Thanks to the pandemic, I've spent a year in one place with my mind in two

It’s been two years since I last saw my father. He lives in Nigeria, just a six-hour flight away, but the last time either of us set foot in an airport was 2019. I don’t miss the cramped seating and recycled oxygen of planes. Nor do I miss the anxious buzz of airports – of standing in my socks on a cold floor, queuing to walk through a metal detector. But I do miss my father and he is at the other end of a plane journey in a world where, for now, the skies are almost empty.

Mostly, I see my father on a screen. His beard is slightly more grizzled but he’s obviously drinking enough water. His skin looks great on camera. I hope the rest of his body is well. Three years ago he was ill and admitted into hospital. We don’t talk about his health but we do talk about Nigeria, about politics and the EndSars protest for example, and whether Nigerians are taking the pandemic seriously enough.

I have spent the last year in England but I have kept an eye on pandemic updates in Nigeria. Like most migrants, my body has been in one place but my mind has been in two. From March 2020, I followed the rising Covid numbers in London and I followed them in Lagos, where my parents live. I read the news of Britons breaking lockdown rules and watched on social media as some Nigerians gathered at weddings and funerals, seemingly oblivious to the fact there was a global pandemic.

And while I am glad of the UK’s vaccine success story, I look askance as some European countries try to block vaccine access to other parts of the world, including Africa. Surely the last year has shown us that if one corner of the world is in flames, it is only a matter of time before the rest of it catches. To rephrase John Donne: “No country is an island, entire of itself, each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

A year on from the first lockdown, I’ve rediscovered prayer. I’ve always prayed, in a pious, self-conscious way: now I kneel down, now I clasp my hands, now I bow my head and then finally, when all is religiously in order, now I pray. But these days, I pray when I go out on my daily walk, in an easy, conversational manner.

On days where everything is grey, and lockdown stretches to the horizon, I whinge into the divine ear: “I’m tired of being in a pandemic. This is hard.” Other times, when the sun is shining, I remember, and say out loud: “I am grateful to be alive.” I was not spared the virus, but I was spared my life.

Like most people who live alone, I’m looking forward to lockdown being over, although it is still unclear how the gradual opening up will affect the publishing industry. My next novel, Sankofa, is due out in June in the UK and in October in the United States. What will publishing a novel in 2021 look like? Judging from all the authors who’ve published books in the last year, it will be Zoom, Zoom and more Zoom.

There are benefits to holding a book-reading on a video conference call. If nobody turns up (as has happened at a few of my in-person events), you can just log off, go back to The Crown and pretend that the embarrassment never happened. You can also wear pyjamas on your bottom half, or even your top half if you’re feeling adventurous.

I’ve found myself investing in products to make my face look more interesting on screen. Skincare is now of paramount importance. I drink at least two litres of water a day and cleanse regularly with rose water to enhance my Zoom glow.

Writers must always accept that once your book is published, you have no control over its fate. This is doubly true in a global pandemic. As publication day approaches, I remind myself that people have written during plagues, during famines, during world wars; through oppression, through starvation, through destitution. Writers always survive to tell our stories. And we hope, no matter what the world looks like when we write them, or when we publish them, that our stories will somehow find their way to those who need to read them as much as we needed to write them.

As for my father, I’m looking forward to seeing him soon. He might book a flight to England, or I might make my way down to Lagos. There are many things we’ve all discovered in the last year that we can do on Zoom: a live concert, an awards show, a Bible study, a birthday party, even a wedding; but the technology still hasn’t evolved to let users give hugs.

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