By Alex Andreou
Scarcity is something I thought I understood as an economic concept, but the lived experience of it, when I became homeless and destitute a few years back, was formative. The shortages and economic hardship which come with this pandemic, sweeping across the globe, awaken in me the same insecurity.
Only this time feels different, because someone else's life depends on me.
I have been on my home-island of Mykonos, Greece, since January, for my regular shift looking after Mum. She is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's. I share duties with my two sisters. We take turns being her primary carer.
When covid-19 arrived on our continent, it was clear to me, quite early on, that I would not be returning to the UK for a while. As it stands, all flights off the island have been cancelled until May. I dare not risk trying to make my way to London via somewhere, lest I get stuck in that somewhere. Then I would be no good to anyone.
So here I am for the foreseeable, caring for someone who depends on me entirely, through a pandemic. Trying to shield her from the virus by isolating myself. Worrying about my other half and friends in London. What a time to be apart from loved ones. But that is the condition of the migrant: fractured between two homes, always missing someone, every 'hello' being a simultaneous 'goodbye'. Now it's amplified to the maximum.
I tried my best to avoid moralising about panic buying in the early stages of this crisis. The line between it and simply being prepared is imperceptible to me. I am entirely responsible for another person – yet one more concept I hadn't fully understood as a lived experience, until I became a carer for my mother, as I don't have children. It's easy to skate the line of risk on your own – much harder when someone else's life is in your hands. How do you define 'hoarding' when you have small children at home?
Were those stocking up on supplies all selfish oafs or were they people with dependants, following the most basic and urgent biological drive to keep them safe? In any case, the clue is in the name. Panic is not a rational reaction. There is no advice more useless than 'stop panicking'.
Panic implies by definition an overriding of reason. And it is fostered by a lack of clear information and guidance. A legitimate fear caused me to increase my shopping, especially things with a long shelf life, about two months ago. Nothing outrageous, I would just buy roughly ten to 20% extra of the things I use regularly. I also reduced waste. Imperceptibly, at some point, I started to count how many portions of things I had left. I find myself well stocked now, without having caused anyone else severe difficulties.
In Greece things appear calmer and state action more robust than in Britain. Even though we are behind the UK curve, everything has been on lockdown for weeks. A real lockdown. Not a stay-at-home-unless-you-go-to work lockdown. Only supermarkets, bakeries, butchers, greengrocers, pharmacies and a few vital services remain open, with strict limits on how many people can enter at one time, based on square meterage.
In my little corner of Greece, unfortunately, things are even tougher. Some asymptomatic priest decided to do secret Eucharist services and infected a cluster of his 'flock'. So Mykonos is now under stricter lockdown. There is a strict curfew between 8pm and 8am and the list of reasons to go out is even stricter. It only takes one idiot. And every village has one.
The other day, I went to the supermarket for fresh produce – my only moment out in two weeks. I was there when it opened and shopped pretty much alone, because, even in a pandemic, Greeks cannot face the supermarket first thing in the morning.
As I was leaving, I saw a very good friend of the family in the parking lot. I apologised from a few metres away for not greeting him and explained I was trying to isolate as much as possible, for Mum’s sake. "Maybe it's better if she goes, considering her condition," he replied.
That sentence winded me like a punch to the solar plexus. The fact it was kindly meant made it worse. Mum is comfortable and happy. She is in no pain and has a great quality of life. Pardon my French, but where the merde do you get off, telling someone a person they love would be better off dead, just because they make you feel uncomfortable?
I held my tongue, and only said "well, I plan to keep her healthy as long as I can, if it's all the same to you" and went on my way, with my provisions.
The only real, merciless scarcity all of us must face is the scarcity of time. Our own and others'. I am thankful for every moment I get to spend with my mother. I am privileged to be able to pay back a smidgeon of the love she showed me throughout my life. I am blessed for being able to exercise the skill and thriftiness she taught me in the kitchen, to sustain her through this crisis.
Ancient Greeks considered good food an antidote to death. Not only in a vague, philosophical sense, but in a real, practical way. It's her and me now – isolated, but prepared. Chopping, cooking, scrimping, foraging, improvising. Gazing out at the vast blue sea and the disaster unfolding beyond it, rationing our antidote to death, one meal at a time.
Alex Andreou is a writer, actor and cook living in London and Greece. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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