When There Is a Will: A COVID-19 Story

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

| This is the 522nd story of Our Life Logs |

Have you ever seen a potter while he’s at work? The exposure to the right intensity of heat for the perfect amount of time turns a mere handful of clay into a fine piece of pottery. This is how life works. The heat and pressure refine what we are truly meant to be.

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I was born the eldest of three sons in 1996 in Muzaffar Garh, a small settlement close to Multan, Pakistan. Nearly every time my parents spoke, it was to argue. We were a chaotic family, the kind in which fear possessed the majority of my childhood, leaving no space for love or happiness—just anxieties, yelling, and crying.

Despite my difficult upbringing, I managed to perform very well in school. After passing my intermediate with flying colors, I got accepted to a well-reputed, state-funded university in Lahore. I remember when I first moved out of my childhood home to the city in 2016. It felt just as if I had broken out of prison. I was allotted a room at the university hostel and start working a part-time job as a teacher in a local academy to help with my tuition. For the next few years, life was in a groove.

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Then 2020 came, and with it, a newly-discovered virus in China. As it started making headlines across the world and it gained a name (COVID-19), my curiosity grew. But we weren’t all that worried in Pakistan. The university did organize a seminar about the virus and hundreds of students participated, but it was more out of curiosity too.

I was a microbiology student, so I had an idea of how viruses spread and how difficult they were to contain, but it didn’t feel like a problem with us. In fact, the name of this new virus was repeated in tandem with China so many times on TV that, in our minds, it was a Chinese problem. So, the warnings and precautions they cried about on TV took a backseat, and life in Pakistan continued uninterrupted. We enjoyed cricket matches in packed stadiums. We celebrated spring with all its zeal and zest. We even welcomed our expatriates from China and other infected countries, thinking we held safe refuge.

But we were all very wrong.

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By mid-March, the inevitable happened, and we were very unprepared. Covid-19 cases started popping up in Pakistan. The country began to spring into action. Schools all over the country closed before it was past the point of no return.

My fears materialized when I got the news that my university had closed. Just like that, I was given 24 hours to vacate the university premises. Same-day in the evening I got a phone call telling me that the academy was closed too. When I asked when we’d reopen, I was told, “No one knows yet,” and, “When the situation gets better.” But the worst of it was, “Regrettably, we have to drop your contract.” This voice felt like it was coming from a great distance. I wanted to ask if I could take unpaid leave or perhaps get a contract later, but the words failed to verbalize, and the line was cut. A well of tears stirred up inside me. Four years of my dedicated services and I had been laid off so easily. That too, over the telephone.

Of course, I was devastated. Where was I supposed to go? The small university dorm had been my home for the last four years. It was my place. It was my order after years of living in disorder. While everyone prepared their bags, I sat there in shock, facing the anxieties of an uncertain tomorrow. With nowhere else to go, I was forced to return home. I boarded the last bus with a burden of apprehensions.

An all-out lockdown was imposed the following day, March 21.

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I felt so guilty returning home, as if I was only adding more fuel to my family’s problems. With my dad’s aggressive temper, every conversation—even about frivolous things—incited an argument. And every argument conveniently led to violence, both verbal and physical. My mom took all the abuse without a word. Seeing it all over again was hard to bear, but I had since grown and I couldn’t watch anymore without doing something.

One day, when my dad was beating up my mom, I stepped in. This set a fire under his feet, and after a storm of screaming and violence, my dad threw us all out on the streets. Just like that, my mother, my siblings, and I were homeless.

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With a closed door in my face and a city under siege in front of me, I was at a dead-end. But this time, I wasn’t alone. I had my old mother and young siblings to take care of. The burden weighed on my shoulders like a cinderblock.

I had lived under thick clouds of fear all my life, but being homeless in the middle of an unprecedented crisis brought out a new kind of fear. I felt exposed like the virus was all around us. A vagrant can usually find a place to sleep in mosques or, if nothing else, on the road, but mosques were closed and being on roads had become illegal. Where were we to go? What were we to eat? I stood at the door, with every bit of my heart feeling utterly abandoned and wondering, what did I do wrong to deserve this?

A glimmer of hope came in the form of my mom’s distant cousin in the city who offered refuge to us. But she only agreed to until the virus had subsided, something she believed would only last for a couple of days. One day passed, then two, three, four…seven days…and the situation only worsened. As the virus infected more and more people, the lockdown kept getting extended.

As the days rolled by, I knew we couldn’t put our weight in someone else’s basket any longer. I woke up every day waiting for a call from Dad, but it turned out that he had a rock for heart, and that rock wasn’t going to melt, ever. My trust in humanity evaporated a little bit every day until all I had left was a void in my soul.

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As I battled with all these uncertainties to find a way out, Mom kept her spirits high. All that she had to endure during her life with Dad made her a kind of hard-to-break person. She came to me one night as she saw me struggling to sleep. “Remember, when you feel that things can’t be worse, they can only get better.” This was the spark that I seriously needed, and I began to realize the hope and readiness to swim against the flow, to assume responsibility, and improve our lives. Before the morning, I had decided that we were going. Where? That I didn’t know yet, but we were going.

The sun rose the next day and with it came a miracle. A friend who had heard about my plight called me and generously offered my family his condo in Lahore for as long as we needed with cheap rent. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was exhilarated—so exhilarated that, for a moment, my mind overlooked everything, one of them being the fact that it was 2020 and the country was under a strict lockdown. Beyond that, Lahore was one of the epicenters for the virus in Pakistan.