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Self-Isolation Diary

Cameroonian refugee Gabriel describes the life in lockdown and his experiences of pandemic

Our current issue is dedicated to Home. In it, we reflect on the nature of private space, a defining characteristic of which, especially during a pandemic, is a sense of security. However, one shouldn’t forget that many of us still have to struggle to simply have a home and a chance to feel safe.

We are publishing a selection from the diary of Gabriel: having left Cameroon because of discrimination, he needed to seek asylum in Russia. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Gabriel has been keeping a journal, in which he describes the well-known, day-to-day anxieties of the lockdown, the simple joys of living together, and the numerous obstacles that stand between refugees and their desired home. We would like to thank the Civic Assistance Committee for providing us with the materials and for translating Gabriel’s writing from French to Russian. 

Left: Lilacs in Gorky Park. Moscow, May 2020
Right: Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya. Moscow, May 2020

This publication features works by photography artist Margo Ovcharenko. For one month, she documented life under the self-isolation regime in Moscow and the work of people exposed to COVID-19 on an everyday basis. We are publishing selected fragments of her project.

Margo would like to thank the Committee for Tourism of the Moscow City Government and the Discover.Moscow project represented by Dina Kim and Nina Gomiashvili for organizing the photo shoot. Special thanks to Polina Rukavichkina and Alexandra Anufrieva for their help and support.

March 26th 

After learning about the virus, I began to take note of people in my environment—and at the same time I started noticing that many of those who knew about the epidemic were already taking precautions even though the virus was not yet spread very much around Russia. I saw people wearing protective masks outdoors, avoiding contacts with others, and so on. Once on the subway there was a young Asian man (as far as I could judge from his appearance) who was coughing a lot. Two women in their forties were right next to him and as soon they heard the guy coughing they began frantically checking their bags—first I didn’t understand why—but in the end they took out their masks and immediately put them on. Then I realized the reason and laughed quietly. Since the pandemic continued to wreak havoc in Italy and China where it initially broke out, following the example of the French government the Russian authorities decided to close schools and that's when I realized that things were turning out to be quite serious and I got scared because I was a part-time worker distributing flyers in the subway. Those who are familiar with my story know how difficult it was for me to solve food and housing issues when I first arrived here since my health did not allow me to work. Moreover, asylum seekers are not permitted to work officially, so we can barely take care of ourselves and make ends meet—and that’s just those who are lucky enough to at least find a part time job.

When I see people defending themselves, I think about the importance of human life. So, I made a decision to quit this job because I felt exposed to virus-related risks. But I needed to find another way to earn money, so I created a profile on Avito saying that I was looking for a job and the head chef of one canteen contacted me. Now I have been working there for three weeks as a kitchen assistant. Sometimes I also do the cleaning and help to wash the dishes. At first everything was fine, I was paid upfront after two weeks of work. But now, as I am writing this, things are getting worse: since the virus is spreading in Russia people are much less likely to gather in public places; we used to serve an average of 340 clients a day, but now 100 come to the canteen at most, and I am afraid of not getting paid, which would be logical, because now we virtually have no work.

On my way back home last night, I learned that the President had made a speech about the situation—he warned the people that starting from Sunday the whole country will be quarantined.

March 28th


The first day of quarantine is not easy, especially when you are already used to leaving the house every morning. Staying home permanently also has positive aspects, because in addition to its primary goal—to save someone's life—it is a reason to spend more time together with others. Like most refugees, I share an apartment (no need to explain why) with other migrants from different countries, so, in general, I do not feel bored now: we talk out different topics over a cup of tea and eat sweets... it helps us to forget for a while that we are hundreds of kilometers away from our families.

Sometimes I look out of the window and notice how much things have changed outside. Very few people go out. By nightfall, I have not noticed anything unusual in the city, because I have been staying at home all the time—I'm going to come up with a plan for how to keep myself busy at home in order to somehow benefit from this quarantine period.

Top: Driver Sergey in his car. Moscow, May 2020
Bottom: Moscow, May 2020

Photography by Margo Ovcharenko

March 30th

Hello-hello, today is another day of the national quarantine, but I think that it is not the same as the previous ones, because law enforcement agencies have introduced stricter measures of control to ensure that people are staying indoors—we have even received phone messages telling us not to leave the house. Two of my flatmates went to work at the request of their employer who said it was very and we were relieved to learn that given the situation, the employer made sure that they got to work by taxi. We all understand how the police here can treat foreigners—and their attitude is even worse now, during this crisis. We have had a rather calm day, taking a conscious decision to think about the virus as little as possible, but to do this we had to come up with some additional activities we could enjoy all together. 

