A couple on a balcony join with others across the country in lighting a candle for people who are sick, in Milan. Italy, March 15, 2020. Across the world, the pandemic is radically altering approaches to love, dating, sex and family relations. (Alessandro Grassani/The New York Times)
MONTREAL — After the pair had sanitized the tops of their beer cans, Morgane Clément-Gagnon, 33, gazed at the lanky musician she had newly met online, sitting 2 feet away on a bench in a Montreal park. The two had initially greeted each other by touching the tips of their sneakers. But as laughter gave way to talk about their fears, her heart fluttered. She leaned in for a kiss.
Racked with fever and confined to her cramped two-bedroom apartment in Istanbul, Zeynap Boztas, 42, was feeling trapped, not only physically but psychologically: The husband she planned to kick out of the house and divorce after finding dating apps on his iPad two weeks ago was now lying next to her in bed.
In his apartment in Berlin, Michael Scaturro, 38, an American writer, was attending a “happy hour” with 15 single friends from Berlin, Madrid, London and New York. As Berlin’s famous Berghain nightclub flashed on their computer screens, the group sipped merlot, watched a London DJ and discussed the relative wisdom of finding a “corona boyfriend” or girlfriend to help get through the crisis.
These are glimpses of the radically altered lives of millions of people around the world who are navigating love, hate and the extensive terrain in between under the tyrannical rule of the coronavirus.
In a matter of weeks, the global epidemic has transformed relationships, dating and sex. Weddings have been postponed, while divorce rates have reportedly soared in China as the crisis has eased. Lovers and family members are suffering aching separations as borders have closed. Prosaic choices, like whether to send a child on a play date, or whether to meet a potential suitor, have become matters of life and death.
The internet has emerged as a lifeline to millions of single people stuck indoors, enabling them to go on virtual yoga dates, attend digital drag queen karaoke parties or blow out candles at WhatsApp birthday get-togethers.
Pets have become a source of solace in locked-down cities like London, Madrid and Paris. In France, walking a dog once a day is one of a handful of permissible reasons to go outside, along with seeking medical help or grocery shopping.
The crisis has spawned a new lexicon. Where once there were “blackout babies,” we can now expect a wave of “coronababies” and a new generation of “quaranteens” in 2033. Couples whose marriages are fraying under the pressures of self-isolation could be heading for a “covidivorce.”
A meme has been circulating on social media in recent days citing essential dating questions for 2020. “Can I see myself being quarantined with him? Does he come with toilet paper?”
On Valentine’s Day in Hong Kong, couples sent each other bouquets of masks and alcohol wipes, while flower sales in the city dropped 90%. In India, the news media have reported a surge in sales of condoms and other contraceptives.
In Wuhan, the original epicenter of the epidemic in China, Tian Fangfang, a young nurse, was photographed in her hazmat suit holding a handwritten request: “After the epidemic is over, I hope the government will assign me a boyfriend.” Later, in a video, she specified her preference that he be tall. CCTV, the national broadcaster, responded by circulating a compilation of eligible soldiers and police officers on its social media outlets.
Getting away with affairs has also become tougher. When a man from a small town in Santiago del Estero province in Argentina bragged to friends that he had a tryst with a former lover returning from Spain, they reported him to authorities. The entire town was put on lockdown March 14. The man later became the first confirmed coronavirus case in the province.
The pandemic is altering notions of community and urban spaces, with people across the world gathering every day on balconies to applaud medical workers, perform music and even run marathons.
Sean Safford, a professor of sociology at Sciences Po in Paris, who is locked down in the city with his husband and their 7-year-old son, said the coronavirus had upended the human instinct to come together physically during a crisis by requiring that people do the opposite.
“In previous crises like the terrorist attacks in France or 9/11 in the U.S., millions of people gathered in solidarity in squares or vigils as people have the desire to find community,” he said in a video call from Paris, speaking from inside a large walk-in closet he had transformed into a makeshift office, away from his family. “Now we are being told to turn inward and to self-isolate as the heroic way to be a good global citizen.”
With commutes to work for many people now consisting of traveling from bedroom to dining room table, Dr. Lucy Atcheson, a London-based psychologist, said that lockdowns were engendering a new togetherness for some while amplifying friction and conflict for others.
