Once upon a pandemic: a meditation on academic life in corona times


It is early March in Nairobi.

I have been busy emailing, calling and booking flights, trains and accommodation. I am a postdoctoral researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, and together with my colleagues at the Faculty of Humanities, we had organised a seminar in Nairobi and later a writing retreat in Mombasa on “Fragments and Fragmentation”.

We had participants from Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and a colleague from Rwanda. Four countries meeting in Nairobi and later Mombasa.

Fragments – Fragmentation – Fragmentary – Fragmented – Fragmentable – Fragmental.

I was due to fly with my colleagues back to Johannesburg. Breaking of the fragment; suturing the fragmented.

Part 1
[Enter the Government]

(The Kenyan Minister of Health suspends all international flights and cancels all international conferences as a result of the threat of Corona).

It’s mid-March, the seminar is cancelled. I am busy emailing and calling, cancelling flights, trains and accommodation.

My colleagues cannot fly to Kenya – I cannot fly back with them.

I am fragmented, they are fragmented, and we are fragmented.

We lend ourselves to fragmentation, and we are forced into fragmentation.

Our bodies are fragmentable, our daily lives fragmental.

Part 2

The Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, announces a dusk to dawn curfew. We are forced into our homes – the irony is palpable. Our homes are supposed to be sanctuaries from which we retreat to as a shield from the outside. We need not be forced into them. Stay indoors, he says. Wear a mask, he orders. Self-isolate, he advises.

Self-isolation in times of Corona is a fragmentary lexicon. In its very structure, is a demand to fragment yourself from all others: family, friends, and colleagues.

We agree to this fragmentation because our survival depends on it. Our planned seminar in Nairobi seems like a distant idea. My flight to Johannesburg sounds ridiculous. Keyword: survival.

Survival implies an escape from disposability and denotes flight from fungibility. Self-isolation as survival means departure from ourselves.

Fragmentation. Fragmentability.


As a scholar and academic, and like most professionals in other sectors, I opt for virtual set ups and meetings.

I have presented and attended a few virtual seminars. I have “zoomed” with colleagues and friends from all over the world. I have participated in several virtual brainstorming sessions and attended virtual parties.

Yet, every time I finish a Zoom “meeting” or “hang-out”, I always feel a sense of uneasiness. Not only do I feel removed from the conversation, I feel a sense of loneliness.

I feel a lot of emotions: fragmented – as in I am split in the here and there; fragmentary – in the sense that these meetings are resemblances of past joys of physical conviviality that may never be recovered; fragmentable – that my existence does not really matter: the last one is the scariest of all.

In essence, after every meeting, I develop a sense of longing, not for what I never had – but for what I had and have obviously lost.

Last week, I was texting with a friend, who is a journal editor, and she asked how I am coping. I wrote that I am happy because it is raining. She replied: “It feels so tricky to be happy, right? I feel useful”. In the midst of an unpredictable pandemic – where the news cycle is replete with untold agony, anguish and grief – happiness seems a risky emotion.

Whatever gave her satisfaction before and after the pandemic has not changed significantly, rather, she explained, being (or feeling) useful tempers the exuberance of happiness with registers of collective obligation.

That in these circumstances we have to actively check our emotions, feels so unreal. Experts have been urging us to follow our “normal routine”. But in that routine lays the poisoned chalice: it serves, actively, as a reminder of an abnormal life – not in the present but in the past.

We have to feel OK, but not too OK. Even the most useless of email greetings like “I trust this finds you well”, felt benign before, but now sounds crass.


I tweeted in late April:

I really can’t believe April is gone – I don’t know what I did. April was a blur for me – it snuck out of my life the way a one night stand leaves without saying goodbye, just a note. A reminder that they are gone.


It is early May and I am still busy emailing and calling. Most institutions – including mine – have transitioned to online teaching. I have a pending deadline, scheduled sessions with students, administrative meetings, and a few online parties to patronise. The technology that was once fiercely fought against in the academy, has suddenly been embraced within weeks.

“In the midst of the coronavirus crisis”, wrote Rinaldo Walcott, “academics have been adamant about getting work done”. He argues that this maddening rush to “getting work done”, stems out of fear: the fear that what we do might appear to matter less in the aftermath of the pandemic.

This fear might be real or not, but its effects are no doubt real: this fear un-does us; it unhinges even the best of us.

How is it possible that a crisis that is not even six months old threatens our whole academic existence? That our academic confidence can be so shattered as to make us fragmented, fragmentary, fragmentable, fragmental?


In a most insightful piece in the Financial Times, Arundhati Roy writes that this virus “has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and struck hardest – thus far – in the richest, most powerful nations of the world”.

She argues that, while these events might force us to introspect and find newer ways of being, the fact is that this crisis has questioned our current ways of being. This crisis has brought us apart; has made us realise we are apart – not from others, but from ourselves and from our sense (or perception) of ourselves.

In the realisation that there is no “normal” to return to, we have coined a new term: “the new normal”. In this quest, is a desire to move past this unnecessary distraction of a pandemic and get on with our lives. We continue structuring our lives with such phrases as “once this pandemic is over”, “let’s meet after curfew” or “let’s grab a drink after the lockdown”.

This pandemic has shown me that such optimistic tones – while necessary for survival – obscure the hard and painful realities of our fractured nature and sense of our own selves.

Perhaps, Keguro Macharia offers a more nuanced iteration of what I mean here in his article in the magazine Popula on “pole”. He writes:

Pole, a simple, two-syllable word that says “my heart is with you.” Pole, a simple, two-syllable word that says, “I am holding you, and you are held.” Pole, a simple, two-syllable word that can be said, a word uttered as a sigh that conveys how difficult it is to form words in the face of the unbearable.

Pole is a Swahili word that denotes care. When uttered, it ties ourselves to others, even when we are untied ourselves. But as we attempt to mend what is broken in others, we reveal our own cracks. And in finding others through care, we find newer ways to find ourselves.

We find ourselves through acknowledging our own fragmentation. We find newer ways to breathe when we “exhale” and “sigh” at the point of our failure. We find ourselves when, untangled, we reach out to others through care. We are done and undone when we say “pole!”.

We are undone – we have been made undone – we are undoing ourselves.

We are fragmented – we have been fragmented – we are fragmenting ourselves.


I pray –

Oh Lord,
Teach me how to plague correctly
Show me how to COVID the right way
Help me pandemic appropriately
Direct me to CORONA perfectly

It has come to a point where I must understand that this crisis (and the various fragmented registers that it evokes) is not a mark of loss, but a desire to remember. I read these moments as pasts that have remained in the present moment. That, in their unravellings, shout not a desperate epoch in history, but a memorial centre.

We have been here before. Our lives – and those of our people – have been influenced by previous events. All those previous events seem to have been precursors for this event. So much of our past is redacted. Actively or otherwise, we erase or omit parts of it. Yet, the past usually brings us to the present and the present can be a rehearsal for the future.

We need to remember our collective pasts (grief, joy, shame, disgust, helplessness, despair) in the present moment despite the absences, cracks, lacks or omissions. Because this pandemic has collapsed our temporal frame, we need to remake our optics to be able to live our history.

I am comforted by the soothing words of Arundhati Roy: “we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it”.

Dr Eddie Ombagi is a recovering academic and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times’ editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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