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Coronavirus: What does the new normal look like around the world?

 Meg O'Brien

WITH the world in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, everyday life has been transformed. Four people living in different countries share their experiences of lockdown life and what the 'new normal' looks and feels like for them

Meg O'Brien 

Meg is the director of development for Artists Striving To End Poverty (Astep) and also co-founded the charity Vision of Hope which cares for vulnerable young women and girls in Zambia. She lives in New York where more than 33,000 people have died from Covid-19

"I used to work in Times Square but I have been working from home since March 11. 

"At the time I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was very lucky, I was living by myself in a two bedroom with a little back yard and I was a block to the waterfront. I knew really early on that I was going to have to get into a schedule because that first week I wasn't sleeping; it was terrifying, if you watched the news.

"I would get up at 7, go for a walk, get a coffee and I'd sit on the waterfront and I look across the water at ambulances heading up the highway to hospitals on the east side of Manhattan. You heard a lot of sirens during March, April and the beginning of May which were the really bad months and it was just kind of groundhog day.

"So I would say that March, April, May was very isolating. You know, I didn't see any friends or family for nearly three months. I'm only now back in Boston after five months, visiting family. 

"I'm still grateful to have a job. I watched, I'd say, 80 to 90% of my friends lose their jobs in New York. A lot of my friends sit within the Broadway community, the entertainment industry. I have friends that sang at the Met. I helped one of them pack their car to move out of the city. A lot of people can't afford their bills any more and it's a really sad moment in time for the city.

"My organisation connects working artists with social services organisations. One of our partners up in the South Bronx, in Monthaven, which is one of the most vulnerable communities in the United States not just in New York City, were hit really hard in regards to food scarcity and we're an arts organisation but we were able to support with food donations and money for food donations and connecting the organisation to some friends of mine who work in the supply chain industry in New York City so we were able to feed over 2,000 families.

"We've never done frontline support before but we've been trying to get PPE to some of our partners who work with homeless shelters."

"Bizarrely I started dating someone during the pandemic. Dating in a pandemic is strange. A lot of phone calls, a lot of socially distanced walks, the beginning part of dating I joked around that it felt like the 1920s but in many ways I feel like I've gotten to know him better than past relationships because I think there's a level of transparency and honesty that has come out of this moment in time.

"And I had put an offer on an apartment in Manhattan in January and in May I got a call that it was going through. Papers were signed and I moved in July.

"I have difficulty thinking too far into the future. I find myself saying, 'well, we will see where we are in a week or so', more than I've ever done. As someone who has always been a goal setter, I'm living more in the present, because I don't know how else to process where we are. 

"This moment in time has made me realize how much we need to care about other people. That so many people are suffering and that those who are vulnerable, are even more vulnerable now.”

  • You can donate to Artists Striving To End Poverty here


Louise Barnes 

Louise Barnes is a speech therapist in Queensland, Australia, and originally from Moneymore in Co Derry. She lives on the Sunshine Coast with her husband Scott and their children Finn (12) and Stella (9)

  Louise Barnes with her husband Scott and children Stella (9) and Finn (12). Picture by Tara Lee

“To be very honest Covid 19 has been a weird cloud hanging over Queensland but never really affecting us. We have had maybe 1,000 cases in total and most of those controlled under quarantine in the designated hotels. Sadly we have had six deaths here, but for a state seven times the size of the UK and a population of five million, we have been lucky. 

“Back in March we went into stage 3 or 4 of lockdown; I can’t remember which because it feels like a long time ago. It’s funny how your brain makes the most abnormal existence so forgettably normal in the end. It was a blur of toilet paper biffs, buying too much pasta and wondering if homeschooling really justified the amount of wine consumed in a week. 

“All extra-curricular activities were modified, dance lessons were recorded online and rarely used, because if you’re nine and your friends aren’t there, there is nothing to motivate you. So instead we found ways to occupy ourselves; card games, trampoline, bike rides and walking the dog. 

