Chances are you miss your favorite bar: The chatter, the live music, or the pour of the drink made just so. You’re not alone.
With bars shuttered all over the world, that sense of community has now been absent for over a year. But one bar in Mexico decided to do so something about it, by recreating some of those sounds at your favorite bar for those confined at home. And that idea? Well, it took off around the world.
The bar is in Monterrey, Mexico. Started in 2012 by Oscar Romo and a few friends, it was a little neighborhood spot, with live music next to a long, wooden bar and a small patio outside.
Back then, Monterrey was emerging from a horrific string of violence from the drug cartels waging war across northern Mexico. The city was starting to come back to life, and people were finally feeling safe.
“It was a time for everyone to start interacting again, you know?,” Romo remembers.
So Romo and his friends gave Maverick a slogan: “Un Lugar de Encuentros,” or “A Place For Encounters.”
For the next eight years, Maverick blossomed into a cornerstone of the neighborhood, a spot where artists and musicians, writers, and others in the community could meet to unwind.
Until the pandemic hit.
“Everything was closed,” says Romo with a sigh. “We were not allowed to sell anything for two months. So the impact, it was tremendous.”
The bar was hurting. Financially, obviously, but also because that sense of community that they had worked so hard to build had evaporated overnight. Romo says it was really painful.
“I didn’t realize how important it was, you know? Those normal things that you have in life that you take for granted — and now they’re not there,” he says.
So Romo decided to do something about it, and this is where things got interesting.
Romo enlisted the help of René Cárdenas, in charge of marketing at Maverick. Cárdenas thought of the silence of the pandemic and he soon came to a realization: It was the sounds of the bar that really brought the sense of community home.
“People come here because of the conversations, because of the atmosphere, because of the music, because of the sense of being with strangers,” Cárdenas says.
So, he decided to record each of those sounds individually.
Like, a bartender working.
And people talking.
And street noise.
And serving drinks.
And they put all the sounds on a website, called IMissMyBar.com. The idea was customers could put all the sounds together, and feel like they were in Maverick, while sitting around their homes, drinking their cocktails (preferably bought to-go from the bar, of course).
This is what it sounded like.
“But then as we were making it, we said, like, maybe this idea is bigger than us,” Cárdenas remembers.
So they modified the website to make it something where anyone, anywhere could play around and try to best recreate the bar they miss the most.
The website has been getting noticed — Maverick has been getting calls from everywhere: India, Greece, Germany, the United Kingdom.
Thousands of miles away, Max Wolff, the general manager of a cozy cocktail bar called Swift in London, was going through the same feelings of loss as his counterparts in Maverick.
“I think at first it seemed to me like it was meant to be funny, but it doesn’t seem funny anymore. It seems absolutely tragic,” Wolff says.
And when Wolff heard the sounds in the web site, he was instantly drawn to it.
“There’s no other time where you’d interact with those same people that you do in a pub. You get such a cross-section of society. And that’s the fun and exciting bit,” says Wolff. “There’s no Zoom call that can replace that.”
He shared the site with his customers. London is still in total lockdown, and bars like Swift are completely empty. Wolff says the city has lost part of its spirit — and sharing the sounds created by the Maverick team was about taking some of it back.
“We’ve now spent a year being told we’re not even allowed to breathe the same air of strangers. When bars open again, are we still going to be programmed to think, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to share this table, I don’t want to share this dance floor?’,” Wolff wonders.
It isn’t just those chaotic and surprising interactions that are missing. Bars all over the world are in danger of disappearing. Just in the United States, an estimated 100,000 bars and restaurants have closed during the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association.
Marcio Duarte is one of those struggling bar owners around the world. He runs a small bar named Machimbombo in Lisbon, Portugal.
“Business here is gone, like anywhere else right?” says Duarte. “Ninety percent of the bars here that were struggling, they will not exist after the pandemic.”
Like in many cities around the world, nightlife has been largely banned in Lisbon, though the restrictions are finally starting to lift.
Duarte’s bar has been hanging on by pivoting to selling food during the day, but it’s been tough.
So when he came across IMissMyBar.com, he put it on surround sound speakers. It gave him hope.
“It encouraged me! It’s a beautiful thing — it’s living, it’s alive that experience, and we will chase that again,” Duarte says with a smile. “I know for God’s sake, the day we open the bar the happiest person there will be me, equally with everyone.”
Oscar Romo, at Maverick in Mexico, says he’s been surprised at how the website he helped create has taken off around the world.
To him, it speaks to the importance of bars like his in the social fabric – and how IMissMyBar.com helped bring that reality home.
“What we want also is for people to realize how important are bars in our lives, really, not just from the drinking perspective, but from the social life,” Romo says. “It’s like please — don’t forget about us. Don’t forget about how a bar improves life in society.”
On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me … hand sanitizer, a spray can of Lysol, a big box of TP and a cleaning gizmo for keys and phones.
All year, cleaning products have been flying off the shelves — now, they’re flying straight into Christmas stockings and wrapping paper. Holiday-season sales of sanitizing wipes and sprays have doubled this year, according to Nielsen. Sales of hand sanitizer have more than quadrupled.
“You can say, ‘Oh, yeah, remember back in 2020, when we all had a bottle of scented hand sanitizer in our stockings?’ ” says Charles Kopec, a neuroscience researcher from New Jersey who’s also gifting his wife’s parents a UV-light box to help keep their cellphones a bit cleaner.
Whether as a joke or something serious and practical — or both — coronavirus essentials make for no-brainer holiday presents. Fancy soaps and face masks! Bedazzled face shields! Little bottles with hooks for sanitizing on the go!
