I’m on the train back to the village, having spent 24 hours in the city. I was very careful about who I met, where I stood, what I touched. Extra vigilant. Extra, extra vigilant.
The news bulletins are coming in fast and furious. It’s hard to know what the story is. I get the impression that even those writing said bulletins don’t quite know what they’re saying. Today’s big announcement was that only those with a Hungarian passport could enter the country. Then those with ‘close family ties’ to a Hungarian citizen were added – spouse, registered partner, sibling, parent, child. Stories of non-national legal residents being turned away occupied most of my morning. Imagine, people who live here and have lived here for years not being able to return to the only place they call home. The doors were closing and they didn’t have the right password to get in. In the last hour, this has been broadened to include those with the legal right to live here, but only if they are EU or UK. And this message will have to filter down to airlines in Ireland and the UK who are not allowing people to board a flight bound for Hungary if they don’t have a Hungarian passport.
Everyone seems to have a story. A Chinese girl who has always avoided public transport because she’s hypercautious has gotten used to people giving her a wide berth. A Vietnamese shopkeeper who put a sign in his window to tell everyone he wasn’t from China is still open for business. A young Iranian who cannot get a lawyer to represent them in a deportation case won’t get to finish their degree. A British tourist who said they had the virus and threatened to spit into their meal and then post a photo of the restaurant on Instagram because they were charged extra for sauce deserves to be shamed. It’s mindboggling.
Today is St Patrick’s Day, one of those days in the year when everyone goes a little mad and the world has a big party. And I’m sure that despite the virus, people will still have parties. They’ll say it’s about keeping up their spirits, celebrating the Irish in them. And that’s the thing. It’s no longer about the individual. It’s about the collective.
Almost everyone I saw in the last 24 hours was being responsible. People moved carriages to sit away from others on trains and metros and trams. Diners sat way apart in restaurants. Queues outside the pharmacies were spaced. I was offered hand sanitizer three times. Even now on the train, everyone is at least the regulatory metre apart. I had escalators to myself. Train platforms were empty. It was like being in Budapest at 5 am on Sunday in August… it was that empty. I wasn’t in the tourist district though, so perhaps it was different there.
Already, just a couple of weeks in, I’m hearing stories of people’s businesses going bust. Three times yesterday, I was thanked for not cancelling my appointment. Lots and lots of people are going to be out of work. Lots more will see their businesses fold. Anyone with money in the market is taking a hit. Currencies are nose-diving. Savings will be eroded. Everything is so uncertain.
My mind is all over the place. I have elderly parents, elderly friends, and I wonder if I’ll ever see them again. There are millions more like me. I fear the growing rhetoric in Hungary blaming foreigners for this crisis. I am a foreigner. I fear states of emergency and the sort of powers they give (less than stellar) governments. I fear closed borders that break up families and keep them apart. Lockdowns. Curfews. Supply shortages. Sickness. Death. Fear. Is this World War III? Is this our war? And if it is, how will we fight it? Someone told me of a meme doing the rounds: Our grandparents were asked to fight in the trenches, we’re being asked to sit on our sofas…. and we can’t do that!!! Or is this abstract becoming reality by hitting closer to home? Everything that has been going on in the world for the last few years – but happening in other places – now happening here?
And then, just when I’d wound myself up to high doh, I read this:
And that gave me hope. And for that I’m grateful.