“We went from dance lessons four afternoons a week and other activities to nothing. And they loved it. It is the one thing we haven’t really changed. Stella gave up most dance lessons and went from nine per week to three.  

“I read somewhere that ‘rush is the enemy of love’. I've never really processed that until I noticed the good stuff that came along with calm and lack of rush. It’s the one thing I’d like to keep but we are back to busy school mornings, homework and life’s deadlines. 

“Right now most things are normal, we have Covid max numbers on shops but I honestly can’t recall the last time I’ve had to wait outside a shop. We aren’t allowed in school to collect or drop off kids, which really only affects the social lives of the mothers.

“We eat out as normal, we hug and we rarely think about social distancing to be very honest. The downside is to have this means we are, as a state, separated from all other states in Australia. We are not allowed in or out without quarantine as New South Wales/Victoria/Australian Capital Territory have all been (to varying degrees) more affected than our state. This has angered many who want to visit family or work across states but the government are determined to keep the borders closed for now. 

“Work for me hasn’t changed a lot, I’m a frontline worker so if I have a patient to see, I see them. I haven’t had any clients with Covid nor suspected in the entire time. Generally anyone with Covid goes into a locked ward in the university hospital until tests are clear if they have recovered enough to quarantine at home. I do have to wear full PPE in the nursing homes I visit. Happy to do so, a good mask covers all blemishes.”


Grace Tombozi Banda

Grace is the executive director of Barefeet Theatre, a charity which works with children living on the streets in Zambia and those at risk of joining them. She lives in Lusaka 

Grace Tombozi Banda with her husband John Chanda and their children Alexander (10), Aiden (6) and Amy (4)

"Zambia had a lockdown. They locked down some of the services, there were no churches, people were prohibited to meet, to go to bars or restaurants; everyone was encouraged to stay at home. But I'd call it a partial lockdown because in the communities, in the compounds that people come from, it is very difficult to lockdown. 

“The people who still had some money, they had food in their fridges and they bought food in bulk, but that was only a small percentage of the population. A lot of Zambians are living in poverty, for most of them it's hand to mouth. They go out and look for the money and then they come back and buy food and eat so that is why I call it a partial lockdown. 

“For a lot of people in the compounds it was life as usual. People were getting sick but it was either they died of hunger or they died of Covid-19. 

“After a few months lockdown was partially lifted. Everyone was supposed to wear a mask in public or in a shop or restaurant but that only happened in certain areas, in well-to-do areas. When you are going to the compounds no-one is wearing a mask... most of the people could not even afford a mask… so there's different areas where people, I wouldn't want to say take it seriously, but I think circumstances and situations are different.

“It has affected lots of organisations, especially Barefeet, that depend on gatherings, on meeting people, on contact to make a living or generate income.

"There was a lot of uncertainty, even about the future of the organisation itself. We were not sure where the salaries would come from. We were not sure where the rent would come from or any other core costs such as internet, electricity, water.  

"Our board of directors set up a GoFundMe page to help keep Barefeet afloat. Because we work with children living on the streets that was our biggest worry and the page asked for funding so we could do an emergency camp. This meant taking the children from the streets and into a secure place. We are always making sure we are teaching the young people about Covid-19, the dangers of Covid-19 and how you keep yourself safe but also other issues because it was not just about taking them from the street into the centre because these young people, you have to understand, have a life on the streets, they are used to begging, they have freedom on the street so we didn't want to just dump them there and leave them. We had to make sure we kept them busy, kept them entertained and to follow all the safety measures so as not to infect the children and to make sure our facilitators were safe.

"The GoFundMe page also helped with a food programme. The centres and orphanages, most of them were really struggling to feed the kids, some of them were badly affected, some of them could afford a meal or two a day for the children. The GoFundMe page raised funds to provide two meals per day for every child in Secko orphanage, or Secko children's village, in Ngombe compound.

"Since March we have been providing at least two meals and also we just received some donations from International School of Lusaka class of 1991 who were supposed to have a reunion this year but because of Covid-19 they will not so they decided to donate some money towards Secka orphanage so we will be able to provide two meals until after December.

