Alternate Reality

Going to the wet market every other day for groceries is the highlight of my Covid-19 lockdown in Hanoi. A lockdown, where taxis and public transport gather dust in parking lots; outdoor exercise is prohibited, so are takeout and restaurant deliveries, but somehow, the capital insists on using a less scary term: social distancing.

A piece of paper, with my contact details noted down, is the only document that legitimises my ventures out of the house. Sometimes, a local warden who checks my pass at the entrance to the market wonders if I am indeed the person whose name — Le Giang Lam — is written in barely legible handwriting of mine. The fact that my name is unusual doesn’t help, as a man with greying hair squints his eyes to then mispronounce my name as Lâm. “No,” I correct him, and walk straight into the rows of vendors behind plastic sheets hanging from the metal roof. They create a sense of security, “but is it real?”, I wonder. “Don’t they meddle with airflow, thus heightening the risk of transmission?” With no answer available at hand, I choose to forget it and get on with my shopping list.

On my morning walks to the market, courtesy of a flat bike tyre and no tools to fix it, I always cross paths with an old woman, stick in one hand, walking in the opposite direction, her back bent by nearly 90 degrees. She always says the same thing, like a chant into nothingness: “my husband has colitis, we need money for a meal of rice.” My reaction is just as mechanical. I reach out for my wallet and give her a fresh bill. It’s like a ritual both of us choose to forget for the next 48 hours. When we meet again, it’s as if it’s the first time.

Hanoi feels like an alternate reality, where with dozens of cases a day, the Delta variant hasn’t managed to wreak havoc just yet. From a screen in faraway Ho Chi Minh City, a friend types to me after a week of fever and coughs, it’s confirmed, she has Covid-19. The only outsiders she’s had contact with were shippers, whom she’s been relying on for the past month or so for essentials deemed unessential by the municipal government — like a replacement laptop for the one that’s broken.

The southern provinces are at breaking point is what I, a journalist, choose to believe privately, contrary to the sense of control state media has been trying to exude by reporting on huge numbers of recoveries. What sticks is the thousands of new cases every day, even if I have long ceased to follow daily new counts. Instead, I drift back to the spring of 2020, when a single case was breaking news. We all followed developments of patients we knew by their number, condemning the entitled Patient 17 and cheering on the country’s then most severe case, Patient 91, a British pilot — both have recovered. My friend is somewhere buried in the list too, her number in at least five digits. Had she gotten Covid-19 last year, newsreaders would know she was a young woman in her thirties living in Ho Chi Minh city who liked to hang out in certain cafes serving cold brew. But in 2021, she doesn’t even know her own number. To newsreaders, she’s less than a statistic.

But she’s a real person to people that know her — Housemates who fed her congee, friends who ordered healthy food for her, and myself, a useless friend in Hanoi whose order of essential oils to keep her flat’s spirits up never made it to the doorstep.

There is a feeling of helplessness among the more privileged with food and savings to spare during a pandemic where millions are going hungry. I find myself scrolling down an endless feed of suffering until my head spins, forcing me back to my alternate reality of baking and sketching. Are these videos of filthy quarantine halls for the sick for real? Is an old man with Covid-19 really lying alone on a bamboo mat in a dimly lit alley with an oxygen tank by his side? The more I dig, the more overwhelmed I become. Last year, I was sure the government wasn’t hiding a serious outbreak because there were hardly any rumours about the sick and dying. In the summer of 2021, it is the rumours that I follow as a private citizen to get a feel of how serious the situation is because though many are fake, many more feel truer than the official narrative. But stuck in my room, unable to verify most of them, I, the independent journalist without a press card, cannot report nor share them.

Just as rumours have become my news, informal donation networks have sprung up to fill in the void left by the government’s relief package for the poor. On Zoom, during a mock competition I’ve been invited to judge, students discuss the ethics of cash donations to the homeless. Is it more ethical to give through an established organisation, or should we just give what we can to the people in need we meet on the street?

I don’t know the name of the lady I meet every other day on my trips to the wet market. But I do know she’s risking getting a hefty fine from the police each time she goes out for “unessential business”. 

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