce a proposal. Whether they’re asking the questions we really need answers to, on the other hand, remains to be seen I suppose…

Myself and my abortion research colleagues are doing some swiftly put together data collection on women’s experiences of accessing abortion across the UK during the pandemic, with support from Wellcome (linked to our current Sexuality and Abortion Stigma Study). I think it will be interesting because there are obvious implications regarding a highly time-sensitive and gendered healthcare issue – referrals to abortion services are down nationally, what will that mean for women further down the line? We’ve also seen a long-blocked shift to telemedicine for abortion finally happened, which removes a real barrier to access for many. 

Meanwhile my new project is on hold as it involves training frontline NHS staff and recruiting people living with heart failure. But we’re thinking about opportunities to fully digitise the home self-care programme that the project is due to evaluate. This could potentially make it more accessible for users and health professionals alike, and generate a really useful tool if we have to maintain social distancing longer term. 

So the pandemic is creating restrictions and opportunities for change at the same time, and it will be good to track where that goes. 

A letter from central coast, California, USA 4 May 2020

Lisa Kalayji

The pharmacy department is a fair way down the length of the enormous store – past the pet food, greeting cards, stationary, and toiletries, across from an olfactory sea of scented candles and shelves full of colourful coffee mugs that say things like ‘Mondays don’t like me either’ and ‘good day for a vaycay’. I dodge to and fro on the way there in a vain attempt to keep two metres distant from each person in an obstactle course of nervous pensioners, small gaggles of giggling teenagers, and weary parents with carts full of Legos and craft supplies.

I stand on the floor sticker designating an appropriate distance from the other patrons until I’m called forward. I recognise the person behind the cash register – I worked at the Starbucks kiosk at the front of the store during the winter holidays, just after I arrived back in the US, and she often came there on her breaks. She doesn’t seem to recognise me as the former peppermint mocha jockey (or maybe she just can’t see enough of my face under the surgical mask currently digging crevices into my lower eyelids), and even if she had, she seems too tired to make small talk. She wears a lanyard with a clear plastic pocket hung from it, but instead of a photo ID, it contains a card inscribed with a single word in large, boldface print: ‘IMMUNOCOMPROMISED’. I pay a merciful $15 for a generic antibiotic and make my way out, slowing to glance around the eerily vacant, unlit café by the door as I leave.

Symptoms of the infection don’t abate until I take the last day’s tablets, and a week after picking up the medication, I’m curled up in a ball on the living room sofa and back on the phone with the clinic. I’ll have to come in person this time, they say. Now as before, the appointment will cost somewhere between $130 and $400, but they couldn’t risk hazarding a guess. If my one-time $1,200 stimulus payment from the federal government had arrived even a couple of weeks later than it did, I’d be staying at home with cranberry concentrate supplements and hoping not to develop a kidney infection that would eventually become septic shock. After hanging up, I complain bitterly to my housemates, fondly remembering the kidney stone surgery in Scotland for which I paid nothing and indulging in a brief diatribe about the merits of nationalised healthcare to an audience that needs no persuading before reaching for my keys.

I arrive at the clinic to find a nurse standing outside querying people at the door.

‘Hi!’, she chimes brightly. ‘What’s your issue today?’

‘I’m here for a follow-up appointment about a persistent UTI’, I explain.

‘No other issues going on? No fever or cough or anything like that?’, she asks, an almost apologetic ‘I have to ask this question’ nested in her vocal inflection.

‘No’, I respond, smiling knowingly and shaking my head.

‘Ok, just have to check. Sorry for the violation of your privacy.’

She hates this. She holds the door open for me as I thank her and step into a near-empty reception room.

I sit down to fill out some paperwork and wait my turn. As I tick symptom boxes, a TV mounted high on the wall opposite the reception desk emits the familiar vocal drone of a news broadcast: ‘Nearly 47,000 now dead in the US from the Coronavirus, and the numbers are climbing’. The woman sat opposite me breathes heavily into her polka-dotted fabric face mask.

