A Septology


It was one day till the end of October. At 7 a.m., I was walking towards the gate of the residential complex on my way to the pool — I observe a somewhat idiosyncratic schedule that begins with a morning workout.

People were gathering — not a sensible activity for a Sunday morning. On the other side of the crowd, the sunlight was being rudely blocked by shades of scarlet, one piece of barrier at a time.

When I first made out the situation, I wasn’t that panicked. We’d known the drill. For three times since this year had the neighborhood been flagged as middle-risked and put under a lockdown. The only difference this time was that someone inside had tested positive, which never happened since I moved in over one year ago.

But that should be fine; at this stage, each of us had graduated as a trained lockdowner. Let’s do a fourth time and move on, as long as the ones in charge didn’t escalate. For me, the more imminent issue at hand was how to complete the morning workout in an alternative way. So I went home, changed clothes, and started running inside the complex.

That was when I noticed how this time was different. Usually, my route is the two-and-a-half-hundred-meter circle around the parking lot. But with more and more barriers being carted in and spread as tumors, the only meaningful clearing left was a seventy-meter-long alley.

So be it. Just as I awkwardly performed the circusy jogging show, the perimeter of the complex was also being sealed off at a spectacular speed. Each time I turned around, another tile from the horizon vanished into a dreadful red. When I returned to my room after one hour with twelve kilometers behind, the operation was done; the complex had become a red apocalypse, garrisoned by white armored volunteer-captors.

* * * * *

Escalate they did. Technically, only the two buildings where people tested positive were high-risked, while other buildings in the same complex would remain middle-risked, according to the current national covid guidelines. But now, all buildings were effectively escalated to high-risked, in that they were separately blocked and guarded. The official notice, which didn’t come until midnight, said sternly that “no one is permitted outside the building and covid tests will be taken at the door,” an invention that wasn’t seen before and deviated from the guidelines.

Arguably, I’m the kind of person who is well-suited for a lockdown. An introvert, I appreciate solitude more than social interactions and have bottomless curiosity about various topics to fill my timetable. In addition, I have a quirky diet pattern and have long been substituting a third of my meals with nutritional powder, so the only dietary change I need is to double the dose, to two-thirds.

But I do care about propriety. It’s one thing that one elects to stay inside, which is a display of personality. It’s another to be falsely confined, which is a denial of personhood. Also, if you truthfully want to declare an on-premise lockdown, follow the official guidelines and report a high-risk status. You are not to graft the emergent rules onto non-emergency conditions as you see convenient, and cite the public health as a pretense for your own cowardice and solipsism. (I filed on day one a complaint with the municipal government and asked for an explanation; there wasn’t a response until day seven — two times longer than the statutory limitation. The content was, unapologetically, the very notice I complained about ad verbatum.)

* * * * *

Living in a lockdown area within a non-lockdown city is a modern way to be forgotten by the world. The balcony of my third-floor apartment is at the same height as an overpass less than a hundred meters away. Day in and day out, I saw passengers hasting to and fro, their thoughts masked altogether with facial expressions. Did they notice our circumcised complex underneath, and felt sympathetic, spared, or a mixture thereof? Or did they pass without giving a second thought, after having witnessed so much and so often, as I did weeks before when the neighborhood across the street was locked down, and I was the free person passing by?

But other than the hollowing feeling that the days were being sucked from my life, there was, if anything, the void of feeling. It’s the policy that the lockdown of middle-risked areas shall last for a sliding seven-day window, and be lifted if all residents tested negative on the last day. Indeed, under our prevention regime, you can’t really find a place more covid-safe than lockdown areas. So after the initial two days’ all-negative results, everyone inside knew there would be no surprise and the only thing left is waiting.

On the second evening, rations were distributed: ten eggs, an unusually large head of cabbage, half a dozen potatoes, a can of spam, a fistful of minced pork, and some noodles. People in the line were complaining that the package was noticeably stingy than that being provided in neighboring areas. Meh. At this stage, complimentary rationing has mostly become a gesture of caring. In this sense, ours were more truthful because the giver sincerely don’t care.

The third night saw the only drama in the week. As mentioned, I’m generally an indoor person; the only desire to go out comes from my stubbornly scheduled workouts. Thus, it was still a challenge to be confined in the room all day long. But in the first two days, I managed to negotiate for myself the “privilege” to use the thirty-meter-long passage right outside of the building’s ground exit. With it, I could ran for one hour in the morning and walk for another hour in the evening, making the imprisoned days more bearable.

