COVID-19: The key worker diaries - Owiya

25th Jun 2020

Owiya, a single dad, who’s family is separated across continents, explains how lockdown has increased the burden for families living in cramped accommodation.

Covid 19 has exposed just how fragile Owiya’s family’s circumstances are. Owiya, lost his job during the pandemic. His children are trying to home school with no computer and he is anxious about how the family would cope if one of them got the virus. His diary is a raw account of the injustice faced by families on low incomes, living in poor, cramped housing.

Owiya (62) is a single dad. With his son, 11, and his daughter, 8, they live in a one bedroom flat on the Broadwater Farm estate, in London.

Their life is so different from the one he hoped to build when he fled Uganda in 2002 as a political refugee. He got a degree in oil and gas management from Plymouth University and planned to establish a secure base in the UK before being reunited with his wife and children. Visa complications have so far prevented his wife’s passage to the UK, and in 2011 the couple agreed that their children should live in London with Owiya for safety reasons.

Being a lone parent meant Owiya couldn’t get work in the oil and gas sector as the jobs were overseas, so he found work in the care sector. When the pandemic was declared, he was working in a day centre for people with learning disabilities, but he was laid off by his employer who couldn’t tell him if he was eligible for furlough pay. He claimed Universal credit and has been caring for his children full time.

Diary

Monday 6th April

I woke up this morning at 6am on the floor of our lounge which measures just 5m x 3m and felt a little stiff but I’ve become used to it over the ten years we’ve been living here. I’ve been trying for a long time to get us moved to a two-bedroom flat but it’s no use - the answer is always the same: “nothing available”. So my children have to continue to come first and share the only bedroom. It’s not ideal though as they are a boy and a girl who are getting older.

Sometimes, it’s hard to start the day with a positive frame of mind but I’ve trained my mind to overcome difficult emotions.

The children were up by 8am and made their beds before sharing a breakfast of warm milk and chocolate bread. I’ve drawn up a strict routine for us all to follow otherwise it’s going to be hard for us to get through the next few weeks without feeling very despondent.

I allow them an hour to relax and watch TV between 9 - 10am and then we start their online schooling but it’s hard. They don’t have a computer so they have to manage trying to use two phones - mine and theirs. They are good children and don’t complain but I know it’s challenging for them. We used to have a laptop but our flat was flooded last year and the computer was water-damaged. We didn’t have insurance and couldn’t replace it.

Tuesday 7th April

The prime minister Boris Johnson is still in intensive care. I wish him well but I can’t help thinking: “When it’s my turn to succumb to Covid who will care for me?” And more importantly, “Who will care for my children?”. If I need to call the NHS helpline with symptoms, the operator will just say: “Isolate yourself at home” but it will be impossible for us to do this in our flat. When I hear government ministers talking in the briefings each day, I think: “No-one knows me. They might consider me to be a human being but no-one really understands or listens to people like me.”

Even if our flat had one extra bedroom, I or my children could isolate and we could talk to one another over the phone but it’s not that easy for us. Overcrowding is on my mind every minute and it keeps me awake at night. There is a reason why no-one on the television is telling us what to do if we get symptoms - it’s because they know there is nothing we can do. We are trapped and will have to surrender to whatever comes our way.

I stay calm in front of the children but I am getting worried now. I’ve heard about fatalities in some of the other Broadwater Farm blocks. It’s also becoming clear that black people are much more at risk of catching it, which is heartbreaking and devastating for us all to learn. To truly win the war against Covid we must abolish the world’s inequalities. For now, equality is just a concept on paper - it doesn’t exist in reality.

Thursday 9th April

The children are really missing their wonderful school today. It’s just over the road - so near but yet so far. They are both worried about falling behind and not being able to progress to the next year so they really work hard every day.

We’re just about managing to keep up with the work being set but it’s tricky trying to do some things on a small phone screen. Also, we don’t have a printer but we keep going. Today the lessons are geography and history and I enjoy watching my son and daughter engage with learning. One day, I hope their education will help them to find their way to good jobs and a life where they don’t have to worry about the sort of things which burden me now.

