More COVID Reflections: The Sweet Sadness of Life Online

I wrote recently about my new obsession with housework (except for the cooking, regrettably, since I am culinarily challenged) during the Time of COVID. Another aspect of life at home is online life. Everything that we did before has expanded, and then some.

The WhatsApp platform, which had already become a bit of a fixture in our lives, has taken on added dimensions. We now have a neighborhood group, which keeps going on and off, almost all day. We discuss the news, share photos, jokes and memes. Of course, COVID-19 has been a hot topic for weeks now. So has gardening (another new COVID obsession). We have got to know each other rather well, which is quite an achievement in our uptown neighborhood. We are even planning a small get-together “when it’s all over,” so we can chat face to face – in “real life.”

We also have a new family group. The majority of our family lives overseas. It’s not such an easy group, as we are on three different time zones. You just start a chat with a sibling and they stop and say, “Oh well, I’m off to bed now.” End of convo. But, we check in with each other. Our nephew specializes in very funny videos (Trump and COVID-19 are the main themes) and our Australian family chats about people I’ve mostly never heard of. In a way, it’s wonderful. In another sense, it makes me miss them more than usual. Many thousands of miles stretch between us. I feel in touch and out of touch, at the same time.

WhatsApp seems to have taken over our lives. For some reason though, I hate WhatsApp calls (unless they are video calls with our son).

Then there are the WhatsApp video calls with our son, his partner, and their steadily evolving haircuts. I was enjoying son’s curls and exotic Latin-style mustache, until he reappeared abruptly this week with his usual sleek, short cut. Ah well, that phase is over.

Back in Jamaica, there are, of course, the Zoom meetings. You know, those meetings where people don’t always arrive on time, but pop up on the screen just as you are getting into the meat of the matter. There is a “Zoom etiquette” that I am not very good at. Of course, it depends on what kind of meeting it is, but I know some people dress up smart and put their makeup on for it. Keeping up appearances. Good for them! As for me, I am generally in my rather disheveled at-home state, and so I keep the video firmly off – unless it’s people who really, really don’t mind seeing me in my old T shirt, with hair sticking up in various directions and zero makeup.

Besides which, if you keep your video on there is the very real danger of getting “caught with your pants down,” so to speak. That is, your top half only should be showing – not what you are wearing (or not wearing) on your nether regions. Be careful getting up out of that chair!

Zoomland is a strange world of focus and distraction.

There are a couple of things about Zoom meetings that I do not enjoy. One is the periodic interruptions in the flow of things (is it the flow of one’s thoughts?) which makes these meetings so hard to focus on. “Can you hear me?” someone says (nine times out of ten we can hear perfectly well). “Unmute your mic!” says another, with barely concealed impatience, as a participant merrily chats away and we all try to lip read. Generally, though, I think we are getting better at it, although for me, concentration is a real issue. I confess I have sometimes wandered off to the kitchen to make a cup of tea in mid-meeting. It’s a brain thing. But then, lots of COVID things are brain things, aren’t they?

Something else that is very unenjoyable is the dreaded hacking incident. This happened last week during a very absorbing information session on the Jamaican Hutia or Coney, an endemic mammal that I know very little about. I was just digging into it when pornographic photos flashed onto the screen, with garbled, alien voices. We were shocked out of the PowerPoint in seconds, and I hastily exited the meeting. A similar intrusion at another Zoom meeting was even more shocking, with racist abuse scrolling quickly through the chat window. We were all quite shaken.

Then there are the press briefings, streamed live on social media, either at the Ministry of Health and Wellness or the Office of the Prime Minister. I have reported on some of these here. Once we got used to the format, we have settled in. The media relations people do a good job getting us all organized with our questions, while Minister Christopher Tufton sneaks a quick scroll through the tweets on his phone. The Prime Minister’s briefings tend to flow less smoothly, as the various speakers keep hopping up and down to the podium. It’s like a relay race sometimes, and quite distracting.

There have been some great delights online, though, that I must tell you about: Two very special communities that I am proud to be a part of, and which in a remarkable way I have drawn closer to, through our online gatherings.