Mary Lopez, a retired forensic accountant from California, is a longtime home-necessities gifting proponent, and her family has been giving pandemic-themed gifts all year.
For her daughter’s birthday, Lopez assembled a basket of lockdown-survival aids, including Clorox cleaning spray, some money on a gift card, two candy-filled wine glasses and a bottle of wine. Her daughter replicated this basket for her friends for the holidays, adding also toilet paper and jigsaw puzzles.
Gifts of sanitation tend to be an add-on to other items people are exchanging this year — a dose of pandemic reality on top of regular gifts. According to Mastercard SpendingPulse, categories selling particularly well are electronics, home furnishings and athleisure clothes.
On a recent run to Costco just outside Washington, D.C., banking analyst Ritesh Ranjan spotted a 2020 unicorn: a five pack of Clorox wipes. He remembered friends mentioning they had trouble finding them. “Hopefully it’ll remind them of the conversation we have had about it, and hopefully it helps,” Ranjan said.
But later he felt a bit guilty for snatching those wipes that are so rare these days: “Did [I] steer the product away from someone who would need it much more urgently?” he pondered. “After I bought this one, I decided I’m not going to buy any more of these for gifts.”
Kathleen Murray, a teacher from Virginia Beach, Va., also never expected to be gifting cleaning products for the holidays. But she came across some holiday-themed hand sanitizers, with scents like vanilla and Christmas cookies, and couldn’t resist.
“It at least cheers you up,” she said. “You have to use it regardless. But if it smells like gingerbread, I’d rather use that.”
The sanitizers went into her Advent calendars for family members, as little daily gifts alongside candy, festive face masks and other pandemic essentials. Asked if all these sanitation-themed gifts felt just a little bit sad, she laughed.
“I guess a bit sad,” Murray said. “But also like — if you could give anyone a gift, you want to give them safety. I would love to be able to give them all the vaccine, but you obviously can’t do that. It’s the closest thing to safety that you can give them.”
“You have breast cancer,” my doctor announced, faceless behind her mask. Silence. In the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic. Her eyes locked on mine and beamed as much compassion and kindness as she could muster.
“I’m so sorry,” she said as we faced each other 6 feet apart in her office.
That was it.
The COVID-19 virtual hug: cold and sterile. Punishing, despite the best intents.
As friends came to my home to visit, the weight of this emotional disconnect became increasingly difficult to bear. At a moment when I so desperately needed spontaneous physical connection and warmth — simple human love – there was none. Just sad faces at a safe distance.
“I’m so sorry,” they would all say.
That was it.
Distressed, my mind took me back to West Africa’s devastating Ebola outbreak of 2014, resurrecting images I had desperately tried to suppress. In an instant I was in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, where I managed a Partners in Health Ebola Treatment Unit, listening to the agonizing wails of our patients, alone in their beds with no one next to them to provide reassurance or comfort. Back to the sick children, scared and alone, with whom I would spend time, uncomfortably crouched in my Ebola suit, carefully hugging them and singing muffled songs through my masks. Back to the midnight palliative care rounds for the gravely ill, where I would just hold a hand, provide words of encouragement, give pain medication or stay with our sickest patients as they approached the door of the otherworld. Just so they wouldn’t be alone.
And my mind took me to Detroit’s nursing homes and their vulnerable population, disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. This summer we at Doctors Without Borders provided much needed support. With the outbreak not under control and facilities off limits to all visitors, residents faced an endless, harmful, solitary existence. Grandparents died alone, with good-byes bid over Zoom. Social distancing at all costs became a thing.
I’ve worked for Doctors Without Borders for six years and had my share of difficult and heartbreaking experiences. I don’t work in easy places. I work in war zones and countries with little to no health-care system to speak of. I respond to refugee crises, natural disasters and disease outbreaks. I have gotten used to danger. I’ve gotten used to falling asleep with worries of being infected with Ebola or being attacked by an armed group.
But what I never have gotten used to — and never accepted — was the loneliness. The loneliness of those crowded Ebola treatment units in West Africa and then again in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018. The sorrow of families and friends who undoubtedly felt they were abandoning their loved ones. The loneliness of dying alone. The absurdity of dying on Zoomin an overcrowded New York city hospital – nurses would hold their iPad and people would say their goodbyes.
Not even in war do people have to face hardships alone. The contagious nature of COVID-19 and Ebola managed to instill enough fear to make us — in the name of safety — less human. At moments when we needed each other most, vital social connections were brutally banned. In Sierra Leone, our clinical team remedied this by starting what may have been the first supportive care rounds, specifically for those patients who would clearly not recover, ensuring that these individuals always had someone with them at their most fragile moments.
Over time, organizations involved in the care of Ebola patients improved the design of Ebola treatment units so patients could be closer visually – but also physically — to their loved ones. Family visiting areas were installed at a safe distance right across patient rooms, where large plexiglass windows were installed. The CUBE, a self-contained isolation room with transparent walls allows families to be right next to their sick loved ones.
We found a way to do it, and we knew it made a huge difference.
So how did we go so wrong that the COVID-19 response of the world’s richest country collapsed to the level of not being able to provide to the most basic human need – that of not being alone in moments of sickness?
It didn’t have to be this way with COVID-19. With lessons of past outbreaks to guide us, with strong institutional and individual national expertise to lead us, with the experience of countries who fell to COVID-19 before us, we knew what could have been done to protect ourselves, prevent the spread of disease and the overload of our hospitals.
We knew what kind of preparations and precautions it would have taken to give that hug and hold that hand safely. To be together safely.