I’m taken through to be tested for signs of infection before seeing the same nurse practitioner I had met a week earlier through a screen. She refers me to a local lab for tests, but prescribes a different antibiotic to try until the results arrive. I pay the $170 consultation fee – a bit more than last week’s ‘telemedicine’ appointment – and then later, $17 for tests at the nearby lab and $15 for the second generic antibiotic.

There is a letter in the postbox when I get home. I ‘may qualify’ for a state-funded healthcare programme for low-income residents. The local social services office ‘may contact’ me. The letter doesn’t specify when, but the online application mentioned something about 45 days. In the meantime, any existing insurance policy must continue to be paid for, and steep tax fines will be levied against anyone who remains uninsured. Laying the letter aside, I pick up my phone to check what’s been happening back home (‘back home’ meant California when I was in the UK – now it’s the other way round). The death toll amongst medical practitioners continues to climb. The NHS, which still lacks adequate personal protective equipment for staff, is now funded in part by private citizens’ warm and fuzzy fundraisers – sort of like the Go Fund Me campaigns Americans use to pay medical bills, except cuter. Britons are still expressing their support by clapping for the NHS.

Five days later, I’m back on the sofa and trying to sit up without using any of my abdominal muscles. To my very great relief, the nurse practitioner makes good on her promise and prescribes a third antibiotic without requiring me to attend and pay for another consultation. The lab results came back, so hopefully this more specifically targeted drug will work.

Back ‘home’, Boris Johnson has returned to work after having recovered from his own bout of COVID-19. He urges Britons to hold their peace while the consequences of many years of funding cuts to the NHS, a dystopian ‘herd immunity’ response to the virus, and weeks too late, the implementation of a shelter in place policy play out. The news headlines prominently feature his name: have you heard that he and his partner have just had a baby?

A letter from rural south-western Connecticut, USA 27 April 2020

Emilia Sereva

Greetings from the Connecticut woods! Lately, I have been preoccupied by logistical topics to do with supply chain management. I never thought I’d experience supply chain disruptions in a grocery store here, because, well, this is America and we’re #1 (note my sarcasm, please), but of course I now stand corrected. This has been a problem for would-be grocery shoppers the world over, who can hopefully relate the predicament I find myself in when trying to sort out a week’s worth of meals for my family. I have been endeavouring to only grocery shop once a week at most, and although it’s true that we all try to visit grocery stores as infrequently as is possible out of consideration for the health of ourselves and others, that becomes difficult if we cannot find enough food in one trip. It’s alarming to see stripped shelves at the local grocery store, although it’s understandable why shoppers would buy in larger quantities than they otherwise would when scarcity is a concern. Before the lockdowns and the supply chain issues, I would normally buy in bulk wherever possible to avoid unnecessary trips, but now I buy only what I need with other shoppers in mind. I’m surprised to learn I care about other people? I wonder what that’s about. My ‘new normal’ now includes trolling eBay for a decently-priced economy size pack of freezer storage bags, or else spending hours looking for an online distributor who sells flour that I’m not allergic to.

Here is my side of food-related conversation from earlier today, which would have seemed odd on several levels out of the present context: ‘I would suggest we pick up some Aubergine Parmesan for dinner, but the butcher who makes the cook-and-serve kind we like is only accepting curb-side pickup orders now, and orders must be placed the night before, so that’s out. I also thought of making scrambled eggs on toast, but we don’t have enough of them and I’d rather not go to the grocery store just to buy some eggs’ (which, by the way, are now 4x their pre-pandemic price). These sorts of conversations between household members point up the ‘new normal’ we keep hearing about. Thinking sociologically, what is ‘normal’ anyway? In this situation that we are all faced with, the best thing to do is to adapt rather than compare or pine.

Presented with limited options, I find myself concocting comforting dinner ideas on the fly based on what ingredients I can amass. I think the present problem of never knowing what will be on offer at the grocery store has definitely made us all a bit more grateful for what we do have, and has also provided many opportunities for ingenuity and out-of-the-box thinking.

‘What’s for dinner tonight? I’m making what we once called breakfast (because who cares anymore what things are called?): Blueberry pancakes and bacon!

Here’s the pancake batter recipe I use, just in case you’d like to make some too.