So, someone remembered they had a “Monopoly” board game—I am not even sure if this name is correct. But believe me, in the end we were happy to learn its rules—which no one but the owner himself already knew and so we started to try them out just out of curiosity. So, we had a lot of fun, especially putting fake money in our pocket, buying cars, building houses, and receiving interest on deposits (as if in a dream life). In general, it was so exciting that I almost didn't have time to work on my blog. Late in the evening, everyone got back to their phones so the talks about virus-related news returned. A friend from Côte d'Ivoire told me that in his country, just like in many African countries, people arriving from Europe had to be quarantined in hotels—such measures made it easier to control the spread, but some bribed security guards upon arrival to return to their homes. There was one case when a whole family became infected by their son who had returned from France—the parents of this young guy bribed the security of the hotel where was being held in quarantine so that their son could be home immediately, but he, without being aware of it, was already infected, so all his family members (and maybe visiting friends) became infected too. This news put my neighbor in a bad state because his family back home lived in the same area as this guy’s relatives, but someone comforted him by quoting the bible and later he was able to fall asleep. 

I was also unsettled by this news because I know to what extent our authorities are corrupt and carefree. Due to this, we can now say that the coronavirus has become a firm part of our lives—we cannot spend a single day without mentioning it at least a hundred times.

March 31st 

It snowed last night, which came as a surprise to us, although in general we usually do not care about weather reports. Today it feels a little colder than last week. The day in the apartment began rather calmly—everyone was sitting in their corners watching YouTube videos. I took advantage of that to—time to work a little bit on my blog, then I got a new haircut which I think suits me very well. The friendly atmosphere of the first three days could no longer be felt today, but at least we still have enough food, despite the lack of work, and most importantly we stick together. But we still worry about how long the quarantine is going to last and we are anxious about our families in Africa. Reading the news yesterday morning, I was glad to learn that, on the one hand, no new cases were registered in China over the past three days, but on the other hand, I was sad about the statistics of other parts of the world—the death toll was climbing. 


Gorky Park. Moscow, May 2020

Photography by Margo Ovacharenko

April 2nd 

The morning hours are becoming calmer, the boredom is building up, everyone is sitting in their own corners, and in a nutshell, it’s exhausting. I also feel kind of lazy, but I'm happy that I can sleep again, now I manage to sleep eight hours in a row, whereas earlier the depression prevented me from doing so. After four days of the lockdown, today was the first time I went to do the groceries. I was surprised to realize that almost all the customers were wearing gloves and protective masks. I don't have anything like that, but I am trying to keep distance from others and not linger when outdoors.

In our apartment we are now using a “single key” system, which means that no one else uses their duplicate keys to open the apartment door. When returning home, we make a phone call and ask our flatmates to open the door—the one who opens the door locks it himself with his key, so the person returning from the street does not have to touch the door handles before washing his hands—I proposed this idea and everyone immediately understood its importance.

Today we received sad news: my friend's fiance, who lives in Congo, lost her mother to coronavirus. It is the first loss in my close circle so it upset me too. Since we have nothing to do, for some of us this is a moment of connection with God—Africans can sometimes be very religious (religion is becoming the opium of the people). I see people praying more and more often—there is even one Muslim in our apartment who has gotten to the point that he gets up at three am to pray for humanity—well, if the Lord is listening, then our prayers should certainly save this world... We are talking less and less about the coronavirus, but we keep on joking—when someone coughs or sneezes, everyone shouts, “Corona, go away!”

One more day has passed, we don’t have many things to do but everyone is doing well—even those who have lost their jobs, like me, no longer think about it. If I am not busy writing, I am already sleeping under the covers and dreaming (sometimes in my dreams I attend the Kremlin). Well, see you tomorrow, see you in the new day... So far, we are staying home.

April 5th

Being a refugee, a migrant, or an asylum seeker in Russia or anywhere else in the world is not easy at all— it takes us three times more effort and energy than ordinary citizens need to simply survive. We find ourselves in situations that you wouldn’t even wish on your worst enemy,, for reasons related to the need to survive, for safety and well-being. No one wants to be born in a country where there is war or instability—people do not ask to violate their rights due to the fact of their involvement in politics, and belonging to some social groups also is not always a matter of one’s own will. Thanks to the kindness and willingness to help that a few countries demonstrate, some people manage to regain peace, joy, and a part of what has been lost or damaged in their native country. But this path from suffering to joy is a path of struggle for any refugee and this is where this unexpected epidemic is leading to as well, adding more chaos to our daily lives. 