Today I am home in Seattle, halfway around the world from Africa. I now have become the patient, the one anxiously waiting alone on a gurney that will take me to the operating room. I grieve the lack of physical connection. It’s not words I need, it’s proximity. It’s touch. Back to that hug, that holding of the hand. That reassurance of being next to one another. It speaks a thousand words. It goes a million miles.
So please, mask up. Wash hands. Practice safe distancing. Do your part so that we will be able to reach the point where we can again get that human bond that makes patients stronger and able to weather the storms.
Do your part so we can finally get back to normal. It is long overdue.
Karin Huster was a field coordinator for Doctors Without Borders on its COVID-19 response in Hong Kong and in Detroit. She is now back home in Seattle, working with USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance as a public health adviser and focusing on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ongoing Ebola outbreak.
The Web app lets you release any pandemic-pent up frustration in the form of a scream, then broadcasts it from speakers in the Icelandic wilderness.
The ad campaign is from the group Promote Iceland, a collaboration between the government of Iceland and private institutions. It’s designed to provide a little light-hearted relief and a gentle reminder of all the country has to offer (when it’s safe to travel again).
As the site explains:
Once you’ve recorded your scream (or any audio really) you can send it to one of the seven speakers placed around the empty Icelandic countryside.
There are also some “screaming tips” from a mental health consultant on how to make the most of your therapeutic scream. For more serious issues, the site urges users to seek the support of a mental health professional.
And while Iceland is encouraging screaming (albeit virtually), there’s a time and a place in the midst of a global pandemic. A newly reopened Japanese theme park suggests you “scream inside your heart” while on its rides, to avoid spreading coronavirus-carrying droplets.
These are some of the ways that regular folks are solving problems and spreading happiness during the pandemic.
The solutions aren’t perfect — public health experts have some critiques and suggestions. But at the same time, they applaud the ingenuity and positive vibes.
Read the stories of six grassroots change-makers — then nominate your own at the bottom of this story.
Urban farmer gives greens to the poor
In April, Jackline Oyamo, 31, was laid off from her job as an electronic sales assistant at a shop in Kibera, one of the world’s largest slums on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. The curfews to control the pandemic meant fewer customers – and staff cutbacks. “After losing my job, it was extremely difficult to keep feeding myself after I exhausted my small savings,” she says.
But Oyamo is able to get fresh produce for free from Victor Edalia, a 30-year-old urban farmer in her neighborhood. Last November, Edalia, who works as a driver by day, converted a trash dump site in the slum into an urban garden. He signed an agreement with a local chief to use the land. Now, the plot, about a quarter of an acre, grows vegetables such as kale, onions and spinach.
Edalia originally started the farm to boost his income. The idea was to sell vegetables to hotels. But once the pandemic hit, he changed the plan. He wanted to find a way to “give back,” he says.
So throughout the pandemic, Edalia has been providing free supplies of vegetables to 10 needy families and individualsin Kibera. They include young people who lost their jobs in the pandemic, like Oyamo, as well as single mothers and families with households of more than seven people. They can drop by the farm up to three times a week to pick up a supply of vegetables.
“I saw needy families get food donations, mostly comprising of dry foods but without any vegetables,” says Edalia.
Oyamo says the veggies supplement other food donations she receives from charities and people in the community.
Moses Omondi, team leader of Adopt a Family, a local nonprofit that’s been providing dry food donations – like maize flour — to 500 families in Kibera, thinks Edalia’s program is promising.
Providing veggies to families who receive food packs – “I think it’s a pretty smart approach,” he says. “In addition to supporting struggling families during these tough times that face starvation while at home, it helps to reduce anxiety and helplessness of a Kibera family.”
Thomas Bwire is a digital and radio journalist from Kibera, Kenya.
App maker helps churches go virtual
Houses of worship had to close their doors because of the pandemic. And even now, with some reopening, there may be limits on how many congregants are allowed in.
Nnamdi Udeh, 29, a tech entrepreneur in Nigeria, came up with OSanctus, an app that offers some solutions: easy access to virtual worshipping options and a reservations system so there won’t be crowding at reopened churches.
Churches can use the app to stream mass online and share community announcements. Parishioners can book a virtual consultation with a priest — and send in a digital donation. And in Nigeria, where houses of worship have capped attendance at 50% of capacity, folks can use the app to register for a spot instead of showing up to church in the hope of being let in.
“It helps the priests manage their time schedule, know how many persons they are expecting on a particular day, all the appointments and masses booked and other activities that they want,” says Udeh.
Harvard Medical School physician Dr. Abraar Karan says indoor churches are high risk. “There is singing usually and close face-to-face contact between participants. While the app is probably trying to reduce crowding outside the church, it is unclear if it will achieve that.”
But, he adds, “if the church is going to open either way, the app could help ensure that only a certain number of people come at a time.”
So far, it’s been helpful to parishioners. “It is user-friendly and helps us to resolve church registration issues. Parishioners can easily access the parish office and we can also reach out to them,” says Father Paul Akin-Otiko, a pastor at a Catholic-run chaplaincy. “It came in handy during this pandemic.”
The app runs in six parishes in Lagos and has been downloaded about 500 times. It is now under trial in other parishes across the country. But it’s not 100% altruistic. As everyone struggles to earn a living in these times, the app maker plans to charge the churches an annual fee, based on the size of the parish.
Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg, where he is an Open Society Foundations fellow on Investigative Reporting at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Designer makes recyclable cardboard beds for patients
As the coronavirus surges in India, authorities are converting dozens of convention centers in major cities into temporary COVID-19 wards, some equipped with rather unusual beds — made entirely of cardboard.
The beds can be assembled in minutes and hold a load of more than 400 pounds. They’re made of tough corrugated cardboard that’s been chemically treated to make it waterproof, so they can be sprayed with disinfectant and wiped clean. They cost about $13 each – roughly half the price of the cheapest metal beds, says architect and designer Rhea Shah, who specializes in urban resilience.
