"Sirens are the new birds": Witnesses to the pandemic and their chronicles from around the world


Antoine d'Agata / Magnumphotos / Agentur Focus

It is hard to think of a period when every single person on the planet was facing the same threat, forming a collective of vulnerables and, yet, had to cope with the consequences on the most immediate, most intimate, most individualistic level, our bodies. A look at coronavirus diaries from across the world reveals the different impact COVID-19 has had – across socio-economic classes, gender and race. Not only that: they also preserve for posterity a new normal in all its mundane detail: practices we’ve come to take for granted, pain we have numbed to, hopes reinforced and shattered.

Most diaries are destined to be forgotten. These will be studied in centuries to come: A journalist reporting from Chongqing, a New York-based doctor witnessing the horror of overcrowded ICUs, a British pianist unknowingly carrying the virus, an Ethiopian domestic worker describing her forced trip home from the UAE, two women giving birth during the heights of the first wave, one in the US, one in South Africa and an artist observing that not only do people need art, but that art needs people.

Journalist Kai Wood chronicles the outbreak of the pandemic in Chongqing, China

21 Jan: Life before the outbreak

Today, I wear a mask on the subway, but I notice I am the only one. I feel comfortable even though I feel the weight of stares. Normally people in China only wear masks when they are sick, as a kindness to others. First cases are discovered in Beijing and Shenzen, and there is an ominous tone to the coverage.

23 Jan: The day Wuhan is locked down

Wuhan, a city roughly the size of London, is going into quarantine. We hear there is a rush to the highways and airports. Chongqing Reports nine Confirmed Cases of New Coronavirus Pneumonia. Nine cases in a city of more than 32 million in the metro area doesn't sound like a lot.

30 Jan: Asymptomatic transmission confirmed

My coworkers are starting to realize this is no joke as borders are closing and their plane tickets back are cancelled, and they make plans to go back to their countries. I'm not about to abandon my dogs into the streets just to run away, and my wife doesn't want to leave her family. I've made roots here.

16 Feb: A visit outside

I might be in a simulation or the peripheral of some crazy rich historical-crisis-tourists from the future. I can imagine this package would be quite expensive.

In feel-good news, a man from Wuhan volunteers with an animal rescue group to care for nearly 300,000 pets whose owners are locked out of the quarantine zone. Some give passcodes; others beg him to break in. He fills up the food and water and changes cat litter.

[To reduce the risk of contamination], China is burning money collected from hospitals and supermarkets, only issuing out new currency.

22 Feb: Panic spreads

Frightened Ukrainians clash with police as they attempt to stop passengers returning from Wuhan. The panic of social media can be as dangerous as a virus. In Italy and Iran, people wear masks in public as the infection spreads. People in nearly 30 countries are infecting each other, and potential cases could be coming from anywhere.

23 Feb: Patience prevails

I don't want to imagine a decade locked up like this, but it's exciting to experience the largest self-isolation in human history. One in every five humans on earth is hiding from COVID-19.

24 Feb: Good housekeeping

A normalcy bias is an inclination for people to believe things will always function the way they have. This causes them to underestimate the probability of disaster and potential outcomes. We often see this when talking about the environment, sustainability, animal rights, and infectious disease. I'm pretty sure this will be over soon, but I still start boiling water to fill the empty spring water bottles. At two litres a day per person, I can store a month of water for peace of mind.

28 Feb: A defiant spirit

Hong Kong's got an infected dog. There's no evidence it will be sick or can pass this back to humans, but fear spreads faster than COVID-19, so keep your dogs inside. […] I feel good. I've had an incredible life thus far, and I, for one, didn't survive the '90s rave scene and two decades as a touring performer only to be taken out by a virus named after a light beer. I've got a fire in my belly.

At the epicentre of the pandemic in New York City, medical resident Shaoli Chaudhuri lives through the horror of overcrowded ICUs

17 March: Day 1

A few days ago, I learned Columbia had one of the first covid-19 patients in New York City. Today, I truly stepped into the pandemic. A nightmarish scene met me as I entered the intensive care unit (ICU) for the first time since the virus took hold in the city. The overnight case involved a man in his 40s with no foreign travel and no real medical history except hypertension. He had experienced typical cold symptoms for three days.

Then, in the emergency room, his oxygen saturation dropped suddenly, and he was put on a ventilator. His chest X-ray was abnormally white and filled with cotton-like opacities — all the fluid and inflammatory debris were keeping him from breathing.

