These distancing strategies can take literal forms and lead to migrations to the countryside or different countries altogether, or to metaphorical forms such as stopping watching and reading the news entirely. Over the years my personal strategy for establishing distance from the daily outrageous events in Turkey had been to listen to the news on National Public Radio from the United States (an old habit from the decade I spent there) and to various news podcasts from Britain. These outlets have allowed me to follow politics closely in these countries, especially the US, as well as global developments, without being completely swallowed up by the growing national darkness. I mention all this to explain my very early introduction to the coronavirus. Since late December and early January I had been listening to and reading every story about the coronavirus that I could find, and I was especially interested in how people in Wuhan, and later Hong Kong and other places, were coping with the death, disease, and isolation that encircled them ever more tightly day by day. But I must admit, back in January, as I was watching the epidemic unfold in China, it never occurred to me that this epidemic could become a pandemic that would end up unsettling my own life. I was watching it as if it was a dystopian movie—that is, from a distance. After all, was the whole point of engaging with the politics and developments of faraway countries not to establish distance from daily developments so that they would not absorb me? A novel virus in China was wreaking havoc, forcing the government to take draconian measures and forcing people to radically restructure their lives. I listened to journalists interviewing people trapped in their houses and heard how they were coping with being imprisoned at home, sometimes alone. I thought about what I would do under such circumstances, but only as a fantastical thought exercise. At that point the only possible personal link I could imagine with this virus was economic. I knew that the partial or total shutdown of parts of the Chinese economy and production would have global economic consequences. In the short term, that might mean disruption of global supply chains, shortages of intermediate goods, bankruptcies etc. In the medium term the epidemic could lead to further dismantling of the institutions that were built to maintain a global neoliberal economy, among other things. But all of these thoughts were from a distanced intellectual perspective.
In February, as the virus began to spread further, my distanced attitude began to falter. I began to question whether my daughter and partner could continue their almost fortnightly weekend visits to Vienna, whether we should allow her to go on a school trip to a Southern Turkish city that was scheduled for the last weekend of February, whether we should postpone buying the tickets for our planned trip to Budapest during the Easter break. Our daughter went on her school trip wearing overpriced facemasks on the flight and in the hotel, and she and my partner did come to visit me in the first weekend of March. We did not buy our tickets or make reservations for our Budapest trip. We also did not know that this was going to be the last time they visited me in Vienna.
They left on March 8, and I began what turned out to be my last week at the IWM. The week began rather normally. The coronavirus had already begun to supplant the American primary elections in our lunchtime discussions, and we were all complaining about handwashing, etc., but our regular lives seemed to be continuing. On Tuesday, March 10, the atmosphere began to turn, with the news that universities in Austria had to close by the following week. That morning I talked to a colleague who warned me that daily life in Vienna was going to get more restricted, with shop and restaurant closures, and restrictions on movement were just around the corner. That morning I decided to do the shopping that I usually do in the evenings after I finish my workday. I went out to the nearby bio shop, which at any given moment usually has no more than 5-10 shoppers who are not buying more than a single shopping bag’s worth of items. It was unusually crowded and everybody was buying loads of things. It was obvious that this was panic shopping, yet everybody was trying to act very calm and normal. It was as if all of us were trying to conceal our anxieties and fears and none of us were happy about buying more than we needed. Yet this is exactly what we were doing. We were like thieves trying to steal our personal survival, while our civilized selves were trying to conceal this rather primitive behavior.
From Tuesday on, everything began to change incrementally but very quickly. I have been searching for the right word to capture this incremental but rapid change for weeks now, with no success. It is like longue durée structural social change that takes place so slowly and incrementally that one does not realize it, and yet this time it is fast-forwarded like a documentary time lapse shot where you see the growth of a plant over months or years condensed into just a few seconds. The changes around us were rather mundane: posters going up in the bathrooms to tell us to wash our hands; IWM events initially being closed to the public at large and turned into internal gatherings; the serving of soup and salad at lunchtime being transferred to the kitchen, etc. All of these were precautions to maintain the institution’s regular practices by means of big or little tweaks. We had our regular lunch on Friday the 13th. That day, we talked about nothing but the coronavirus. We likened ourselves to the people on the Titanic listening to music as the ship sank. Yes, the mood was heavier, and yet still there was a sense that somehow life was going to be maintained as it was. At least that was what I thought.
It was only a few hours after lunch in my office that I grasped the full dimensions of the reality that was cornering me. What was far had come near, and my distanced perspective could no longer be maintained. I began to regret and panic that I hadn’t asked my colleagues whether they planned to stay in Vienna or not. Late that afternoon, I tried to find some people to talk to, but almost everybody I knew had already left. I met a few new fellows who said they were leaving that day or the next. The institute was eerily quiet. The IWM, which had felt like home for the past three and half months, had become an uncanny place: strange and foreign. That afternoon, I held onto the hope that I could overcome this feeling and continue to come to my office—at least for another couple of weeks, the amount of time I needed to finish the article that I was working on. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my last day there, and that the following day, in a single hour, I would pack up the office which I had built so slowly and with such great care, and that on the 15th I would catch the last possible flight that would take me across the Turkish border without a 14-day quarantine.
I am home now. It has already been almost a month since I left the wonderfully sheltered life I had at the IWM behind. I am sheltering in place. I like this formulation better that than social distancing, quarantine, or self-isolation: sheltering in place. I think it best captures the essence of the condition of those of us who have the luxury to wait this disaster out, sheltered. We are sheltered because we have homes, unlike millions of homeless people; because our homes are not too crowded and allow us personal space, unlike extended families sharing a single room in the slums of Istanbul, Lagos, Mumbai or Sao Paulo; because we have jobs that allow us to stay sheltered, unlike healthcare workers or other ‘essential workers’; because we can minimize our contact with the outside world colonized by the virus by relying on gig workers, supermarket employees, and workers in the cargo industry; because we are protected by face masks and disinfectants that we can afford and find, unlike even some healthcare workers in New York. We are economically sheltered because we continue to get paid, unlike millions upon millions who are losing their jobs weekly around the world; because we have health insurance, unlike others who never had it or lost it when they lost their jobs; because we are in parts of the world that have a health infrastructure, unlike the megacities of the Global South where the virus will create the greatest devastation when it hits (most probably they will be overlooked anyway). This list is cursory and short. I have left out many forms of economic and social inequalities, like gender and racial inequalities, that some of us are sheltered from to a certain extent. I would like to add one more thing, though. We are sheltered because our intellectual calling enables us to make sense of a world that is very rapidly being unmade and refashioned. Rather than frustrating us, pushing us deeper into anxiety and fear, this scary process is actually interesting and intriguing for us; it intellectually invigorates us.
The epidemic in Turkey is getting worse every day; the numbers of the infected and the dead are increasing. I suppose we are approaching our peak. What does that actually mean, a friend asked me over the phone the other day, “I do not understand this, why is it good for me personally?” he asked. The peak is a statistical statement that generates meaning epidemiologically or sociologically. I am trained to think sociologically and fully grasp how biographies are entangled with structural processes, yet of course I can also comprehend my friend’s outrage. Neither I nor my friends and family are numbers, nor can any shelter protect us entirely against the social, economic, and psychological dangers, as well as, of course, the danger to our health, posed by this thing that we cannot see and that we are desperately trying to outrun.
April 20, 2020.
Biray Kolluoglu is Professor of Sociology at Bogazici University Istanbul. Currently she is a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.