Shah came up with the concept for the bed while under lockdown at her family’s home in western India.
“I was grappling with helplessness, thinking about what I could do with my talent and the resources available,” Shah says.
Her family runs a paper factory and is selling the beds at cost, without profit. They’ve shipped about 15,000 units to isolation wards set up by the Indian Navy, government hospitals and a school in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum – a recent COVID-19 hotspot.
“The cardboard bed was really a great help because it can be disposed of easily,” says city official Kiran Dighavkar, who oversees Dharavi. Once they are no longer needed, they can be recycled.
Dighavkar says it wasn’t economical to buy thousands of metal beds, which would only be used during the peak of the pandemic.
Cardboard furniture isn’t new. Cardboard desks and beds are popular in Europebecause they’re recyclable. With the high death toll from COVID-19 in Latin America, designers there have come up with cardboard beds that turn into coffins.
Other Indian manufacturers are adapting Shah’s design. One company supplied 10,000 cardboard beds to a makeshift hospital in New Delhi, one of the largest COVID-19 facilities in the world.
“It’s heartwarming to know that in spaces where it was most needed, it was useful,” says Shah.
Sushmita Pathak is a producer for NPR India.
‘Commander Safeguard’ brings COVID-19 messages to remote areas
Rehmat Ali Jaffar Dost, 43, is known as “Commander Safeguard” for his clean-up and anti-littering campaigns in Chitral, a remote district of Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan. Now he’s adding to his agenda: informing citizens about COVID-19.
In the area where Dost lives, fewer than 20% of residents have basic 2G internet and there are still some villages with no electricity, according to the Aga Khan Rural Support Program, a nonprofit operating in rural parts of Pakistan. And government officials and nonprofit organizations have been slow to spread crucial COVID-19 messaging to remote areas of the country. But the virus itself is spreading. In the district of Upper Chitral, with a population of nearly 200,000, there are more than 110 confirmed cases.
On March 17, Dost went on a 40-day journey across the Upper Chitral region to share information about the pandemic. He borrowed a friend’s car and covered other expenseswith the help of friends and donations. Dost is the founder of Chitral Heritage and Environment Protection Society, a student volunteer organization.
In open spaces, Dost organized small group meetings with community members and leaders to answer questions and bust rumors and misconceptions. “A majority of the people did not know what a virus was,” he says, “and some thought people in developing countries are already immune to every kind of virus.”
“In order to respond with concrete and factual information, I have involved community leaders, religious clerics, educated people and health professionals [to answer their questions],” adds Dost.
Dost also trained people to sew their own face masks, which he learned how to do by watching YouTube videos.
In some parts of Upper Chitral, he was not able to meet face-to-face interactions with women. “Chitral is highly divided in terms of religious sects and extremely conservative,” he says So, he came up with a solution. Standing in the street, he uses “a loudspeaker to reach out to Chitrali sisters and mothers,” politely requesting that people stay home, wear masks, don’t shake hands and wash their hands.
Government officials such as Shah Saud, deputy commissioner of Upper Chitral, is grateful for Dost’s involvement. “We totally support and appreciate this initiative. Volunteers like Rehmat Ali can help stop or slow down the spread of this contagious disease.”
Benazir Samad is a lead multimedia journalist at Voice of America’s Pakistan desk in Washington, D.C.
Medellin’s mariachi and folk music bands are usually booked up with performances at parties, weddings and birthdays. But since mandatory stay-home orders were enforced on March 20, they have been out of work.
Equipped with masks, some Colombian musical groups are helping others and themselves by walking the streets and busking.
These public mini-concerts cheer up the city’s residents stuck at home.
Jairo Muriel, 56, has seen four live performances outside his apartment in Bello, a suburb of Medellin. “It’s really enjoyable,” he says. People come out on their balconies to savor the music and sing along.
Then they lower tips in a basket.“People are very good to us. They help us,” says Antonio Cartagena, 66, an accordion player from a mariachi band.
The money is far from normal wages. Depending on how successful a band is, an 8- to 10-piece group can earn up to $1,100 to divvy up for one night’s work. Cartagena says his share of the daily tips in the pandemic is $13 on average. Although it’s not much, he says it’s enough for him to buy food for his family each day.
Not everyone likes the music. Muriel has heard at least one person in the surrounding buildings telling the groups to move along. But the bands, he says, “don’t stay very long, they’re not annoying.”
And the city’s secretary for culture Lina Gaviria is a fan. Entertainment can “transmit a message of hope during these difficult times,” she says.
Sophie Foggin is a journalist based in Medellin, Colombia, covering politics, human rights, history and justice in Latin America.
Tech entrepreneur connects farmers to customers
In early April, Justin Stephen, a 36-year-old farmer from Udhagamandalam, a town nestled in south India’s Niligiri mountains, was distressed.
As India’s lockdown came into effect on the midnight of March 25,the prime season for harvesting avocados was just beginning. Every month, from February to September, the trees on Stephen’s two-acre farmlands yielded a rich harvest of roughly 4,000 avocados. The fruit stays fresh only three days after being picked. So getting the produce to market as quickly as possible is a priority.
Even in previous years, Stephen had difficulty connecting with key retail markets in Indian cities and transporting the avocados on time because his farm, bordering a jungle, wasn’t as accessible. There wasn’t a reliable network of trucks to transport the products. And transport costs were high.
Now, with lockdown restrictions on travel, getting his avocados to market “seemed impossible,” he says.
