“You are not working from home. You are at your home, during a crisis, trying to work“.
I’ve seen this phrase being shared repeatedly on social media the last week or so, as a reminder that this is an unprecedented time we’re living through. And we shouldn’t be expecting for things to continue like normal; status quo as usual.
Indeed, things aren’t like the status quo. Many op-eds have started talking about the new world order, once we emerge into the world again as countries slowly open up after weeks and months of lockdown — in Borneo, we’re going into Week 3 of an initial 2-week, then month-long lockdown, which has just been extended for another 2 weeks. Whether we end the lockdown at the end of April after 6 weeks remains to be seen. Already, terms like ‘flattening curves’, ‘asymptomatic’ and ‘clusters’ are becoming part of our everyday vernacular, as we wait for daily updates on the number of infected, recoveries and death to be announced.
Many of us are suffering from the complicated emotions of isolation, cut off, not only from friends (and some, from family), but also from our academic support system. In each our own way, we’re all struggling to make sense of the world around us, battling fear and, hopelessness. Perhaps even confusion and anger.
How do we reassure students when we don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next day? How do we continue to be productive academically while still practicing self-compassion? How do we manage the work-life balance now that all manner of context — private, public, professional — has basically collapsed unto itself? What about those of us with family and loved ones in the front lines? In light of all these wandering thoughts, how do we even perform any semblance of self-care?
In essence, I’m luckier than most. I can still do most of my work at home. There is ample space. There are pets to focus on. I don’t have to worry about loss of income; and as I’ve said numerous times before, I’m able to make the kinds of observations I make because I’m in a position of privilege — I cannot refute that, nor pretend that my position is, at the very least, more secure and better than a lot of people out there.
This doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with what we’re all going through now. These emotions are complicated because you’re — I am — often made to feel as if my feelings are less valid by virtue of the fact that I’m an academic. One who is not a scientist for that matter. Nor am I an entrepreneur or a business owner — a fact that, when you’re in an Asian country, is drilled repeatedly into your head, especially when you’re not a doctor / lawyer /engineer. So in essence, what do I know about income or job losses? What use is an academic when it is assumed you don’t bring any practical skills to the table? When you’re immediately assigned an ivory tower because you’re not useful, practical, or you’ve just been deemed too different from the norm.
It’s isolation, magnified; when the normality that you feel is only present when you’re among academic peers, mostly when you’re at conferences. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for cancellation of conferences for the safety of all! But it’s also difficult when conferences are a source of normalcy for some of us who usually aren’t among those of their own ilk, who are displaced from their own academic circle. Displaced in a society that puts more credence in business acumen and ensuring you fit a particular mould (one that is as unthreatening and as obedient as possible) than anything — worse when you’re a woman.
I’ve been struggling with whether I should write this or not. Yes, I know there’s a lot of literature out there encouraging us to focus on the positive rather than negative experience while we’re in lockdown. But I know me, and if the words don’t come out, it’ll never be over. And I’ve been attempting to be more honest with my emotions.
Kuching went into a lockdown — or what the government termed ‘Movement Control Order (MCO)’ — on the 18 March. We were due to have dinner with extended family and close friends to celebrate my parents’ wedding anniversary that day. I had jokingly said I’d relish the time to catch up on reading and some academic work (writing, peer reviewing) that has piled up, given the two-week reprieve.
But the week became a somewhat traumatic ordeal of fear, because, you know, the last thing you expect, is for your relatively small university department to fail you in such a spectacular manner. What I least expect is to have a frosty response of “keep us updated” when a student email (on having come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19) is forwarded to one of the line managers. There was no “are you and your PhD student OK” (because said PhD student is helping me run the student tutorials), no “we’ve passed this on to upper management so please don’t worry”. Nothing. Just a directive.
I was scared. So was my PhD student. But at that moment, we had to put our own fears aside to assure the student that all will be fine. I had to subdue my own fear to assure my PhD student that she did not come in close contact with the student during our classes either. But the leaders at my job was clearly not doing the same for me. And any further attempts at voicing out this fear afterwards was ignored in favour of asking me to complete the admin tasks I was supposed to complete so as not to fall behind. Trust me, falling behind was the least of my worries that first week!
When did we get to this point? To the point where we can barely treat each other as human beings anymore. Is it the failure of a faceless management? Are we all so overworked that we can’t even stop to simply ask if someone is OK anymore? Or is there no value in human relationships — as colleagues — anymore?
All work is a form of value exchange. As much as the university expects me to perform according to some quantified value; I, as the labour provider, also expects the university to extend me the courtesy of treating me like a professional human being that isn’t prone to hysterics. If you have high expectations of my performance, then by right, I should extend the same level of expectation of some very basic human decency. I wasn’t going to ask for hand-holding, or god forbid, medical insurance! All I ask, and expected, was a simple acknowledgement that there is fear. Paralysing fear, I might add; but we’re also living and working through an unprecedented time and we’re all traumatised. But to the point where we can no longer treat each other with decency?
How can we continue to trust the structure if the structure systematically continues to fail us? I’m not laying blame, but I’ve always viewed my own position — being in institutional academia — as one to continually ask these questions until the day I can’t. Because not everyone can. And also because at this point in time, no one really knows what to do, and how to move forward because we really are all traumatised.
So, how do we enact self-care in this instance? Do we ball up in fear and just disconnect? Or do we suddenly see things very clearly when we normally wouldn’t? If someone can’t ask a simple “are you ok”, if they just stop doing that, then it’s not worth it. That goes for friends too.