“It’s like putting all our issues into a frying pan and really heating them up,” said Atcheson, who has been counseling couples remotely. “Something like this also makes you realize how short life is. So if you’re in a bad relationship, you’re going to leave when you can, because you’re going to realize life’s too short to suffer like this.”
In China, where the coronavirus forced hundreds of millions into isolation, the number of divorce applications surged last month in at least two Chinese provinces, Sichuan and Shanxi, the local news media reported, as altercations intensified between quarantined couples.
Dazhou, a city in southwestern Sichuan province, received close to 100 filings for divorce in less than three weeks, an official who handled divorce filings said in a video interview, adding that there was a large backlog of cases. One office handling divorces in Xi’an, a large northern city, created an appointment system to stagger the splitting couples while maintaining social distancing.
Zeynep Boztas, the Istanbul woman who is living with the husband she plans to divorce, said the coronavirus had sent her to the brink of a mental breakdown.
She had decided to separate from her husband of 12 years, a salesman, just two weeks before the city went into lockdown. The relationship had been tumultuous for over a year, she said, as he complained that her food was tasteless, mocked her clothing choices and spent hours sitting idly in front of the computer.
They had tried couples’ workshops and counseling for the sake of their two young children, but nothing had worked. So she said she felt both relief and clarity when she saw that he had been chatting to other women behind her back. After she confronted him, he agreed to move out.
“I finally thought that I would be free,” she said in a video call.
But when he returned from his business trip, he insisted on staying in the family home until the threat of the coronavirus outbreak subsided. “It is uncertain times; we should save money; we should be together as a family,” Boztas recalled him saying. Unemployed as a translator and eager not to further upset the children, she grudgingly assented.
Now, more than two weeks later, both she and her husband are fighting off cold and flulike symptoms that she fears could be mild forms of the coronavirus.
She said the living arrangements were putting a big strain on her mental health, adding to her breathing problems. To avoid fighting in front of the children, they now exchange heated emails instead, even when sitting only feet apart. But she said her husband was mostly behaving as if nothing had changed.
“The other night he just got into bed like everything was normal and tried to roll onto me to start sex,” she said. “It was like a sick joke. It feels like the walls are crushing me and the ceiling is tumbling over my head.”
Boztas said a big challenge had been losing the structure of her previous life: the school run, lunches with a group of fellow mothers, Pilates classes, long walks along Istanbul’s picturesque Bosporus. Now, the fluidity of time has left her untethered.
“Should I worry about my fever?” she said. “Should I worry about putting food on the table? Cleaning? Entertaining the kids? Picking up my husband’s dirty clothes off the floor? There is nowhere to escape this insanity.”
She said she spent hour upon hour in the open-plan living room, watching her husband and children playing video games, and escaping to the bathroom to be alone and sob.
For single people, the corona crisis is bringing a different kind of challenge.
After matching with a New Zealand musician on Hinge, a dating app, Morgane Clément-Gagnon, an artist and photographer, said she was giddy after the two began a video call: He was handsome, the banter was easy, and they shared a passion for the arts.
Eager to meet but anxious over the threat of the coronavirus, the two opted for a “socially distanced silent disco” date in a park. Sitting apart on a park bench, they listened to Celine Dion and Britney Spears, dancing and singing to music playing on an iPhone.
“When he was indulging my taste for kitsch, fun music, I knew it would be a good date,” she recalled, smiling widely.
After their date ended with an unforeseen kiss, Clément-Gagnon, who has been single for a year, said she wanted to see him again. But there were obstacles: Her sister had just returned from Australia and was living with her in quarantine. Meanwhile, the man wanted to return to New Zealand to be with his family before the borders were shut down.
The two texted constantly and weighed the risks of seeing each other again, the normal rules of courtship weighed down by reports of the virus spreading. In the end, she decided to breach her quarantine and meet him in a friend’s empty apartment, talking, watching movies and finding comfort in each other’s arms.
“Is corona making something magic with all of this?” she asked. “I feel fear everywhere, and in this unexpected meeting I felt no fear. Maybe this is the corona story that will die with the disease. Whatever happens, it was a beautiful moment."
©2019 New York Times News Service