In mid-April, when he was staring at mounting financial losses and crop wastage, a friend suggested that he contact Harvesting Farmer Network (HFN), a website run by Ruchit Garg, a tech entrepreneur. Garg runs a tech company called Harvesting, which uses satellite data and artificial intelligence to identify, measure and monitor cropland.
When social media erupted with videos of distraught farmers flinging produce into rivers and onto streets, frustrated and unable to sell because of the pandemic travel restrictions, Garg’s heart went out to them. “I could feel their pain. I knew I had to do something,” he says.
Garg launched HFN on April 12 to address some of the farmers’ challenges. With many shops being shut down, some farmers only lacked customers. Farmers can join HFN free of charge and display their fresh produce to customers across India. If a customer is interested in buying, they place their order on the site.
Once farmers receive their orders, they can coordinate deliveries to the customers themselves. For farmers unable to arrange for transport, Garg has arranged for buses and lorries and HFN vehicles to transport produce from the farms to the customers.
So far, he says that HFN has helped deliver over one million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables from over 2,000 farmers to customers across the country.
Stephen’s avocados have been popular on HFN. In a single day, he delivered about 3,600 avocados, and some of his delighted customers tweeted their thanks. “I was overjoyed that people appreciated my fresh produce, and that I could connect with customers in these difficult times.”
So far, he’s sold nearly 15,000 avocados. “In a country hit by COVID, we found kindness and a way to look to the future with hope,” he says.
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, India, who has written for The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t.
In her now-world-famous writing, Chinese author Fang Fang implores: “The departed are gone, but the living must go on. As before. I just hope we can remember.”
The writer’s detailed account of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan, originally published in Chinese as a daily diary as the virus rapidly spread there, becomes available in English on Friday as Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City. Bits and clips of Fang Fang’s writing on the situation in Wuhan made it out of China and into English as the outbreak was unfolding, but now the full account will be available in English.
Memory is central to Fang Fang’s diary. So is making sense of the complete absence of things: of life as we knew it; of any and all economic activity. Like tens of millions of other readers, I read Fang Fang in the monotony of self-isolation, looking for a common understanding of how the pandemic had changed the country we were living in — China.
Before the novel coronavirus engulfed the Chinese city of Wuhan, Fang Fang was already an award-winning novelist of realist fiction. But her chronicle of the lockdown of her hometown Wuhan might be her most lasting work.
Fang Fang penned her first entry on January 25, two days after the city was suddenly sealed off from the rest of China, to let friends and anyone curious understand “what is really going on here on the ground in Wuhan.” Over the next 59 entries spanning more than two months, her writing veers from a collection of the quotidian aspects of life under lockdown to her mounting frustration with local officials — no small gesture of bravery in China.
Out of necessity, her diary supersedes any kind of traditional literary work, in both content and form.
By early February, China’s Internet censors were working overtime, during the height of the epidemic, to erase critical content. Fang Fang’s diary thus often serves as an archive, describing videos and news items usually deleted by the time she managed to publish her daily entry. As her online diary begins to attract millions of readers, she begins incorporating information gleaned from text messages and phone calls from well-connected friends in the arts and medical fields, forming a kind of written collage of Wuhan.
Eventually, the censors came for Fang Fang. Loyal readers took screenshots of her entries before they were deleted, or helped repost entires on various other social media channels.
Unfortunately, the English translation of her diary in book form is not able to capture this multidimensionality. Wuhan Diary loses much of its engaging, real-time nature by condensing her 60 entries into a single tome. Nonetheless, it is a heroic feat of speedy translation from veteran Michael Berry.
“You have that whole connecting universe extending from her diary entries…of course, reading it now, after the fact, is a very different experience,” Berry, who is also translating Fang Fang’s last novel, Soft Burial, told NPR. Still, readers in the U.S. will likely find many of her gripes about local officials and the burden of social distancing all too relevant.
Fang Fang’s Wuhan diary remains significant as a document of the trivial, tragic and absurd during Wuhan’s 76 days of lockdown. Such a document is especially important now, when so much of how the coronavirus spread — and what governments across the world did or did not do to contain it — is already being contested by the U.S. and China.
“Imagine this: the author Fang Fang did not exist in today’s Wuhan…What would we have heard? What would we have seen?” asked writer Yan Lianke in a widely-shared online talk in late February. Memory, Yan goes on to say, is the most basic hedge against future injustice: “While memories may not give us the power to change reality, it can at least raise a question in our hearts when a lie comes our way.”
Fang Fang’s diary, then, is an important record how Wuhan’s people suffered and ultimately persevered, even as the state wants to erase its initial fumbles from the official record.
Raising questions does not make one popular in China these days. Nearly immediately after she began publishing her entries, an online army of ultra-nationalists deluged Fang Fang, indignant that in airing doubts about the superiority of China’s coronavirus containment she was betraying her motherland. That her diary could be published in English only months after the Wuhan lockdown was lifted, they hinted darkly, meant Fang Fang was deliberately aiding Western countries to smear China and to profit off the suffering of Wuhan. Berry says even he has received thousands of angry emails and death threats for simply translating her writing.
One anonymous letter, allegedly written by a high school student, lambasted Fang Fang for airing China’s dirty laundry out for everyone to see. “My child, I also want to tell you that when I was 16 years old, I was much worse off than you are. At that time, I had never even heard of words like ‘independent thought,'” Fang Fang gently wrote back.
China today is more globalized and more confident than ever. It has also become more hostile to foreign ideas, suspicious they are Western designs to stop China’s rise, and has demonstrated its willingness to engage in bare-knuckles diplomacy.
Voices like Fang Fang’s — who remember well the brutal decade of the Cultural Revolution, when adolescent Maoists tortured, persecuted and beat to death the politically incorrect, as well as the subsequent prosperity of economic reform and opening— are increasingly rare in China. But in the context of larger conversations being had about China and its place in the world, American readers would do well to remember they exist.