“He’s so young,” I exclaimed more than once. And so sick. The day progressed downhill. I rushed around the hospital, responding to pages for critically ill patients. Where were these people coming from? In less than 48 hours, the number of covid-19 patients in our hospital exploded from fewer than 20 to more than 200.

22 March: Scrub shock

I wonder what they’ll call it in the future. Post-Covid Stress Disorder? Scrub Shock? The toll of the pandemic is making its mark on health-care workers. When I leave the Allen ICU, I’m distracted by chest tightness, shortness of breath and subjective fevers. But in reality, my oxygen saturation and heart rate are normal. Everything is fine.

A psychiatrist reached out to my colleagues and me, offering her number and to talk anytime. As I opened up to her later about my fears regarding my parents and myself, she told me: “You’re going through something traumatic. It is normal to feel this way.”

She was right. But nothing about this is normal.

24 March: Full capacity

Things are starting to feel apocalyptic. Last week, we had two covid-19 patients. Now, 100 percent of our ICU has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Many patients are in their 40s and 50s and have little medical history. I took in the whole unit: the intubated patients, the rhythmic “whoosh” of the machines, the beeps and alarms, the groaning mechanical sounds.

31 March: Trump speaks

Trump non-subtly implied that health-care workers are stealing PPE. It takes a lot of audacity to accuse people who are literally saving lives of stealing. I wish someone could mute him.

2 April: The new birds

Sirens are the new birds. You know how in most places when you wake up, the only sound you hear is that of birdsong? Now, in New York City, it’s the sirens of ambulances.

14 April: A last good-bye via iPad

I stayed two hours past the end of my shift to help a family say goodbye to their father. Sallow, sometimes struggling for breath, his eyes were closed. He was somnolent, his pain and suffering eased by morphine. His children watched through the iPad and said their I love yous. Occasionally his eyes fluttered open. His daughter began to sing, deep and rich and broken:
“I sing because I’m happy / I sing because I’m free / His eye is on the sparrow / And I know He watches me.”
I felt myself a voyeur, intruding on a family’s last goodbyes. But I also feel honored to be part of such incandescently beautiful moments.

As I left the hospital late at night, I read the headline on my phone. Today marks over 10,000 coronavirus deaths in New York City.

British pianist Norman Lebrecht may have been one of the first people to have Covid, but never got a test. Touring Russia, he summarizes his experiences.

19 April: Coping with the unknown

I still do not know that it was coronavirus that I had, and I probably never will. I believe it to be likely, but the official line is still that there were no cases – particularly outside China – until December, and until very recently no information was available about its existence before 31 December. That I may have caught it in November before it was ever acknowledged horrifies me, because (…) I was probably quite close to several people, even though I was obviously trying to avoid exposing them to what I thought was a bad cold. I began to think of myself as a possible unknowing carrier, the thought of which terrifies me, but fortunately not a single person with whom I had any contact, other than my own family, seems to have developed symptoms. Had they done so, I could have found myself being responsible for terrible consequences, possibly including deaths – it does not bear thinking about, and makes me feel very frightened and guilty.

Over in Philadelphia, Alanna Butler writes about her pregnancy.

15 May: Zoom party

My office threw me a surprise Zoom baby shower this afternoon. Some normalcy was attempted. It was really sweet and also awkward, like any group Zoom event is. Typically, my university office would have hosted me a brunch, with kind small talk and well-wishes over cupcakes and boxed coffee.

In South Africa, Bonang Motlaung* is also pregnant

19 May: A precaurious job and unprepared hospital

I work as an insurance sales agent; my income is based on commission with no company benefits. So when the national lockdown was announced, I got quite worried because it meant my income would be affected.

My anxiety was exacerbated by the fact that I was due to give birth in a few weeks and was concerned about leaving my three children at home alone while I was in hospital giving birth to my fourth child.

In the first week of the lockdown, I experienced labour pains and took public transport to a public hospital about eight kilometres away. I arrived at the hospital during the mid-morning rush and was attended to in the afternoon. It turned out I was suffering from Braxton Hicks [contractions] and was not in labour. After the consultation, she suggested I go home or sit on a hospital bench and wait for the contractions to subside.

As I sat on the hard metal bench, squeezing myself in between patients to find comfortable seating, I realised there were no masks or sanitizers in sight. Nor were we sitting one metre apart from one another or practising [physical] distancing as per the government guidelines. I decided to go home.

23 May: Grateful to have a bed

A few days later, the labour pains started again. I felt relieved when the ambulance arrived, but scared when informed that my safety wasn't guaranteed as the ambulance had been ferrying various patients since daybreak and I would be getting in at my own risk!

