The Lockdown Diaries

by Janice Nigro

I always wondered what good I would be to society as a cancer biologist if the apocalypse happened. Now I know. Not very much.

Most of us are waking up to the sobering reality at how less than fundamental our jobs are to basic human survival. We’re fluff. Even a scientist, after years of training, cannot go to work in California, and yet, the pot dispensaries remain open. While some people are risking their lives to save us, the rest of us are sitting around getting high.

Who should we be upset with, our politicians or ourselves?

This is the world I see today during lockdown in my barely two bedroom apartment in Southern California across the street from the Pacific Ocean.

I’m not complaining. I have it good. And not much about my life has changed. I already work from home, writing and editing scientific literature. My normal commute is a four mile hike across the beach each morning. Until this pandemic arrived.

Under lockdown, Californians are still allowed to go out for walks. So I can go to the beach, but so does everyone else now too.

My choices other than the beach are trips to the grocery store or the laundromat (or the pot shop). I don’t mind going to the grocery store, but laundromats are one of those places where a half hour of laundry gets you a lot of bizarro world. It’s like riding the bus in LA. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is. I’ve only ever found it fun in Italy, where the word for washing machine is lavatrice (la va tree chay).

Both places rank as chores, something I have to do, not entertainment, at least until this pandemic hit.

The last time I was in the grocery store, I had this urge to interview people and take photographs of what they had in their grocery baskets. I was standing in the middle of a crowd in the middle of a highly contagious disease pandemic to buy a loaf of artisan baked bread, wondering why I would do that, when I noticed a woman in front of me with a large cardboard box filled with toilet paper rolls. She somehow wangled a whole case of toilet paper for herself.

I looked around myself perplexed at this new normal. I pictured homes filled with toilet paper, stacked up against the windows. This is what people might be spending their last paycheck on? Or can you eat it?

Sorry friends, I do not have a recipe for such a dish. I’ve tried and all I can come up with is a title for a recipe. “Left over toilet paper casserole.” I’ll leave it to your imaginations.

I thought I was making it up. Or focusing on the toilet paper in the checkout line because I had read about the hoarding in newspapers. But then I read about some arrests made in the USA for stealing toilet paper. How is it possible to risk going to jail for toilet paper?

“Does the virus infect our brains too” is maybe a legitimate scientific question.

Sometimes now the lines are outside the grocery store. I suppose someone finally realized that all the social distancing outside the grocery store wasn’t going to help us if we crowded together inside the store.

Sometimes I find the parking lot empty. I understand why when I go into the store. There’s almost nothing in there. My most exciting moment recently was when I scored one bag of raw cashews out of the two still in there.

The biggest revelation is that my fellow earthlings seem to have only recently heard of the concept of washing their hands. A Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweis, fought to institute handwashing in hospitals when he noticed a difference in the mortality rates between two obstetrics wards in the 1800s. One was run by male medical students who went from autopsies to delivering babies, and the other by midwives who only delivered babies. He guessed the medical students brought infectious material from the autopsies to the delivery room.

I grew up in a medical household. Washing my hands was a lesson I probably learned in utero. My mom put hand wipes into lunch bags. Now I can’t buy a dispenser of soft soap. I find it uncomfortable to think what was going on before this pandemic.

All this attention to hand washing has resulted in a decrease in the cases of other infectious diseases in Japan, for example, which makes me wonder if we don’t pay enough attention to washing our hands normally. The people I know who have always been hygiene fanatics must feel vindicated now.

For the first time in my life, I asked a guy stocking produce in the grocery store about his stress levels. I talk to those guys once in a while, like to know when it was again safe to eat romaine lettuce several months ago, but I never thought I would ask one if their job was stressful.

The man broke into a smile and said yes, as if no one had ever noticed him before. He also told me that if I had been there just a couple hours earlier, I would have witnessed lines going from the front of the store all the way to the back of the store.

The most shocking encounter in the midst of this madness was a woman with a kidney transplant waiting in line in front of me in a CVS store. I was social distancing as per the recommendations of the top disease expert in the country. She looked at me and said, “I’m not contagious.”

She had it all wrong. I wasn’t afraid of her, because of her face mask, but she might want to be afraid of me. I could be a carrier and not know it. That’s the insidious nature of COVID-19, that many do not have symptoms and do not know they have it.

My bucket list has some unexpected additions because of lockdown. Like can I walk five miles in my apartment on a daily basis. I won’t be taking any photographs, although I’ve seen on social media that photographs under lockdown are a new artistic trend.

I realized on Friday when the orders came down at midnight that I am already prepared for this. I can do this. I don’t have TV or Netflix. I do read two newspapers although my frustration with the poor reporting has reduced me to one. It was holidays in Norway that taught me how to live for a few days without shopping, without mail, without anything but what I had inside my apartment.

And I’m an introvert.

A lot can take place in a small apartment. Ideas come from your head. I write. I edit. I sew. I read books. I “paint”. Yes, the lockdown is my permission slip to work on projects I just want to do.

When I do go out, I see some minor changes in my environment that make me worry about the potential consequences of lockdown, like the disregard for the law. People walk their dogs in broad daylight on the beach, even though it’s against the law. Graffiti has appeared on a lifeguard hut where I’ve never seen it before. It may be art in Italy, but we just don’t do that here. I’ve heard concern for loosening of the law from one other living in one of the happiest countries in the world.

Desperate times. People have told me that I should watch the movie Contagion. Do I need to? It’s in the newspapers, but it may be more like Lord of the Flies. Think about it.

When we look back on things, will we remember who we lost? Will we remember how we shattered some of our ties with other countries? How we closed our doors to our neighbors to the north and south of us? Will my European friends only reach out to shake my hand rather than give me the two/three cheek kiss tap?

So far, the pandemic hasn’t touched me or my circle of friends and family. I’ll consider myself lucky if the worst thing I can recall is the empty paper products aisle in the grocery store.


©Janice Marie Nigro/

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, Clinical Cancer ResearchPLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.


6 thoughts on “The Lockdown Diaries

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  1. You may think of yourself as an introvert, like most others in the world, but I think you are a humorist! Will Rogers was the best and you’re getting close!

    1. You’re my gauge. I think if my pieces get noticed by you, they must be OK. You always made me laugh like crazy when I was a kid. I just report what I see! Weird times. I’m getting stressed just thinking about going to the grocery store.

  2. Your writing is always deeply thought provoking, contemplative and open minded…like a scientist! The little I know of you, I don’t see you as an introvert, rather you are quite engaging. You consider your words before speaking, something more of us should do. Society would be better for it.

    1. Thank you Joe. That’s quite a thoughtful review of my words/my work. I appreciate that you take the time to read my pieces. It’s not easy to come up with the subject matter but when I do, it’s easy to write. I don’t know, maybe I think more often of the Janice before I moved to Norway than the one who came back…:). Or maybe I just found the way for me to communicate.

  3. so I went to the grocery store and bought so much food that I am set for a long while. I did go during the opening hours of the store–the senior shopping hours! As far as weird times, it seems that they are becoming the norm and will now be normal times!!!

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