In this time of fear and uncertainty, people are going back to the land — more or less. Gardening might just be overtaking sourdough baking, TV binging and playing Animal Crossing as our favorite pandemic coping mechanism
So here I am in my back yard, where I’ve got this lovely four foot by eight food raised garden bed — brand new this year, because yes, I’m one of those people who are trying their hand at gardening. I’ve got tomatoes, I’ve got cucumbers, I’ve got radishes, I’ve got beets sprouting up, I’ve got what I think might be a zucchini and a spaghetti squash, but the markers washed away in a storm.
And I had some watermelon seedlings, but they died in the last cold snap. So that’s why I’m out here today — driving in stakes and draping plastic wrap for the next cold snap.
I have to be extra careful now, because I couldn’t actually replace my watermelon seedlings — garden centers and hardware stores have been picked clean.
Jennifer Atkinson is a senior lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Washington, and the author of Gardenland: Nature, Fantasy and Everyday Practice. She says she’d get a flurry of responses to her blog posts about pandemic gardening, but she really got interested when she started seeing it in the headlines. “Seed suppliers were saying they were completely cleaned out in the early days of lockdown, but seed sales were going through the roof. And that a lot of those customers were first time growers.”
Like me. Now when you’ve discovered a new obssession, you want to share it, right? So I put out a call in the company newsletter. And it turns out that a lot of my colleagues here at NPR love to garden — some are brand new pandemic gardeners, and some have well-established green thumbs. Some don’t have back yards, like NPR One’s Tamar Charney, who reported in from Ann Arbor, Mich: “My garden’s basically just my kitchen windowsill, and it’s full of little glasses, half full of water,” she says. “Each one has a stub of an old head of lettuce in it, and slowly but surely, they’re regrowing.”
Here in D.C., business correspondent Alina Selyukh has just taken delivery of a load of seedlings for her balcony. “Some chives, some Swiss chard, some watercress, lots of herbs.” Morning Edition production assistant Nina Kravinsky says she decided to try her hand at sprouting seeds — and now she has “WAY TOO MANY TOMATO PLANTS.”
From Los Angeles, It’s Been a Minute producer Andrea Gutierrez described what sounds like an amazing setup, full of jasmine, white sage, succulents, vegetables and spices: “I have a flat of strawberries I need to plant, there’s plumeria … We’ve got jalapenos, serrano peppers, Thai hot peppers that my partner likes to dry and grind, agave, I have a couple of aloe plants.”
And back here in DC, All Things Considered editor Sarah Handel says she’s planting more since the pandemic hit. “This year in our garden we’ve got three different kinds of tomatoes, we’ve got swiss chard, lettuce, sugar snap peas, hot peppers, an onion we replanted from an onion top,” and all kinds of herbs. “More mint than we could ever use,” she jokes. And a fig tree.
But let’s be honest — you’re not going to be able to feed your family from a backyard vegetable patch. So why do we love to grub around in the dirt so much?”
“People have always gardened in hard times, but food is only one part of that story,” says Jennifer Atkinson. “They’re also motivated by the desire for beauty or contact with nature. Maybe they’re looking for a creative outlet or a sense of community. And there’s immense gratification that comes from work that gives you tangible results.”
What people are starved for right now isn’t food, but contact with something real. Jennifer Atkinson
Today’s pandemic gardens are often referred to as “victory gardens,” after the patriotic plots of World War II. And Atkinson says there’s some merit to that comparison. But, she says, what’s going on now is much more complex than just an attempt to shore up the food supply during wartime.
“What people are starved for right now isn’t food, but contact with something real,” she says. “We spend all day on screens. We can’t be around each other at restaurants or ballparks. We can’t even give hugs or shake hands. So all of a sudden, the appeal of sinking your hands in the dirt and using your body in ways that matter, that becomes irresistible.”
I might not be able to control the news, or the weather, or whatever it is my sourdough starter is doing in that jar — but I can press a tiny radish seed into the dirt, give it food and water, and watch it grow.
At a time when we really need to keep a sense of humor, comedy clubs are closed. Stand-up comedians are on lockdown. So what do you do if your career is making people laugh? You can write jokes while you shelter in place, but how do you know if they’re funny?
“I don’t know until I get in front of an audience,” says comedian Marina Franklin. For her special Single Black Female, Franklin worked out jokes in small clubs for about 100 people before filming the special for an audience of 1,000 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago.
In normal times, Franklin would be out at New York comedy clubs six nights a week. That kind of exposure can lead to acting jobs or the chance to open for bigger name comedians.
“Every night in New York City is an opportunity; you never know who’s going to see you,” she says. But during quarantine, “It’s been oddly quiet amongst the comedy community.” Franklin’s been spending more time focused on her podcast Friends Like Us but still finding the seeds of future material.
“I have had several things happen to me that are pretty funny,” she says. She got into a fight about social distancing at the farmer’s market — “not a place where you normally would fight” — and scolded the man selling fish for yelling Next! “There’s no screaming during pandemic time,” she laughs. “And why are we in a hurry? No one’s going anywhere.”
So, Franklin has material, but she’s concerned about some of her comedian friends who need audience feedback to thrive. “Some comedians, they have depression and mental illness — that’s rampant in the comedy scene, it’s rampant in the world,” she says. “So I do worry [about] the lack of feedback.”
Mike Birbiglia agrees. “Comedians rely so much on audiences to relay their deep, inner most thoughts and feelings about things,” he says. “And when you can’t do that on stage, it’s worrisome.”