I am attempting to find my way through the horrible Universal Credit system and get them to confirm how much money I will be entitled to while I am off work caring for my children.

I’ve tried several times to get a straight answer from my care agency about furlough pay but nobody gets back to me so we are going to be reliant on Universal Credit for the time being. We were given a £200 payment two weeks ago when I lost my job and from now on, I’ve been told we will get £450 per month - this will have to cover my basic bills which amount to £51 per week and then buy food and toiletries with what is left. Our existence is about to get even more hand-to-mouth than it was before. There will be no extras for the children but they never complain.

For now, I cook them a special supper of beef and salad because they’ve worked so hard, including doing their daily exercise today. We have an old exercise bike which we store in the bathroom and the children take turns to ride it each day. We feel so lucky to have it because it is not safe for them to go outside on this estate for a number of reasons.

Broadwater Farm is a dense housing estate and the virus is probably spreading here very quickly. There are still boys sitting outside in groups of 10-15 on a daily basis. This place is not safe at all. All we can do is keep praying it doesn’t come to our door.

Saturday 11th April

The Queen has broadcast her Easter message today. She clearly wants to console her subjects. The children also spoke to their mother, who is now in Senegal. She understands how viruses like Ebola have devastated people’s lives and is very concerned about us.

To some extent, the children are used to living apart from their mother but at the moment I wish we could be together although not in this flat as it would not be humanly possible. We both want our children to have a better life so this is how they must grow up.

We had toast and milk for supper with some salad on the side. I try to make sure the children have the most balanced diet I can give them but this is going to get harder at a time when they need the vitamins to boost their immune system the most.

Monday 13th April

There is still no word from my employer. It makes me feel powerless but for the sake of my children, I have forced myself to remove the word ‘stress’ from my vocabulary. I’ve learned that when hard times come, I just have to accept them. Stress can’t solve problems. I need to stay calm even when I’m hearing about yet more deaths in the neighbourhood.

The day passes surprisingly quickly and in the evening we watch a family film as usual. So far, favourites include: Operation Ouch, The Simpsons, Star Wars and nature documentaries. They allow us to go to far off lands and escape our reality.

Thursday 16th April

I’ve woken up feeling very tired this morning because I kept checking on the children last night. I’m terrified of them becoming unwell and not being able to isolate them properly in this flat. Their bedroom only measures 3.5 by 2.5m and they have to sleep side-by-side.

Earlier this week, there was something on the news about the government ‘airbrushing’ the official Covid death figures and not including the people dying at home. Sometimes I wonder if anyone would help us if we got sick or if we would just become part of those statistics. Many people in situations like ours are feeling invisible at the moment.

Today was shopping day. I did the one hour round trip walk to our local Tesco and returned with our supplies. I hate leaving the children alone to do this and it is the only time each week we are apart. We have a wonderful neighbour who watches over them but every second I am outside I am at risk of catching the virus and I worry about bringing it home to them. Our weekly food shop budget is tight and we’re just about managing. I will feel less concerned when I know exactly where we are with Universal Credit.

Last week a friend of ours put us in contact with a London-based charity who are going to send the children activity packages and lots of books. They have asked especially for Harry Potter. The children’s mattresses are also very old and they have offered to replace them with new ones. As a proud dad, it’s hard to accept charity but I have learned to put such selfish emotions aside for the sake of my children’s welfare.

We don’t have any outside space or a balcony but we still stood up at 8pm to clap for the carers. It’s good to feel part of a force for the good even if we can’t take part in the same way as others can.

Saturday 18th April

I’m feeling conflicted about working today. I still haven’t managed to get through to anyone at my former care agency who can give me a straight answer. They keep saying: “We are in negotiations with the government” whatever that means. As a care worker, I would be considered a key worker and my children could attend school but at the same time, we would all be exposing each other to a higher risk of contracting the virus.

The government still hasn’t issued any advice to people living in overcrowded housing. We have never received any information.

I need to resign myself to the fact that being at home together is the safest option for us all right now - even it is impossible or us to self-isolate if the time comes. I just hope we are able to weather the storm physically and financially.