Firstly, Global Voices’ Community Exchange meet-ups on Zoom were an opportunity to meet up with our multicultural, truly global conglomerate of writers, translators, activists and bloggers in small groups, chatting from our kitchen tables and balconies (many of us were “on lockdown”). During these one-hour sessions (sometimes longer) we explored our passions, shared interests and thoughts. I deeply regretted missing a few (I forgot to get up on time as most were early in the morning for me!) but was delighted to host one of these meetings myself – on backyard birding. Friends joined from around the world. “Where are you?” we said to each other. It was surprisingly cozy and intimate. We had sessions on Italian basics, spoken word and open mic sessions with a Kenyan poet, a lesson on how to make a great lasagna, Hatha Yoga, and gender issues, among several other topics. One morning I woke up early and tuned into some “house” music live from Skopje, North Macedonia. Thanks, DJ Dragan, you livened up my morning. P.S. You can find all my Global Voices articles here. I have been writing for them since February, 2016. Here are some of my wonderful colleagues who write for Global Voices.

Peewee birding at our porch (Redemption Sharpes, Kinstown)
Birdwatching from the porch in Kingstown, St. Vincent, on Global Big Day. (Photo: BirdsCaribbean)

The other community, which I have also been a part of for years, but which also took on a different dimension via a WhatsApp group, is BirdsCaribbean. Global Big Day is a sort of mega birding festival where people with binoculars and oversized cameras and scopes venture out to try and record as many sightings of different species as is humanly possible in a day. Like Global Voices, Global Big Day has always been online to the extent that the sightings are posted on eBird, managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (there’s an eBird Caribbean), where lists abound. This Global Big Day 2020 (on May 9) was remarkable because it was “virtual.” What is more, it was a record-breaking day, with over 50,000 birders around the world sending in their lists. Well over two million sightings were recorded.

Bat falcon, Venezuela. A photo taken from his window by Josmar Vasquez on Global Big Day.

In the Caribbean it was just sheer fun (and also a much better result than 2019, despite the Bahamians and the Panamanians, among others, on stay-at-home orders for the day). I wrote about our online experience here on BirdsCaribbean’s website. It was an adventure, with news, photos, comments…and birds, plenty of them! All on WhatsApp.

COVID life online evokes contrasting moods for me. At times it can be emotional.

There are the YouTube documentaries – virtual excursions with my husband (on television, lounging with a cup of tea or a glass of wine in hand), when we make our way by train through the Vietnamese countryside or on foot in the crowded streets of Mumbai. This week was memorable: we climbed the second highest mountain in the world, K2, sans oxygen, at times gasping for breath. At the top, all the other mountains floated among clouds – none of them as high as us. The ultimate escape, up there where the air is paper thin.

Then there are the intense forays into Twitterland – where angels fear to tread. It’s a far more perilous landscape these days than previously, in this strange time of heightened emotions: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Susan Bogle, Noel Chambers, all against the blurry background of a virus that we don’t really understand, and perhaps never will. There is a lot of antagonism and anger and sadness and protest. Chaos reigns. Because we don’t know – what next. What next? Everyone is playing it by ear.

#BlackLivesMatter protest outside the U.S. Embassy last weekend. Can we please recall that this year marks the tenth anniversary of the Tivoli Gardens incursion (and massacre)? Photo: Twitter

Perhaps this angry mood can be summed up in this new piece of music, which expresses a lot of the pain, nervous energy and sheer struggle that is 2020. Where are we going?Who knows? Where will it all end? One young person tweeted this week, “Do you think 2020 is the end?” Meanwhile, crime surges on. Two policemen died today.

There is the other extreme on YouTube – the live stream and webcam from Café del Mar, a purveyor of chill out music. There is a seashore, a sunrise, a sunset. As the moon comes up over the Mediterranean Sea, I start to dream at my desktop, with the full screen on. In the morning, a fishing boat goes out, and seagulls circle; a lighthouse flashes at dusk; the seaside hotel lights shimmer on the sea at night. It is ephemeral, but at the same time something to hold onto.

Sunset in Ibiza, Spain…on my desktop.

Finally, I must register my deep appreciation to the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, who pulled out some stops last week for a fascinating series of webinars on various topics throughout Environment Week, ending with a particularly informative session for World Oceans Day. They were well put together and I will be writing about them over the next few days. Stay tuned!

So, tomorrow I go back to my yoga class. Yes, a socially distanced one. But a real class. In person. In real life. I am looking forward to it with considerable excitement.







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