Callista – An immigrant account of lockdown in Cambridge: Lessons from COVID-19

Callista is in her first year at Emma, studying for a PhD in education. When flights were cancelled in March she was one of several students who couldn’t return home, and she describes how she’s learned to manage while far away from her family.

For the first time I heard tiny footsteps, children chattering and the neighbour’s door banging. I was often confused and wondered whether someone was inside my apartment. In case you are wondering why I had not heard my neighbours before, it is because I never paid attention to them and I was alone during the period of mandatory COVID-19 lockdown, so everything around me gained new relevance. During this time I realised and appreciated the important things in life.  What is important was suddenly prioritised.

I never expected that I would feel so lonely and so I was utterly unprepared to deal with the effects. I had never lived alone before so it was particularly challenging, especially being away from family and close friends.  Here I was, living by myself for the first time, with my family in the epicentre of the pandemic in the US. I had planned to return to them in March; however, travel restrictions and government guidelines meant that I had to remain in Cambridge.

As I monitored the situation in New York, it was difficult to process the number of daily deaths from COVID-19. Not only was it depressing to see so many, but also I had an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. I was surprised by how quickly I became sucked into despair. I was worried and apprehensive about my children and how they were coping, even though I was constantly in contact with them. I found it difficult to focus on anything because of the barrage of information and, in some cases, miscommunication about the virus and its potential harm. For a while, it felt as if I was under a dark cloud of hopelessness. I knew I could not thrive in this emotional state so I tried to find ways to cope. Every day, I found something hopeful to listen to. I paid close attention to the glimpses of hope that were scattered through the clouds of despair. I started with scriptural affirmations, then I found testimonials of people who had battled COVID-19 successfully. Of course, I listened to music, all kinds, and sometimes I sang, almost at the top of my voice, as if to fight off the frustrations of being alone. I found that I had an insatiable desire to talk so I did so, all day long. 

My best friend, Pomkanel and I spoke all day, and I am deeply indebted to her for caring so much and ensuring that I was doing well. Chrissy and I watched movies together, even though I was asleep most of the time because of the time difference. Across the seas, I found that I was growing closer to my children, who did not fail to entertain me with their latest dance moves, their cooking, basketball in the house and games. They made me feel at home and it was comforting, as was all the support I received from my spouse. I also spoke to my parents daily, who kept my mind rested by feeding me the latest St Lucian gossip. They know I thrive on good gossip. I also attended Zoom sessions relevant to my research. It was refreshing to see familiar faces and listen to the experiences of my peers. Oh, I cannot forget our vibrant WhatsApp group. We posted frequently and kept ourselves occupied.  We wrestled with confusions and concerns together, and found solutions.

I must make special mention of Governor Cuomo, whose daily briefings were comforting and inspiring. I marvelled at how he broke down information and ‘kept it real’. He provided both scientific facts and next steps, and was honest in his briefings. Most of all, I appreciated his vulnerability in addressing his brother’s illness as he battled COVID-19. It made me feel that I was not alone in being afraid. I must mention my supervisor, who was understanding and encouraged me so much, communicating care and concern for my well-being as an immigrant, parent and graduate student. At the end of each meeting, I was motivated and more focused to continue work on my pilot study in preparation for my registration report.

In the end, what did I learn? First, that strong relationships are invaluable to every aspect of our health. Even though you find yourself alone, companionship, laughter and care are important for our well-being. For virtual relationships to be effective, they must be authentic, such as doing some normal activities together.

Secondly, during a pandemic people look to strong leadership for guidance and reassurance. It is empowering and simultaneously inspiring, often resonating deeply with those who are suffering. It is then that people are more compliant in following the necessary steps towards recovery. You must also ensure that you keep yourself well occupied. Rediscover old hobbies or learn something new. You will be surprised by how fulfilling it is.

Finally, be careful with what you feed your mind; balance is essential to how we survive a pandemic. Stay updated with the latest information, but also find stories that inspire hope, otherwise you may end up in a dark hole of despair. So, when you ask why I heard my neighbour’s children only when I was lonely, it is simple, I started to pay attention. What you listen to is what shapes your thinking.