How the Norwegian city I lived in changed overnight over coronavirus

Monday April 6 2020

 

By Emilly Comfort Maractho

When I got to Norway early February, it was cold, dull and dark. In fact, dreadful. As the irony of life has it, the brightest and most beautiful days were when it was too cold, it snowed and the sun was shining shortly after. I wondered how Norwegians live through winter and remain sane.

I could not stop thinking about the wonderful warm weather I had left behind.
I consoled myself that I had too much to do. I would spend my postdoctoral research time between my apartment, the office and library. It seemed perfect for getting work done.

After a month, I wrote for the Standard Newspaper at Uganda Christian University a travel story on how Kristiansand was a beautiful city in Norway, the fifth largest city and the municipality Agder, being the sixth largest.

I talked about the NLA University College, which runs the MA in Global Journalism where I was and Agder University. There was my beautiful apartment that overlooked the lake on one side and a forest on the other, noting that it was tempting not to leave its warmth on dreadful days-when it rained all day or snowed.

In spite of that weather, Norwegians moved about normally. Some came to work riding their bicycles whether it rained or snowed. The weather was never an excuse for cancelling anything, not even a movie date. I felt guilty of the many days I cancelled a lecture because of the rain. But in my defence, when it rains in the village I call home in Mukono, even a 4-wheel drive car complains bitterly of the road. When the bus arrives exactly the minute the App said it would, I appreciate how long we have to go to sort out our public transport system in Uganda.

Then the coronavirus stopped being a Chinese problem. News of it moved from whispers to waves sweeping us off our feet wherever we were. It seemed like a joke, some dark ugly joke. I threw myself in work, in the same fashion of ‘hear no evil, see no evil’. Yet, there was no way to hide. You did not have to look for the news. It found you on WhatsApp in various forms, from outright lies to the scariest pseudo facts emerging from shady sources.

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When the Norwegian authorities announced travel restrictions starting March 16, I knew my hour of decision had come. Did I want to stay indefinitely in Norway during this season of uncertainty? Would I have the presence of mind to work? I stood looking out the window, wondering and right there, the snow started falling. I dressed and went out for a walk.

By the time I returned with layers of snow falling off my jacket, I knew the snow was saying good bye. I would come home. East or west, home is best during a crisis. After getting stuck in the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya and dealing with the 2015 xenophobic attacks in Durban, South Africa, I could not cause my family such terrible headache again. Three emails later, I had a ticket to come home in about 48 hours.

I woke up on my last day determined to say goodbye to Kristiansand. I walked to the bus stop. The bus arrived on time, with no passenger. The entrance by the driver had been blocked. I sat far away from him. It felt like a bus special hire.
I walked through Markens Street in downtown Kristiansand, usually very busy as people walk holding hands, talking, laughing, shopping, and children playing. I passed by the Kristiansand Cathedral, now empty, staring the distance. And, I walked by the sea, watching a ferry dock, remembering my wonderful trip to Denmark just three weeks earlier.

Save for the buildings and streets, I could have been in another city. Most shops were open but lifeless. Practical steps had been taken to ensure limited contact. No exchange of cash was allowed. The eating places were largely empty. People were cautious, and I was not just cautious, I was suspicious. I felt ashamed of my suspicious mind, and tried to just be careful.

At the university, overnight everyone had retreated to their homes. Classes were promptly moved online. The infrastructure was there and it seemed practical. Meetings went on virtually. Work, studies and shopping it seemed to me would continue to a descent degree without deep disruption. While the harshest weather had never deterred Norwegians, I saw change in days.

That was when I feared what would happen to many African countries if we suffered the scale of infections our western friends have endured. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if it was not safe to stay and get stuck in Norway.

As I went through the health check in Entebbe on arrival, asking the young man taking my temperature about my self-isolation, I knew my fears were from a good place. I have just finished 14 days of self-isolation and know my fears were perceptive.

Ms Maractho is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media
studies at UCU. emillycm@gmail.com

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