Like a lot of comedians, Birbiglia has turned to the Internet to connect with audiences. With help from Roy Wood, Jr., he started “Tip Your Waitstaff,” a series of Instagram Live videos in which Birbiglia talks to fellow comedians about the jokes they’re working on. Gary Gulman,John Mulaney,Emmy Blotnick and Hannibal Buress are among the comedians who’ve participated.
The series is a fundraiser to help comedy clubs around the country including The DC Improv (where Birbiglia got his start), The Comedy Cellar in New York, The Stardome outside Birmingham, Ala., and The Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Ind.
Birbiglia says the Instagram audience takes some getting used to, especially keeping up with the streaming bursts of written comments that quickly roll up the screen. After he interviewed John Mulaney they talked on the phone about how fast the comments go by. Mulaney likened it to watching “1,000 audience members all talk at the same time.’ “
Birbiglia has had to cancel a number of appearances because of the pandemic. He figures he might as well get used to performing virtually since there’s no telling when clubs and theaters will reopen.
Veteran stand-up Colin Quinn was always planning to use this time to finish writing his forthcoming book Overstated: A Coast-To-Coast Roast of the 50 States. The pandemic “takes all your excuses away for not working on things like that,” jokes Quinn. He’s hearing that comedy clubs won’t reopen until 2021. As for performing on virtual platforms like Zoom, Quinn doesn’t think they’ll ever come close to replacing a club full of strangers because it lacks “the tension” of the live experience.
“It’s got to have that element of ‘Oh, this could really fall apart, and this person could be collectively, publicly humiliated,’ ” Quinn says. “That’s part of comedy. It’s the thing you try to avoid in comedy but it’s got to be in the air.”
As for new jokes he’s thinking about now, Quinn’s latest annoyance is “the new sincerity.” It’s always been there, but now, in the midst of the coronavirus, he says “everybody on social media feels compelled to weigh in and go, ‘Hey, guys, be safe. Put your mask on.’ “
Mark Twain once said that laughter is humanity’s “one really effective weapon,” and without it, all of the comedians I interviewed talked about feeling “powerless.” Rob Corddry and some of his comedian friends have been making funny videos specifically intended to cheer up health care workers. Corddry got the idea from a doctor friend who was diagnosed with COVID-19 but kept working from home, taking care of the mental well-being of her staff. He says she was worried that their spirits were sagging.
“She was worried about their cheer, you know, because that affects everything. That affects their momentum,” says Corddry. “So I just thought: Well, I know a lot of funny people that can make videos.” Eventually those videos turned into a fundraiser called Funny You Should Mask in which comedians such as Eric Andre,Sasheer Zamata and Nicole Byer interview health care workers.
Corddry says it is “very sad” to see comedy venues in dire straits. At the same time, he says, something this awful could also lead to some great material. “When comedians get this much of a glimpse at their own mortality, you can expect some pretty funny comedy coming down the pike,” says Corddry.
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night — nor coronavirus — stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
The mail is still coming. And one 11-year-old girl in Sioux Falls, S.D., wanted to show her appreciation.
How else, but by writing a letter.
“I’m Emerson,” she wrote to Doug, the mail carrier. “You may know me as the person that lives here that writes a lot of letters & decorated the envelopes too. Well, I wanted to thank you for taking my letters and delivering them. You are very important in my life. I make people happy with my letters, but you do too.”
Emerson has a bit of a letter-writing habit. “She maintains active correspondence with over a dozen of her favorite people,” as her father, Hugh Weber, describes it, and decorates her envelopes with elaborate designs and bright colors.
“I’m sure I keep [Doug’s] hands full with many letters I send,” Emerson tells All Things Considered‘sAilsa Chang. “So I really just wanted to take a chance to thank him for always delivering them.”
The next day, Emerson got a package sent by Doug and his supervisor, “just saying how touched they were by her outreach and how much it meant to them that she had seen their work and seen how essential it was,” Hugh tells NPR.
Then, Emerson’s letter was shared in an internal U.S. Postal Service newsletter, and things really started to take off. Messages from postal workers all over the country began pouring in.
“The letters that Em got from postmasters all over the country really were extremely personal, they were vulnerable and they reflected this sense of being seen, maybe for the first time in a long time,” Hugh says. “They talked about being working alone in rural post offices or that their families were far away.”
Emerson has been busy responding to all her new pen pals.
She says she was “really excited, because I love receiving mail just as much as I love sending it. But it also made me very happy that they realized people were thankful for them and that they took the time to write a letter back to me.”
Mail workers “are doing stuff right now that we wouldn’t want to do right now,” Emerson says. Even while millions are staying at home, “they’re still going to work seven days a week. And I just think we should be really thankful for them.”
We weren’t sure that a day could be more emotional than yesterday, but – my friends – you’ve topped it. We’re seeing all of your replies & retweets. We’re reading them aloud as a family. We’re absolutely in awe of the ripples of impact that have come from one letter. #WeSeeYou
Fashion expert Tim Gunn used to bemoan what he called the “comfort trap” — clothes that prioritized comfort over style. Now, after weeks of self-isolation in his New York City apartment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s reconsidering his stance.
“I’ve gone through an evolution in these last five, five-and-a-half weeks,” he says. “Why should we be self-isolating in clothes that constrain us and constrict us and are not as comfortable as something that’s a little looser and more forgiving?”
Gunn became famous for his role as a mentor on the fashion competition series Project Runway. His new fashion competition series, Making the Cut, is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
As a TV host, Gunn’stypical attire is a tailored suit and a complementary pocket square. In recent months, because of the pandemic, he’s spent more time than usual in a white T-shirt, pajama pants and a cotton robe. But no matter the circumstances, Gunn maintains some fashion rules.