My morning began with gloomy thoughts. I am asking myself what will happen to my asylum application, because the epidemic started exactly when I had to be interviewed at the migration service. Now this is not the most difficult thing, because at the moment, whatever your social status is, we are all fighting for survival in the face of the epidemic and a refugee status won’t be of any benefit to me should I lose my life. In the epidemic, the rich are dying as well as the poor—adults, children and, even worse, large numbers of elderly people. I mean, the disease does not care who we are, it destroys everything in its path. I have made up my mind to read less news so as not to get upset. We hope that better days will come, but if these are my last ones, I would like to spend them in joy and peace with those around. Everything in the apartment is the same as it was yesterday, everyone is in his corner and at times we run into one another on our way to the refrigerator (: which is currently the most popular destination. In the evening we spent a few hours with popcorn someone had made and discussed the latest news a little bit—nothing new or joyful, but the results of the day are rather positive because everyone is holding up well, trying not to think about the fear of the virus. 

Moscow sewing factory Mishelin. Moscow, May 2020

Photography by Margo Ovcharenko

April 6th 

One more day begins with a forecast of snow. As soon as I thought about snow, I saw it falling from the sky, the climate in “Holy Russia” (this is how my French friend refers to Russia—I don’t know why) is insanely variable. From the balcony I am watching the snow cover the entire ground and am thinking about how this winter I have not yet taken photographs of the snow, but what if this is my last winter? Well, this is just a thought that crossed my mind. My day has started off pretty well, some of my neighbors are gathering after breakfast to watch a movie together. Since I am not really into cinema, I started learning some Spanish, which reminds me of a teen TV series I used to love—“Physics or Chemistry”. Also, I am thinking of launching my own YouTube channel in a few days and I have already recorded several videos. I hope my audience will find it exciting. But the main thing is that I myself am enjoying it.

By now, we see the epidemic causing destruction all around the world. The virus has brought the US to its knees, Europe is in total chaos, what will happen in Africa? I am constantly asking myself this question that only the future can answer. I am still dreaming of love, so in the evening I watched a good romantic movie, but I will not tell you its name because it is a little unusual (yes, let me be a bit selfish). The day is reaching its quiet end, nothing extraordinary to talk about. Stay home!

April 7th 

Yesterday it snowed and today the sun is shining, but we can only look at it through the windows or enjoy the sunbeams at the balcony—if you are one of those who have one. In the apartment, everyone is waking up slowly as usual, trying to find ways to relax. In the morning, as is usual for me, I do a few sports exercises to keep fit and feel good throughout the day. To be honest, sports are among some of the things I miss most during the quarantine. I've been cheating a bit lately: I have a friend who has a gym membership but he hardly ever uses it, so I’ve often used his membership card to work out at the gym nearby and the administrators haven’t noticed. I’m ashamed to admit it but at least I want to be honest and when the gym reopens, I’m going to keep on cheating a bit again. Generally, sports make me feel better and I am sure that during this time it has also influenced the way I feel. When I am able to buy a membership myself, I will do it :)  

After my morning exercises, I played with a baby girl from our apartment—she is already a year and a half and she loves riding her bike in the morning, although her feet still do not reach the pedals, so I helped her get on the bike and rolled her around. During these moments, you realize that the quarantine does some people good—she is not bored, she has her dad and mom around all day long, as well as uncles and aunts who take turns playing with her around the clock. :)

Although we have decided to abandon the topic of coronavirus a bit and talk about it as little as possible, today we are again discussing vaccines that are going to be tested in Africa. All this is completely absurd and I am trying not to attach much importance to the topic, because it makes me very angry and outraged and I see the same emotions on my flatmates’ faces when we talk about it. Today I have made an important step and launched my YouTube channel, but so far I have uploaded only a small introduction and my channel is going to be in the Russian language. I won’t even go back to this video because it takes a lot of courage to share my mediocrity with the world. I feel good about this in general and I just wish it would work out. Another day is coming to an end without any problems, albeit with the constant fear of waking up in the morning with a fever or cough. In any case, if you like me and are also worried about this, you need to continue staying home.

