I am one of the 20% of the human race that is currently in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The appearance of the easily transmitted and often deadly virus caused Sri Lanka, my present country of residence, to announce a curfew last Friday evening. This was a sensible decision in my opinion, as there are now about a hundred confirmed Covid-19 cases (though as yet no deaths from it) in Sri Lanka and, if its spread is to be slowed, the authorities needed to take drastic action quickly. Compare that with the shambles of a response to the crisis going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, mis-orchestrated by bumbler-in-chief Boris Johnson.
Consequently, the citizens of Colombo, where I live, were confined to their homes for the next four days. The curfew was lifted at 6.00 AM this morning – Tuesday, March 24th – but re-imposed in the early afternoon. This was to allow folk a chance to nip out to the shops and top up on supplies for their kitchens.
Okay, the prospect of everyone in Colombo ‘nipping out to the shops’ during the same half-dozen hours was a potentially worrying one, because the supermarkets suddenly being crammed with people trying to buy groceries could lead to a bunch of new Covid-19 infections. To lessen this danger, it was announced beforehand that the numbers of people on supermarket premises at any one time would be restricted and everyone else would have to queue outside and wait their turn.
So I got up reasonably early and headed out at about 7.00 AM – first to the nearest ATM and then to the nearest supermarket, which was Food City on Marine Drive. There was already much traffic on the road, and the line of vehicles waiting for petrol at the local filling station had already backed up along the next block. But very few people seemed to be out on foot. I nearly had the seaward pavement of Marine Drive to myself.
Then I arrived at Food City, on the corner of another block, and discovered good news and bad news. The good news was that Food City was already open – normally it doesn’t start business until about 8.30. The bad news was that already a queue had formed outside, which was being slowly threaded into the premises by a group of shop-workers and police officers. I approached from the south and the queue was arranged to the north of Food City’s entrance so, at first, I didn’t see how long it was. I walked alongside that queue for the whole of the next block, counting the people as I went.
At the next corner, where Marine Drive formed a junction with Retreat Road, the queue turned 90 degrees and continued up the latter road. I kept walking and counting people. I finally reached the end of the queue two-thirds of the way along Retreat Road, having counted 173. (Everyone was trying to ‘socially distance’ themselves from one another by keeping a metre of space between them, so it was a pretty long queue for 173 people.)
Figuring that I wasn’t going to find anywhere better than this – from what I’ve seen of it, the Marine Drive branch is one of Food City’s less known and less frequented outlets – I took my place as 174th person in the queue and started waiting. My decision was confirmed when, sometime later, a flustered-looking English lady of about 60 years old walked past talking into a phone. “I’ve just looked at the Food City on Marine Drive,” she said, “and the queue there’s as bad as everywhere else!”
The queue inched along. At about 8.15, I’d advanced to the Marine Drive / Retreat Road corner and the sign with the red, round Food City logo was finally, if only just, in view. Then, however, there was no further movement for about half-an-hour, which may have been because the Food City staff needed time to restock their shelves and nobody else was allowed in.
But movement finally resumed. By about 9.15 I was standing underneath that sign…
…and maybe 20 minutes after that, it was finally my turn to enter.
Inside, the produce section had been entirely stripped, apart from a couple of trays of red onions and a few items of fruit. But most of the things on my shopping list were available: water, eggs, milk powder, cream, pasta, noodles, margarine, chocolate.
Despite the frustrations of the wait, everybody outside Food City showed patience and understanding. I suppose because of the 30-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami, and the Easter Sunday bombings last year, Sri Lankans are used to having to abide by, and understand the importance of, emergency security measures. A big thank you is due, though, to the shop-staff and the assigned police officers, who kept the operation running smoothly.
To keep myself from going mad with boredom, I’d brought a book along and so I spent those hours in the queue reading. In fact, a long, grindingly slow queue was probably the best context in which to read this book, for it was Anne Rice’s 1976 gothic opus Interview with the Vampire. Yes, when you’re queuing for food in the middle of a pandemic crisis, even Ms Rice’s florid and overwrought prose seems the lesser of two evils.