When I went out to walk that night, it was raining lightly and a bit cold outside. And my presence, I don’t know, was apparently more showing than what the patrolling guard would tacitly consent to. I was asked to go back. I refused, citing the oral permission I’d got from his buddy.

The guard was unsurprisingly surprised by my noncooperation. It’s my understanding that, since the covid time, the baser level one is at, the more likely they are secretly gratified by the sudden amplification of their “power,” and the more easily they become annoyed when the legitimacy thereof was called into question.

“Fine, you can allege it’s your right to walk outside, and I’ll just report the incident,” the threat went. More guards nearby were joining him to weigh in, before security was called to the scene, who appeared to be employed solely for his ability to shout. I just couldn’t help chuckling when he tried to act like real law enforcement and pointed at his chest to show me his ID where there was nothing.

Finally, it was escalated to the “leader,” who turned out to be… a director of the complex’s HOA. Helpfully, he appeared to be much more polite compared to the minions, trying at least to persuade by playing the neither-do-we-want-so card. In a disarming gesture, he even pulled down the mask for a moment to refresh my memory of his face. (What about the covid protocol?) As reciprocity, I made my case again: being subordinates didn’t grant them the right to ignore their own rationale and conscience, or do harm on behalf of the power structure. That said, I had reached my step goal by then since I didn’t stop walking during the arguments. So I gave him an out, didn’t persist, and went home.

Despite the episode, it wasn’t my intention to be an all-in martyr, and since day four the weather had been rough with a typhoon passing by. So I did become obedient and stayed indoors for the remaining part of the lockdown. But I still needed to work out, for which I came up with a cheap recipe: a thirty-minute strength workout, a twenty-minute core workout, and an hour-long match in place with the resistance band, with ten minutes’ rest in between. The first two were instructed by streaming programs, and the third made bearable by podcasts. I also stepped around the room throughout the day, making the total step count twenty-five thousand. The combo was of course whimsical, and by no means more effective than proper, outdoor running or pool swimming, but it did save my sanity in the sullen, silent days.

There was one thing that wasn’t muffled by the lockdown. Throughout the week, I continued to receive torrents of municipal covid PSAs that I had visited risk areas, will be issued (or granted in our covid parlance) a yellow (cautionary) health code, and was advised to work from home. The irony needs no explanation. Indeed, it’d been widely recognized that the city’s automated exposure alerting had become a complete lunacy; the big data turned out to be a dumb beta. But as if to demonstrate how serious they were, my code did turn yellow temporarily during the fourth night, only to be revived green by a freshly baked test result the next morning.

* * * * *

On the seventh, i.e., Saturday night, about three hours’ wait till the finishing line, I had a call with my parents. I call them once per week, usually on Saturday nights, so it’s funny that my unsolicited retreat was sandwiched between two calls. During the week, I hadn’t contacted them or otherwise revealed there was a lockdown, which wasn’t based on or to result in any physical danger worth worrying about.

Yet the conversation turned into a tirade immediately after I brought up my opinion that the lockdown was illy decided and wrongfully escalated, and my stand-up with the guards. To which the response was, breath, that I should’ve just bore it since that was what “everyone else” did; that my take of the black letter laws was too “pedantic” as the decision makers are entitled to order what they see fit; and that I should be empathy with frontline volunteers and never “hit the wall with eggs.”

I don’t know. I wasn’t calling for sympathy or consoling and was simply stating some mechanical truth; how come I found myself laying open to a censure? But it’s not within my familial duties to evangelize with Citizenship 101, so I just let the words from the other end exhaust themselves.

One hour to go. There were sounds. Sounds of workers cutting straps with scissors. Sounds of kids rushing outside and knocking on the barriers. Sounds of people making appointments for home services tomorrow. I put on headphones for isolation. The way to farewell to something you don’t deserve is to behave as though it didn’t happen to you. If you don’t hooray at midnight when everything is normal, you don’t hooray at midnight when you’re released from illegal imprisonment.

* * * * *

The next morning, I went to the main gate with my swimming gear, ten minutes earlier than usual. I wasn’t sure whether the embargo was lifted, so I had to spare some time to respond if it wasn’t.

It was. Wherefore, seven days after the previous attempt, I got to be submerged in the pool, where the disinfectants and oxidizers timely discharged from me staleness and sediment.

Returning to the land, I found the neighborhood already resumed, with the same expediency when it was suspended. The normalcy in air is normally bland. The only uncertainty is how long it will last.