Covid-19 Chronicles: On Work


I’ve been working remotely since I got back to Singapore in mid March. Yes, I still work for Preemptive Love, although not in my usual capacity.

Coming back to Singapore was a professional risk. There were sleepless nights. There were making sheets of columned lists, for and against departure. There were chairing conversations the Smeagol-Gollums were having in my head about staying or going.

“We needs the precious, we can’t lose it!”

“But what if we picks up the coronavirus, precious? No one will like us.”

“We will find another, precious.”

“If we lose it we can’t get the precious back. It’s gone! Gollum gollum.”

You get the idea.

My job is precious. I’m a Communications Officer and this means photos, videos and writing. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m convinced that this is the last its kind in the world – photography, on staff.

But I’m a field officer. And while I think I ultimately did the right thing, for me, in choosing to come back, it means I’m not in the field. I’ve been working remotely, doing the digital side of things that always need doing – writing, video, archiving, transcribing audio and whatnot. I’m grateful for this work, and it is absolutely part of what that I do, but it’s not why I was hired.

And I worry about losing my job. At a time where jobs are scarce and looking to become even scarcer, to risk giving up the best one you’ve ever had… heck, the best one you might ever have is in too many ways to list, is a really dumb move.

I’ve been through long spans of unemployment in my life, and I remember well the hunger, and the particular despair as growing financial limitations closed avenue after avenue of possibility because I literally couldn’t afford to consider them.

View from my home office space (the dining table) in Sulaymaniyah. Kurdistan, Iraq, 2019

Things can change in a snap. One day you own a car you love driving and you’re paying your rent and looking forward to your next month-long holiday. The next day, you’re faced with the prospect of not having any of those because you’ve gotten retrenched, the economy is shit, and you’re basically a jobless bum whose savings aren’t going to get you past a month if you want to hang on to what you had. But you don’t want to let it go because then you’d be nothing, with no way of getting out of the hole you’ve found yourself in. But you have to because, well, you need to pay the rent and your bills otherwise you’re kind of screwed. At least you have shit to sell.

When that went on for a month, then three, then ten, it became who I was: desperate, useless, worthless, and resoundingly alone. All those motivational sound bites we love so much? None of them apply in that state, because they assumed the existence of a thing I didn’t have much of then: hope.

Remote working corner of my bedroom – transferring things to my old laptop before sending in the new to the service center. Singapore, April 2019

What happens in a situation like that?

You know full well it could be worse. You read about this everyday in the news, and you thank your lucky stars you live in a stable, otherwise well set up economy. But it doesn’t make your situation better, or the fact that you have no fucking clue what to do, and no one to ask. Because “just get a job” is a monumental challenge when you can’t get to your interview without walking for an hour (if you’re lucky, it won’t rain and you’ll only be damp with sweat). And by the time you make it there, you’ll definitely look (and smell) less job-material than you already did before, with your one and only interview-worthy get up looking tired from being washed so much, now also rumpled and sweaty, and what war paint you have on your mug to look “professional” melted so it’s more like “crazy and hasn’t heard of a shower.”

Oh and then you get sick. Nothing too serious, but you can’t afford the doctor / specialist / testing fees to find out what’s wrong, so you cope, but you get sicker coping, because you’ve got $4 a day for your partner and you to eat and cover miscellany (the 4 casual jobs you have between you cover rent and bills, but not a lot more) and man, fresh food costs an absolute packet. So occasionally. as a treat for saving a few cents here and there, you eat less but you eat real vegetables and hang on to what a bowl of stir fried, mixed greens with rice tastes like (look at you buying 3 different veg, big spender), but most others you decide “I’m too hungry to care”… And so on.

Cintra Heritage House: Flemming’s and my workspace for a month in Penang, Malaysia. It was a gorgeous stay all up, and we didn’t want to leave! Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. 2015.

(Though I’ve had dodgy addresses over the years, I’ve always lived in safe nations. The people whose stories I get to hear? They tell somewhat similar ones, but with the enormous spectre of war cracking open a chasm between everything.)

I did eventually find a job and get out of that funk, all of those times, which is why I can write about it now. It was the early 2000s when the above happened, and I was in my early twenties. Now, on the brink of turning 40 (ye gods, how is this possible?!), I appreciate how ago long it’s been. But I’m always dancing with it.

It’s hard to forget what losing necessary foundations feels like.

It’s hard to forget hunger.

That desperation haunts me in times of uncertainty. And even without my tendency towards neuroticism, the last ten years have been filled with challenges of their own, some which I still haven’t recovered from. That’s life. I don’t rue it because I’m ok (thank all the gods), but it keeps me on my toes, you know?

* * *

Iraq closed its airports on 17 March – a day after I got back to Singapore. But it had banned travelers weeks before, because of our infection count. When I came back here, I was well aware it could be for a long time. Because they could open up tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean they’ll let me back in. As of today, 23 May, we have 31, 068 infections, rising by hundreds everyday. Numbers alone aren’t the whole story Covid-19 in Singapore (when are they ever?) but they’re a reasonable place to start.

My co-worker is cuter than yours. Being an Instagram model is her main gig. Patate, my roommate’s dog. Kurdistan, Iraq, 2019

Rumour has it that airports might be open again at the start of July. Which hopefully, might mean that Iraq may have found a way to deal with the waves of infection without closing the country off for months at a time. Which means I might be able to get back to work, and still know that I could come back to the motherland if Mum has need of it.

So many big, big maybes. More maybe-nots. Who knows.

See all posts in this series.


  1. walker says:

    yep these are fuc*ng days and like you I worry about losing my job. moreover I’m not young anymore and age makes things even worse. Uncertainty does not scare me but what happens now is very difficult to handle… anyway I’m still in good health and that counts more than everything else now… that being said good luck, I really hope your dreams come true!

    btw, those mountains (jabal birah magrun?) seen from the roof of your office are darn lovely!!!

    1. Charlene says:

      I hear you walker! I’m not old (yet) but I am getting to the stage where employers assume you’ve nothing of value to offer, unless you’re one of those exceptional people that the whole world wants (not me). It’s been on my mind for a couple of years. Then again, everything is being disrupted now with Covid-19, so who knows what life is going to look like when we come out the other side?

      Yes, those mountains are magnificent! Haven’t managed to get myself up there hiking yet, but one day it might happen. Until then, I enjoy them year round from the valley

  2. Jim kelly says:

    Just stay well Charlene. I’m sure your mom loves having you home again!

    1. Charlene says:

      You too Jim!

  3. Terry Price says:

    Your writing is akin to your photography…real, personal, true. Thank you, Charlene, for sharing all with us. Keep us posted on how you’re doing. As someone said, we all might be in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boats. Each has her own troubles, waves, and winds and we cannot compare our experiences. We just have to understand that the greater lot of us are trying our best and we need to be there for each other. Peace, love, and light to you, your mother, and your family.

    1. charlene says:

      ” we all might be in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boats”

      That is totally true. And what a storm it’s turning out to be. Months ago, critics / analysts / commentators said that we might not emerge in the same world that we left. I think they were talking economically. But it feels that way on so many other fronts, in light of the massive protests against racism happening in the USA and spllling over elsewhere in the world, the helter skelter adjustment we have to ideas of what work looks like, a re-consideration of civiil and political freedoms, that the change is happening on all other levels. It feels like a reckoning. Maybe it’s time.

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