Six months of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have given the two of us interesting things to reflect upon. What we have experienced has not been drastic, but still it has taught us some things – things we probably already knew, but have had reinforced. Of course, hundreds of thousands of people have experienced far, far worse than us. More than 700,000 people have already died around the world and there is more to come. Many of them suffered badly in their death and were not able to be farewelled by their loved ones. Tens of thousands have been forced to spend days in a coma on a ventilator, or in an ICU bed. And then there are the families of those who have died or have had to see their parents or grandparents suffer or die.
We have experienced nothing like that. Neither have either of us lost our incomes, although because we have become separated we now have the extra expense of maintaining a second place of residence until we can reunite. So given what is happening in the world, we can’t really complain. But we can reflect on what we are experiencing – and we should do so, as should all of us.
One of us (Max) is Australian and the other (Faiza) is Indonesian. Max has annual residency in Indonesia and Faiza has residency in Australia, but we have been living in Yogyakarta (Jogja) for a few years now. One (Max) is a freelance writer and the other (Faiza) is a theater producer, director and playwright. Last December, we visited Australia so that Max could have regular post-cancer check-ups. These check-ups needed to go on for much longer than usual because of potential complications he was facing. So when Faiza went back to Jogja, Max stayed in Melbourne with a plan to return in April or May. But then COVID-19 struck. There were travel restrictions. Quarantine regulations. And medical advice for people considered vulnerable, which applied to Max, to stay put until a vaccine was found. By now (August), with quarantine and lockdowns in Melbourne much more stricter, and with other work and financial complications accumulating as this unplanned separation has developed, it has become clear that the separation will be ongoing for a while – maybe another 10 months, so 18 months altogether. We never imagined being apart so long, and certainly didn’t plan for it.
An unplanned separation for 18 months between husband and wife is not all that unusual. Work or study can result in a planned separation. War and calamity has resulted in millions experiencing this. And, we think, now COVID-19 has resulted in quite a few unplanned separations. Having not lost our incomes, we have are lucky to have places to live, and, most importantly, in this separation we have an internet connection and Wi-Fi and WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook. It creates a strange situation. At breakfast time in Jogja, it is morning coffee time in Melbourne and we can sit and chat and see each other for half an hour or so, almost like we would in the morning when we were together at home in Jogja. We can video chat over one platform or another three or four or five times a day, and can say goodnight “face to face” in the evening.
We can’t imagine what separation would have been like in the era of written correspondence when the time gap would have been weeks. And even today there is no doubt there are thousands who have been separated without access to the internet because of new financial pressures or displacement, whether they are COVID-19 separations or of the other calamities that have created the millions of refugees now on planet Earth.
Even while we can have face-to-face chats almost any time we wish and every day, there is still something else. What is it exactly that is missing? Whenever you see on television people reuniting after a long period of separation, the first thing they do is embrace – they hug. Always. There is something special that an embrace communicates. It is togetherness and also mutual support and also happiness at that togetherness and support. When living together in that same place it can be like living in a permanent state of embrace, because an embrace is possible. Yes, one can embrace via Skype, with words, but not being able to actually physically embrace is the sad reminder of the separation.
Separated between countries – Australia and Indonesia – the hug, and what it conveys, is the missing element, cushioned thankfully by face-to-face chatting via the internet. The situations between the two countries are also different. In Australia, in all cities except Melbourne, COVID-19 has either been suppressed to zero cases or is at very low numbers. In Melbourne, there is currently a new surge of infections and there is a serious lockdown and night-time curfew with perhaps a million working people staying at home and not going to work or working at home. In Melbourne, meeting a friend is no longer possible, and won’t be for several weeks more. A visitor by friends to a home is not allowed. Gatherings are banned. Living by oneself, the internet again becomes the bridge to others.
In Indonesia, in Jogja, movement is still possible as are visits by people to one’s homes. Social separation is not the main stress; however, the steady linear increases in the real stress, not so much for oneself but for the more vulnerable in the community.
What can be learned from this kind of separation is the specialness of the embrace, but probably everybody knows this, and the COVID-19 separation is just a reminder. This, however, is a minor deprivation in the big picture. The real suffering is among those who suffer the illness, are hospitalized, ventilated and who may pass away and their loved ones whose separation is forever.
The challenge for governments and communities is to minimize as much as possible those who will suffer permanent separation. Skype and WhatsApp will be of no help in those cases. What will be of help are social distancing, masks, hand hygiene and when necessary serious government-supported and properly implemented lockdowns. For life, for the hugs.
Faiza Mardzoeki is a theater producer, playwright and director of Institut Ungu and founder of Wanita’Baca, a feminist bookstore & reading room, based in Yogyakarta.
Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.