In-depth | COVID-19

‘I was young then — I could run away’

Lockdown phone calls with pensioners.

By - 23.04.2020

Anton Çuperjani lives in a three-story house with a garden where he spends most spring afternoons sitting in the sunshine and tending to the strawberries that he plants each year. Sometimes, when the weather is particularly pleasant, his wife Maria takes a break from busy housework and joins him for a while. 

Nearby their house in Prizren is the Catholic church, where he and his family would normally go for Sunday mass and to observe religious holidays. For Anton, it’s a chance to see relatives and to connect with the spiritual side, and it’s also one of the few set social functions that he would ordinarily attend these days. 

As the 90-year-old tells me about the scope of his social life outside of family and the work that he still continues to do into his 10th decade, I wonder how many friends might be left in my circle if I reach that age.

This year he didn’t go to church for Easter mass like he usually does — the religious holiday found him and the whole country in the lockdown that the government introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Anton Çuperjani still tends to his strawberries and cuts the grass in his garden at the age of 90. Photo courtesy of Anton Çuperjani.

Since March 13, when the first two cases in Kosovo were confirmed, the movement and gathering of citizens has become incrementally more restricted; from the closing of schools, borders, cafés, bars and many workplaces, to the quarantining of entire municipalities and the allocation of individual 1.5 hour time slots of movement during the day for most citizens. All in the span of a few short weeks.

The lockdown appears to be seen as necessary by more and more parts of the population, as the effect of the oft-repeated “crucial weeks” — which initially caused some source of amusement at being a seemingly exaggerated warning — has now started to take the form of two-digit numbers of confirmed cases at the end of some days. 

While much is still unknown about the new coronavirus, one thing that has become clear is that it is particularly dangerous for older people, and for those with underlying health conditions. This is also the case in Kosovo, where more than one month in, over 630 people have been infected, and 18 have died.

But as health authorities struggle to keep public health under control, and the rest of the population struggles to grasp the vast effects of the pandemic on almost every aspect of society, there is a risk that the most vulnerable of us are being turned into mere statististics. 

“I am old and would prefer to live” — it was a simple sentiment and yet profound at the same time.

The press releases from the Institute of Public Health notifying about fatalities have been accompanied by information such as the age, gender, and the chronic diseases from which the deceased suffered. 

This has been criticized by some health professionals, such as the retired transfusiologist and immunohematologist Hakif Hoxha, who said in a Facebook post that mentioning the old age of those who have died from the disease, “sows panic and anxiety in the elderly and indifference in the young.” 

“Doing so, the doctors are in a way prejudicing the clinical course of the disease, and also, where can you find elderly people in Kosovo without accompanying diseases?” he said. 

Across the world, there are also indications that our elderly are somehow being viewed by some as a disposable commodity. 

A retiree friend in the U.S. ironically shared on Facebook a citation from a Texas official who said that he is sure many older people would rather die than let the pandemic harm the country’s economy. Another dear senior responded to the post: “I am old and would prefer to live.” 

It was a simple sentiment and yet profound at the same time. 

Wanting to hear the experiences of people of an older age in Kosovo — who are now advised not to leave their homes at all, except in emergencies — and craving some assured wisdom (for purely selfish purposes in these turbulent times), I reached out to some of those of a generation whose day-to-day lives might be changed in subtle, yet significant ways. 

So it goes

In the midst of growing numbers of confirmed cases and countrywide restrictions on movement, there are nuances of experiences in the ongoing pandemic. 

For Anton, the closing down of food markets and non-essential businesses has made the biggest difference to his daily routine. Whereas before he used to do grocery shopping for his household of three each morning, and then go with his son to help out in his optician’s store in the city center, the restrictions have forced him to break his routine. 

“I put on my mask and gloves, and go to the supermarket nearby to buy groceries when it’s necessary, and then come back home,” he says, speaking before the latest Ministry of Health restrictions urged elderly people to go out only in emergencies. “I’ve gotten used to doing this job; I don’t want to busy my wife and son.”

Another Prizren local, 72-year-old Kimet Bejleri, says she has only gone out once since the lockdown started, to buy bread in the bakery below her apartment. She lives alone in an apartment near the city center, where her son brings her groceries to keep her from being exposed to the virus. Sometimes, when she needs something quickly, like milk or bread, she asks her neighbor to buy them for her when she goes to buy things for her own household. 

She says that even before COVID-19, she didn’t use to get beyond her apartment much. 