At the hospital, the doctor confirmed that I needed to be prepared for a Caesarean section. The theatre was cold but I was grateful that I had been given a bed in the maternity ward and would finally deliver my baby. I gave birth to a healthy baby and, while holding him, I couldn't help but be thankful to the nurses, the primary caregivers working tirelessly under difficult circumstances, often risking their own lives.

I remembered I had been worried about contracting the coronavirus, the loss of income, zero maternity benefits and the absent fathers of my other children, but now that I'm back home, with both of us healthy and recovering fairly well, I'm focusing on being a good mother in these trying times.

* name changed

Meanwhile in Ethiopia, domestic worker Halima, 24, reflects on her painful return home. Like many foreign casual workers, she was deported from the UAE at the onset of the pandemic. Some never received their pay.

25 May: No gifts this time

All the mistreatment and abuse in Qatar is expected but the two weeks I spent here [after being deported] is painful and unexpected for me. I feel like an unwelcome guest at home, misplaced and being betrayed by my people blaming me as a source of their insecurity towards the virus.

The last time I returned to the village was two years ago. There was a warm reception where everybody gathered in our house. Some brought gifts like milk, fresh grain, and local drinks for me and I also had brought clothes, smartphones and other gifts for them. It would be a feast for a week. I think this time it is not only the fear of the virus that keep them away but also since they know I am deported, they are sure that I did not bring any gift for them.

Back in Philadelphia, pregnant Alanna Butler ponders her white privilege

30 May: Body among Bodies

There was a huge protest in Philadelphia today to demand justice for the murder of George Floyd. Many of my friends go to the protest. It feels unthinkable for me to put my body in a crowd right now. Simultaneously, I recognize how easy it is to sink into white complacency because I can use pregnancy as an excuse. I would be given a pass if I did nothing. And this is what privilege is. I donate money to two bail funds.

25 June: Alanna gives birth

My child was born June 18 after 38 hours of beautiful and intense labor. The nurses and midwives at LifeCycle WomanCare made me feel cared for and powerful. Everyone except for me wore a mask the entire time, but my eyes remained closed for nearly all 38 hours of labor, so I hardly noticed. We’re all home now, overjoyed and healthy.

In Taipei, Huizhong Wu witnesses Taiwan’s approach to COVID.

8 September: Zero Tolerance

More than eight months after the outbreak, [Taiwan] has only had seven deaths from COVID-19 and 488 confirmed cases. How was Taiwan able to keep the numbers so low? I got to see for myself.
On my flight to Taipei, each passenger had a separate row. Flight attendants wore medical gowns, goggles, face masks and gloves. No food was served.

Because I’d showed up at the border with a cough, health authorities also took a throat swab test. Before I could get into my taxi assigned by the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control to be taken to the centralized center, I got sprayed from shoulder downwards with disinfectant. The taxi driver, decked out in protective gear, maintained a distance.
“I don’t have COVID!” I wanted to say to him. But it seemed a moot point. 

I felt only anxiety. Just 10 hours ago I was eating Nepali food with friends in a restaurant in Shanghai. Now I was being treated as a contaminant.

My experience, while jarring, was understandable to me. Many nations, my own United States included, have seemingly moved away from stringent efforts against COVID-19. The pandemic is still raging in many places, still killing people and leaving others with long-term health effects. The road ahead is long and uncertain.
After getting back into the taxi, I checked my bookbag. My passport and all my documents were in there. From that moment, everything proceeded smoothly. The next day I got my test result. It was negative. I was permitted to leave the quarantine center for my hotel, where I would finish my isolation.

In Berlin, French artist Marie-Pierre Bonniol observes that without audiences, there's no energy, no drive to her art.

14 November: What makes the whole wholesome?

Autumn catches up with us, both in France and in Berlin, where I live, and even the most experimental projects that I have been able to work on all year long lose some of their breath without their physical manifestations, which are those, truly, that constitute and bring communities together. The energy of momentum is diluted, if not non-existent, and I miss it to death! For it is it, in the end, that holds the whole wholesome, all the human weave that is found in a movie theatre, a concert hall, a discussion around things read, seen and loved, and that gives the energy and value of all efforts.

| stay informed | stay connected


What is happening at THE NEW INSTITUTE? Step inside by following our institutional newsletter, which ties together the work of our fellows and programs, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.


We use cookies to measure how often our site is visited and how it is used. You can withdraw your consent at any time with effect for the future. For further information, please refer to our privacy policy.