On 1 July, the Swiss Federal Council decided to introduce a mandatory quarantine for any traveller coming from a so-called COVID-19 high-risk infection area – what might be otherwise called a diplomatic way to close the borders. A master’s student of Comparative Literature at the University of Geneva, I read the news while visiting my family and friends in northern Spain. As the number of infected drastically increased, Spain was added to the list on 8 August. It was then that I realised how much the diary of my near future would resemble the claustrophobic pieces written during lockdown.
Upon my return to attend the University’s rentrée, I announced myself to the authorities of the canton of Geneva, and shortly received an official letter, the first word of which being an omnipotent, capitalized ‘Quarantine’. Its receipt marked the beginning of what happened to be a timeless and confined period.
Having experienced a 55-day complete lockdown with my closest relatives in Spain, I thought I knew everything about self-isolation. However, this time was different: I was by myself in my last year college dorm, now deserted, silent and for the first (and last) time clean. My routine soon became a matter of suffering and enjoying loneliness. Isolation and a ubiquitous and disabling headache defined the rhythm of my lifestyle, as echoes of my first lockdown occupied my mind. The strong feeling of déjà vu was obsessively, and irretrievably, besieging me.
While confined, one experiences time and space in a different manner: my world measured the size of my room; the clock was an ornament, a remnant of my time within community. It is perhaps the lack of physical contact, the very idea of sharing a chronotope with other humans, what makes self-isolation so hard and unique. Unsurprisingly, the literature of self-portrait dominates the narrative of the present – writing mirrors one’s personal experiences. It is difficult to write about ‘we’, the flock, when the bird is in the cage, alone.
During quarantine, windows prove to be essential: they provide a bridge between the cage and the shimmering sky of the outside world. From my window at Résidence Hugo-de-Senger I could view the university site of Uni Mail, which upon my arrival was as deserted as any academic deadline in the sunny days of August. The absence of people strengthened the sense of deprivation confirming my suspicion of missing out on something, the nature of which remained unknown. We seemingly only wish on the star we can’t reach. That said, what are ten days of quarantine in a lifetime? An uncomfortable but fleeting memory.
240 hours later, Uni Mail had radically changed. Tangible, hygienic, undesirable: it did not deserve my eyes anymore. I was, finally, breathing freedom. I then lost myself to the enjoyment of physical conversation and Swiss cheese; life seemed pretty easy.
Nonetheless, an event that took place the following week reminded me of the urgent need to write about ‘we’, the flock, instead of ‘I’, the solitary bird in the cage. The Résidence Hugo-de-Senger, located on Rue Hugo-de-Senger at the heart of Plainpalais district, is right next to the Club social rive gauche. Every morning, at eight o’clock, with the rush imposed by an empty belly, a large international crowd queues up to receive a hot drink, a sandwich and a lunch ticket. This is of course nothing new, but since lockdown undocumented workers have seen their situation dramatically worsened, unveiling a poignant social issue in one of the wealthiest places of the world. And in a city where chicken breasts cost 34,00 CHF/kg (£28.00/kg), lining up for free food is primarily a political act. Peaceful and respectful, the Rue Hugo-de-Senger line grows longer every day.
It was one of those Friday mornings of September when the sun still heats up the street and Lake Geneva welcomes you, probably for the last time of the year, when I heard the terrifying noises. I looked through the window, the very same window-bridge of my quarantine, when I saw three men fighting for a place in the queue. My immediate reaction came too late: a man was lying, motionless, on the floor, badly injured.
As one of the workers of the Social Club told me shortly after, it is a matter of now or never to take steps to combat social exclusion and poverty, to place collective well-being above the individual. I ran upstairs back to my bedroom and started to write a draft of the next section of this essay, the first sentence of which opens up with ‘us’, dwellers of the world in the times of coronavirus. The memory of the injured man reinforces the need of a collective narrative to surmount this year; a narrative of ‘us’, the flock, instead of ‘I’, the bird in the cage, alone.
Irene Praga is an MA student of the Comparative Literature programme at the University of Geneva, where she is researching reimagining migrant narratives and biopolitics. She takes a particular interest in the political agency of literature that she believes can help redefine the so-called refugee crisis into political opportunity.