“I won’t leave my apartment — I won’t even go to the trash chute at the end of the hall — wearing that,” he says. “It’s a kind of pact that I make with myself.”
On initially feeling ambivalent about the fact that Making the Cut would begin airing during the pandemic
My co-host, Heidi Klum, and I talked about this when we heard when the show was going to start airing and we were really concerned about it. And we thought, “This seems to be in very egregious bad taste to do this now.” And Amazon listened to us and understood and said, “This is really a feel-good show. It’s uplifting. It’s inspiring, and people will want this at this time. People feel shaken. They feel derailed, off-center. And the show is very grounding, and it’s a good time to release it.” And I thought, “They’re right. It really is.” And the response has been quite phenomenal.
On how he had debilitating anxiety when he first began teaching at Parsons School of Design at the New School
I was a wreck. … The very first day I pull into the school’s parking lot and I promptly throw up all over the asphalt and I’m shaking, and shaken, and I get to the studio where I’m teaching and just the mere anticipation of the students coming into the room has me trembling. So I brace myself against one of the walls. My back is against it, because if I step away from it, I’m just going to collapse to the floor. I needed that support. …
I rehearsed the meeting I needed to have with [my mentor and teacher] Rona [Slade]. And on Friday I had the meeting and the rehearsal was brief, because it didn’t require many words. And I just said, “I can’t go on like this. This is just completely debilitating. My health is suffering. I’m not sleeping. I’m an emotional wreck. I can’t go on like this.” And Rona, who is Welsh, said in this very clipped voice of hers that she trusted that this experience would either kill me or cure me, and she said, “and I’m counting on the latter. Good day.” And who knew, 29 years later, I was still teaching. I grew to just completely love it.
On his method of giving criticism and feedback
I pummel people with questions, because I need to know where they’re coming from. I need to know a context before I dive in with my own analysis.
I learned early on that you can’t soft-pedal and sugarcoat things, because it doesn’t help the student. I also learned early on that you can’t be too blunt an instrument in delivering critical analysis, because if you are, you’re discredited. The student just dismisses what you say as being mean-spirited and unkind and believes that you don’t understand their work. So I developed what I call a very Socratic approach. I pummel people with questions, because I need to know where they’re coming from. I need to know a context before I dive in with my own analysis. And for me, the ideal is — this is what I really strive for — the ideal is to get the individual with whom I’m speaking to see what I see.
And on Project Runway for 16 seasons and on Making the Cut for this one season, there are occasions when I disrupt production, in a manner of speaking because of the camera placement, and I asked the designer to come stand next to me so they can see their own work from my point of view. … I want that designer to see the silhouette, the proportions, perhaps even the construction. … So for them to stand by me and say, “Oh, I see!” That a-ha moment for me is the sweetest, most wonderful thing in the world. It’s like, “OK, I can leave you now because you get it. You see it. What you do about it [is] completely up to you. But at least you see what I see.”
On being moved to tears by the designers’ work
Beautiful things that pluck at my heartstrings make me tearful. I own it. It’s just part of who I am.
Tearing up with the Project Runaway designers, and now with the Making the Cut designers, it’s more about bearing witness to the triumph of the human spirit and how just reassuring that is about the quality of life and us as human beings, and it’s a great honor to bear witness to that. This happens to me at the Met all the time. I was looking at a Rembrandt painting of Flora, one of his models, and I was reading the caption and then looking at the painting again, and I had to step away because … I was just welling up with tears. It’s the triumph of the human spirit. It never ceases to make me emotional. Same thing happens with reading beautiful words. … Beautiful things that pluck at my heartstrings make me tearful. I own it. It’s just part of who I am.
On a memory he has of his father, an FBI agent who worked for J. Edgar Hoover
[My father] was very private and secretive. … He brought home the Warren Commission [Report, about the Kennedy assassination] before it went to Congress. And I don’t know what possessed him, I think he was just proud to have it, and he told my mother. Well, after dinner, I can hear the water running in the bathtub of my parents’ bedroom, and dad’s watching television or something. Mother’s gone and it turns out mother’s in the bathtub with the Warren Commission [Report]. So dad figures this out. He knocks on the door. It’s locked. He asks her to open the door. She refuses. He gets an ax and takes the door down to get the Warren Commission out of her hands.
On how the current pandemic has brought back memories of the AIDS crisis
I really didn’t come to terms with my sexuality until my early 20s, and I had only one partner to whom I was extremely loyal and wouldn’t betray, and we were very close. After a long relationship, he said to me, “I don’t have the patience for you.” And I knew he meant sexually, but I was devastated. I was in his bed watching M*A*S*H* with him and he said to me, “I want you to leave, and this is over.” I was so devastated. I drove to my apartment. I had to pull off the road because I was hyperventilating. And this was in 1982. … He told me … that he had been sleeping with dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of other people.
So the next day was a moment of reckoning for me, and I went from being distraught and feeling worthless and just emotionally devastated, and that evolved into incredible anger, because I thought he may have given me a death sentence. … And that experience has caused me to reflect upon the situation that we’re in now and about how people need to wear masks. They need to social distance. They need to be rigorous and responsible about this. This is not something to be taken casually or lightly. And when our elected officials are walking around maskless in hospitals, I’m thinking this is absolutely an abhorrent message to be sending to people that, “We don’t have to do this.” You could kill people or you could be killed yourself! But in this particular case, I’m more worried about being asymptomatic and killing other people. I’ve reflected a lot about AIDS and the devastation that it wrought, and my own experience with the crisis and as I said, thankfully, nothing happened. The man to whom I was so close for so many years, I don’t know what happened to him. We never spoke again.