AZIMUT Hotel Smolenskaya. Moscow, May 2020

Photography by Margo Ovcharenko

April 10th 

Well, we are blessed with one more new morning and thank God for it —I mean all those who, like me, believe it to be God’s creation —as for the others —well, you can thank the one that you think created these beautiful mornings, if you find it encouraging. In general, the main thing is to at least believe in something that gives us a positive vibe😜. I think that spring is starting right now in Moscow and it is totally awesome that we can finally leave the winter cold behind, even though we still cannot go outside to enjoy the good weather that now we see more and more often. 

I followed my plan and went shopping at the closest store and it seemed to me that this time there were more products, although prices for some of them were still quite high.

In the store, I ran into another African and, as it always happens in Russia in such cases, greeted him and introduced myself. It seems we live in the same block of flats but in different sections. It was great to have a little chat with him, then we said goodbye and I went home. I wanted to walk a little to enjoy the good weather but I think it is forbidden to do so and I did not want to risk doing anything illegal.

If I am talking less and less about others, it's because we are spending less time together—everyone wants to forget about the disease and think about something else, something less sad. Well, as for me, my new free time activity is to discuss some aspects of my life in Russia on my YouTube blog—it also takes me a lot of time. Nothing special has happened today and I hope tomorrow will be better. Let's stay at home and think about those we love.

April 15th

I woke up a little earlier today and felt a bit of a frosty morning—I could clearly understand it by looking out the window. It is drizzling, so naturally we are going to have a rainy day today. It is good that we are having a rainy day, I thought, because if we have to wash our hands all the time, maybe the rain will also wash the hands of the city. More and more often, we are talking about the state of emergency declared by the government to ensure that people are staying home. Some find it absurd, but I think it's a good idea.

In the afternoon, I went shopping for light bulbs for our apartment. I was a little scared to walk the 500 meters  because the nearby store does not sell them. But, as usual, I had prepared what I would tell the police and  to be completely honest, I enjoy talking to Moscow officers.

But I left without my documents and they naturally stopped me at the metro. I didn't know what to say, so I did the first thing that came to my mind. I asked them if they would check me every morning just because I was black. One of them asked me why I would say that. I replied that my documents had already been checked the day before, so why were they doing it again?

After that, the officer let me go, apologizing and saying that probably I just didn’t have my hat on that day (although I actually had it on) and therefore they did not notice me. I smiled, said goodbye and left—I lied to them because I had no documents in my bag.

Usually the police won’t touch you, if you are clean and well dressed —well, they might still come up to you because of your skin color or something like that. They often pay attention to this physical aspect related to our appearance.

Since there is a state of emergency in the country, today everyone is staying in their apartments and homes. During the afternoon I didn't feel very well. Hope it's not too serious. When it started getting dark I went to bed a little earlier than planned since I was not feeling very well. Hopefully in the morning I'll be fine again. And to call it a day—stay home, take care of yourself and your loved ones.

Preparations for the morning shift in the "red zone" of City Clinical Hospital №1 named after N.I. Pirogov. Moscow, May 2020

Photography by Margo Ovcharenko

April 19th

And now we have been given a new day in the heart of the Moscow capital. Everyone is happy because today is the beginning of the Easter holidays. In the morning, I woke up asking myself about the way people will hold Easter religious services —taking into account this isolation. And even more—how to do so in Moscow, the Russian city that is currently suffering the most from the virus?

As every morning, out of the window I can enjoy a beautiful skyline of my neighborhood. The streets that often used to be crowded, especially on the weekends, are now empty. Only a few people are walking around, most of them with their pets. I am getting more and more worried because no one knows when all this will end.

I am starting this day feeling a bit low, but I am trying not to share the sadness with my neighbors because I see that they are generally less concerned about the situation than I am, and this gives me more confidence and hope that things will get back to normal.

In the afternoon, we were trying to bake something, although none of us is good at it. Thus, we found some YouTube channel and used it as a tutorial. We got good dough and tried to make croissants. But things turned out to be more complicated when we began baking them: we could not set the oven correctly, so our croissants ended up raw. Well, at least this experience was a lesson for us.

At night, when everyone was already in their rooms, I tried rehearsing a poem that perhaps will become a part of my next YouTube video. We all had a rather calm evening and now we are all under the covers. I had a headache, which did not let me fall asleep at once, but finally it all ended up well. I hope tomorrow will be another day—Easter. Let's stay home.