People from Ngombe compound in Lusaka who benefited from Barefeet's community food programme

"We were also doing a food programme for the community because a lot of families were affected, especially families which were led by old people, because most of these old people would be house maids in the different areas, well-to-do areas, and because of Covid-19 most were asked to stop coming.

"We came up with a food basket containing some basic things a household would need every month. Not even enough to last them a month to be honest but just something to keep them going and we targeted the most vulnerable in the community in as much as everyone was affected and everyone was struggling.  

"We would deliver with the help of the Irish Embassy who lent us their truck and Image Promotions who would give us their truck.

"So far we have given out about 500 food baskets and we have donations for another 80 baskets. I think people gave a lot when Covid started and at this moment - and this might be due to the fact that everyone is affected - donations have become very slow and we don't know if we are going to manage to do the food baskets. 

“An organisation called Lusaka Helps raised money to make face shields for our frontline health workers and Barefeet helped to assemble the face shields. So far we have distributed across the country about 45,000 face shields and also to schools for the blind and the deaf and to people who rely on lip reading."

  • You can donate to Barefeet here

 The Barefeet team making face shields


Aet Suvari

Aet Suvari is a sports journalist from Estonia who presents an evening sports programme for the national broadcaster ETV. She also anchored its coverage of World Cup 2018 in Russia. Estonia has a population of 1.3 million and 64 people have died from Covid-19

 Aet Suvari is a sports journalist who presents a daily sports programme on Estonian TV

“Estonia has been very lucky. I think it's partly because we're a small country and it's easier to keep things under control. When the pandemic started lockdown was very quickly set in motion. Literally. I was scheduled to fly to Paris on March 10 and remember that while the government was saying they didn't recommend any foreign travel at that point, they didn't expressly forbid it either, nor was there any talk of lockdown. So off I went to Paris. When I returned four days later the lockdown was already in place and I had to self-isolate for 14 days. It all happened very promptly and I think it saved us from the worst.

“The first few weeks were the hardest at work, when all the news started pouring in about the competitions and tournaments that were cancelled and/or postponed, including the Euros and the Olympics. For a while we also ceased our nightly sports news TV programme. However, nothing ever completely stopped here sportswise. Our government made two bases available for top-level athletes to train under strict rules and regulations. Our everyday sports news programme was cancelled from March 17 to May 4, then we gradually started to return and from May 10 we were back every night.

“Estonia handled the virus pretty well, so by May it was clear that we had gotten over the worst of it and things started to open up. On May 18 the emergency state finished and then everything sprang back to life. Football season (which runs from March to November) restarted, behind closed doors at first but then, from July 1, that too was scrapped and the public returned to the stands; summer competitions came back, bars and restaurants, hotels, gyms, spas all opened, people started summer holidays. Only nightclubs had to stay closed for longer, but I think they too opened mid-July. 

“As of now, life's pretty much back to normal. You see a lot of ‘social distancing’ signs, but Estonians keep a distance anyway, we're not a very social or touchy-feely nation; cinemas, concerts, theatres are all open, you don't really see anyone using masks, although health officials "recommend it in crowded places". If you didn't KNOW there was this virus going around, you'd barely notice. 

“Numbers have stayed pretty consistently low here, we've had two or three local outbreaks, one in the university town of Tartu where it started in a nightclub and has brought on a small number of covid-positives and one in a mine in eastern Estonia, but it's all very localised and the health department says there is no reason for concern. 

“The government stays pretty optimistic that if the disease hits again and the numbers grow, they can contain it locally and there will be no more statewide lockdowns or measures.

“...from what I've heard and seen happening everywhere else, we really were a massive exception, almost like another world.

“During the worst days we had about 200 people hospitalised, but that wasn't a real strain to the health capacity, only one of our smaller islands where we had a bigger outbreak, was really stretched but they got help from the mainland. Other than that I think hospitals coped well and our death toll wasn't nearly as bad as was feared - although, of course, even one is too many."


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