Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
This as-told-to essay from Esther, a professional in Belgium, is adapted from a conversation with Greta Privitera.
When the government announced “KnuffleContact,” I was having dinner with a friend. Then Beth texted me: “OK, Esther, it’s time to choose who your best friend is.”
Thinking about it, it’s a very funny question—it sounds like one of those things from kindergarten—but in this time of pandemic, it was a serious matter. In Belgium, during the second lockdown, the government added a very surprising act of humanity in its restrictive measures to protect citizens: the KnuffelContact, literally a “cuddling companion.” Everyone could have one, and singles could have two, a novel measure designed to help people deal with the second wave of confinement, which began on Nov. 2 and will continue until Dec. 13. You can choose your boyfriend or girlfriend, of course, but friends or whoever you want as your KnuffelContact as well. She or he must be a person you trust, because you will have dinner together, hug each other, and lead life together, just like a family. Following the rules is essential, though, because you cannot become a dangerous presence.
Beth is one of my best friends as well as my colleague. I know that in recent months she has taken all the rules very seriously, just like me, and we both trust each other.
My only doubt was that at that moment I had just started seeing a guy and so before choosing what to do, I wanted to talk to him. I needed to know: How many people had he been in contact with? I felt very awkward. I picked up the phone and texted, “Beth, I have to think about it. I’ll talk to my new guy and let you know.”
I talked to the guy and it wasn’t going to work right then, so there was nothing left to figure out: Beth and I officially became KnuffleContact.
Before the pandemic, we would see each other about once or twice a week, so we said let’s live as if there were no lockdown.
So, today, when we see each other, we hug, we spend the days together, we get something to eat or drink, we live a few hours without a mask, without opening windows. We behave as if there was no pandemic outside. It is a beautiful, easy, happier time. It is the only social interaction where I can let my guard down for a moment. I am not afraid of her, and she is not afraid of me. How amazing.
We choose Sundays especially to be together. Perhaps because Sunday is the most melancholic day, and it rains often here. When we are together, we laugh a lot, and we cheer each other up. We stay home and cook together. The last few times we made pancakes. In retrospect, at the beginning, it was difficult to switch off the part of my brain that since the pandemic started made me fear contact with others.
The first lockdown without a KnuffleContact was hard. It was lonely. I spent weeks not seeing anyone at all; I was completely alone. When I would visit my mother, it was strictly in her garden, without hugging or without eating together. My brother lives next door and we could only chat through the window from the street. Yes, I felt alone, but I knew it was necessary. There was a sense of urgency that overshadowed the idea of loneliness. But now with Beth it’s a whole other thing. This is a different lockdown, where we are safe, but not in solitude.