Left: Monument to Marina Tsvetaeva. Moscow, May 2020
Right: Ranakhan. Hilton Moscow Leningradskaya. Moscow, May 2020

Photography by Margo Ovcharenko

April 20th 

Today Russia is celebrating Easter. The day started peacefully, although it hailed a bit. I jumped out of bed a little early and hurried to the balcony, hoping to see at least some of the festive atmosphere. But alas! Everything was calm and deserted and you could not even say that it was a holiday. I think it also has to do with the coronavirus. All the churches are closed anyway.

Entering the kitchen, I saw my flatmates watching videos and shouting. These were videos of Africans evicted from their homes in China and it all had something to do with the coronavirus. I sat down next to them and also began watching the video which looked like a news program retelling a story. To me it actually seemed edited. Indeed, often many people are ready to say incomprehensible things in order to attract attention and, especially, to exploit certain sensitive and potentially irritating topics. In general, this is my opinion about the story and I hope it will be continued later.

In the afternoon I tried to watch some Instagram stories. There I saw many people celebrating, but from home, also some churches that were still able to hold Easter ceremonies but outdoors, so that people could keep the necessary distance between each other. It was still great, despite the hard times, and I even enjoyed it. I was also immensely pleased to see decorated eggs on the Internet, since this is a tradition widely followed in Russia—to decorate eggs and pies. I also received holiday photos from some of my Russian acquaintances.

It was amazing, I really love these traditions. The night came and we all fell asleep calmly and in high spirits, hoping that the new day and the new week would be better.

Preparations for the work in the "red zone" of City Clinical Hospital №40 (Kommunarka). Moscow, May 2020

Photography by Margo Ovcharenko

April 27th 

It’s not every morning that we get up in a good mood and it’s not even every morning that we can explain our reasons for feeling low. And yes —today I woke up like a lion, with no mood and my entire body tense, I felt like some pregnant elderly lady. I reflected on this a bit and thought —what if I were to become the first pregnant man in the world? If so, then surely a large reward would be due. These thoughts amused me and now I think I can finally start the day in peace and make up for the lost good mood.

As always, I was at home, doing nothing and watching my neighbors. I worked a bit on my next video. And I don't even want to know what's going on in the world —I already know that I won't find anything positive in the news. In fact, today we (my neighbors and I) shared our feelings about how much we were actually missing the world outdoors. Everyone said anything that was coming to their mind. I believe I miss my work most: I was already starting to get used to it, I felt comfortable there because everyone liked me. In the course of at least a month and a half of me working there, no one ever rejected me.

I also miss walks that I had already started to take around the city. And I am starting to miss them even more, because now the weather is good—it’s perfect for walking. But what I definitely don't miss now is public transport: I never take a seat there, always giving priority to the elderly.

Here I'm talking about all sorts of nonsense, because I have had a pretty ordinary day today. Refugees are still in a distressing situation. Everyone is watching the time pass, praying for better days. I spent a quiet day with my neighbors. When it got dark, everyone was under their blankets— I hope I will have good dreams. Well, see you tomorrow —one more day in isolation.

April 30th 

It's great to see a new morning but it's always a little sad: we won't be able to either enjoy it or become a part of it.

My day began as usual with thoughts that I cannot explain. Such thoughts constantly haunt me. I think I have a stomach ache so I have to go to the pharmacy again today. The self-isolation regime was extended for another two weeks. It's getting really hard now and all my flatmates are wondering about how to survive till the end of isolation.

I was at the pharmacy where I got some vitamins, because for several days I have not been able to eat normally. The sun was shining on my way back and I did not hurry to return home taking my time to enjoy it. Then I returned to the apartment. During the day, nothing special happened: we were just counting the days until the end of the self-isolation regime.

People are becoming more and more aggressive and tense, to the point where we can't joke the way we used to. One feels an increasing arrogance in our habits and it is getting really scary. . I pray for all of this to end. I am not interested in lifting the isolation regime, I am interested in the end of the pandemic. I want everything to return to normal, so that we all can taste the summer, which is almost here now.

It got dark. I watched a part of the news program and fell asleep as I usually do after finishing a drama movie. We are staying home… Thank you.

Translated from Russian by Olga Bubich

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Cameroonian refugee seeking asylum in Russia. EastEast does not disclose Gabriel's personal information for the sake of his security.
Margo Ovcharenko
Kyiv based artist, currently in Moldova. She graduated from Rodchenko Art School in 2011 and Hunter College MFA program in spring 2015. In 2010–2011, Margo was a resident at FABRICA S.P.A. (Treviso, Italy). Her zine Country of Women was shortlisted for Paris Photo–Aperture photo first photobook award in 2018. Since 2019, she's been teaching photography at Rodchenko Art School.