“I suffer from my knees, so I rarely go out anyway,” she says, explaining that the then-publicly-built building in which she has lived since 1976 doesn’t have an elevator, so she has to climb back up the six flights of stairs to her apartment each time she goes out. 

“When the weather is bad, I can’t get out because my knees hurt. And when the weather is good, I go out to meet my sisters and brother — they are close to where I live,” she says. “But these days I can’t see them because of their work, some of my close ones are doctors.” 

For Kimet, this disadvantage appears to have become a normal part of her life and she tries to find ways to work around it, not to mention that it’s just one problem in the long row of — sometimes literal — blocks on the road that you may run into if you live in an urban area in Kosovo.

“I can’t go there, they are scared of catching the virus too — they are more afraid of catching it from old women.”

Kimet Bejleri, 72

According to a report published in 2018 by Ec Ma Ndryshe, an NGO which promotes active citizenship in shaping the living environment, 25% of the public spaces in the historic city center in Prizren are inaccessible to the public. 

For people that are young and healthy, it can be frustrating, but speaking to Kimet I’m reminded once again how vulnerable she — and others like her with limited mobility — must be made to feel when faced with such obstacles while trying to make a simple journey like that to visit her children, both of whom live in Prizren.

When we get to talking about her offspring, she loosens up and speaks of them with longing. She has a daughter and a son who live in Prizren; her daughter’s children are all married and living in Finland, Turkey and Kosovo, while her son’s one son is 14 and lives with his parents minutes away from her apartment. 

“Ever since the restrictions started, I talk to my grandson on the phone only,” she says. “I can’t go there, they are scared of catching the virus too — they are more afraid of [catching it from] old women.”

In Prishtina, at the publicly managed home for the elderly who are without family care — the only such care home in the capital — I eventually reach the phone of a resident; the several bureaucratic steps I have to navigate along the way give the impression that they are in place not to facilitate communication between citizens, but rather to discourage it.

The elderly people’s home in Prishtina is the only one in Kosovo managed at the central level of government; the other three are managed by local municipalities. Photo: Tringë Sokoli / K2.0.

Azem Balaj, an 80-year-old resident at the home, answers the phone in a cheerful mood, as the social worker visits his room to keep him company during our conversation. He says he has just been outside in the garden of the home in the Dodona neighborhood, waiting in the sunshine for my call (which was late) and had been recalling some of the pastimes at the home since it was quarantined as part of the institutional pandemic response. 

“We’re going outside our rooms sometimes, we’re going up and down — sometimes we go out in the [garden]… and still we end up in chess,” he says. “We play cards sometimes, now that the weather is better, we go outside in our nice [garden] that the American KFOR refurbished.”

A surprising taboo topic

The residents have started getting used to the new rules of living in the quarantine, says Azem, who recalls that even before the quarantine, only the most “physically able” of the residents (himself included) went out of the home daily or often. 

The home — one of four such facilities for the elderly in Kosovo — is in a busy neighborhood in the old city center. But beyond the pensioners’ club, where Azem usually plays chess, and Gërmia National Park at the end of the bus line, there aren’t many nearby sources of activity for the 80 or so residents, and these, along with the several “daily stay centers for elderly people” around the city, have now been closed like other public spaces.

In the absence of other entertainment, drinking tea and coffee in the TV room of the home is a staple pastime during this time. “We follow TV non-stop, that’s what’s left for us as a source of information,” Azem says. 

Kimet also follows TV news religiously, but like the other two interlocutors, she doesn’t like to discuss the topic that appears to be inevitable with most people that I routinely have contact with — politics.  

“Kuku, for the love of God don’t ask me about this, they have made my brain Ajran, as they say — I don’t know who to trust anymore,” she responds to my attempt at starting a conversation about the latest — internationally discussed and at times condemned — political moves in the country. 

And then, to my unrelenting curiosity, he takes a more abstract approach, before telling a proverb.

When I introduce the same topic with Anton, he’s initially reluctant to discuss it. 

“I feel sorry that they’re fighting,” he says, referring to the arena that the political landscape has become, culminating with the dismissal of the 52-day-old government, less than a fortnight into the initial extraordinary measures introduced to help combat COVID-19.

And then, to my unrelenting curiosity — and maybe wanting to give me and the readers something to think about — he takes a more abstract approach, before telling a proverb. 

“The country is a house, if the household members are on good terms and have mutual understanding, then the house advances — otherwise not,” he says. 

“There was once a huge, uncultivated field, and the village came together to talk about working it. A villager asked who could work it, and the rest agreed that the houses that have people to work it, could work it. ‘For how long?’ someone asked, and the response was: ‘For as long as there is no deceit — as soon as deceit enters, there’s no more bread.’”

Resilience beats all

As populations globally experience the physical isolation caused by the pandemic, along with the anxieties and insecurities that have commonly followed — especially for the most vulnerable — health experts warn of the damage it can cause to mental health. 

In Kosovo, an additional “risk factor,” according to some health professionals, might be the re-traumatization of being stuck at home for months at a time during the last war. Curious about Anton’s thoughts on it, I allude to these links and ask him where he and his family were during war time. 

“Where was I during the war… which war do you mean?” he asks, and hearing my stifled laughter when I realize that he has lived through a war more than once, he adds: “Heh, I thought maybe you went to earlier times!” 

He tells how he survived World War II when he wasn’t yet in his teens and was living in Albania with his family. 

Coming back closer in time, to 1999, he recalls having stayed in his house the whole time. “We were locked inside and didn’t dare to leave,” he says, but doesn’t seem like he has any desire to relive the experience by recounting more of it, so I don’t push it. 

“By nature I am a little… optimistic, you know? So, I tend to take everything in my stride.”

Anton Çuperjani, 90

Kimet also spent the wartime in her native Prizren. 

“I was in the apartment with my husband, we didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t experience it that much…” she says. “And in general people from the apartments in our vicinity didn’t move out… we didn’t have pressure from them [Serbs], they behaved normally.” 

Some kilometers and realities away from Anton and Kimet, Azem says he was locked in North Mitrovica for almost three months. To my surprise, he recounts that time with a tone that resembles wistfulness. 

“It’s different now — my uncle used to say, ‘Old age is worse than Serbia,’” he shouts in laughter as he recalls the phrase (which rhymes in Albanian). “I was young then… I could run away, you know. Now I can’t run away.” 

With his laughter — a common thread in each of our conversations — I’m transported once again to the back garden of Anton’s house in Prizren. Despite the hardships that normally come with old age, and the burdens of an eventful life, he seems to perpetually display a sunny disposition, and the elusive quality known as resilience.

“By nature I am a little… optimistic, you know?” he explains. “So, I tend to take everything in my stride.”

When I ask about the extent to which this pandemic has disrupted his routine, he assures me that it has been nothing unadaptable. “Even before, I spent a lot of time at home, in the back where we had a garden planted with all kinds of fruits and vegetables,” he says. 

“I’m not used to staying in one place; I like to engage with something, to work,” he continues. “Now I’ve left it [the gardening], around three years ago — the age can’t handle it. I just have some strawberries now, I tend to them… and I cut the grass.”

“I take care of them all by myself,” he goes on. “I can’t ask my wife for help, she has enough work inside the house as it is — only sometimes she comes out to eat some strawberries for pleasure.”

Eighty-year-old Azem Balaj is looking forward to the simple pleasures of life when the lockdown ends, such as enjoying a game of chess with his friends. Archive photo: Tringë Sokoli / K2.0.

Thinking to the future, once the isolation ends, he says the first place he will go is his son’s optician’s business. Besides the craving for productivity that helping his son at the store will feed, he shares his concern about the business as a way to make a living for his family. 

“We depend on it, along with our pensions,” he says. 

In February 2019, the government raised the basic pension (for everyone over 65) by 20% to around 90 euros per month, and the contribution-payer pension — based on employment history — by 15%, bringing the highest such monthly pension to around 260 euros; around 170,000 people are entitled to one of the two pension schemes. 

The pandemic response has seen further assistance provided to many elderly people, as Kosovo’s acting government, like many governments throughout the world, has reconsidered the country’s social schemes to try and ensure basic living conditions for the most vulnerable. As part of an emergency fiscal package, the acting government announced on April 14 that anyone receiving social assistance or pensions of less than 100 euros per month would receive an additional 30 euros for three months. 

Azem, nearing the end of our conversation, turns to introspection. “You know that the elderly are the most vulnerable, we need to be more careful,” he says. 

Wishing to lighten the mood, I ask him what is the first thing he will do once he can move freely again. “We have the pensioners’ club … the first thing I’m going to do is meet my friends there and play a game of chess.”K

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.