Covid-19 diaries: From Shanghai to Amsterdam

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Read about experiences of South Africans (living in China and Canada), a Namibian (studying in Amsterdam) and citizens of Spain and the United States of America here.

Mable-Ann Chang (from South Africa, working in Shanghai, China)

I was travelling with my family in Northeast China in December when news reports of a “pneumonia outbreak” in Wuhan began appearing on the news. Wuhan, at the time, seemed far away, with the outbreak not even on most people’s minds. But, by the time I got back to Shanghai – the city that I’m currently living in – in mid-January, things had completely changed. News updates on what we now know as Covid-19 were pouring in daily, soon becoming the only topic that everyone was talking about, much like in South Africa now.

The seven-day-long Chinese New Year holiday began on 24 January, with hundreds of millions of people travelling to their hometowns to spend the holiday with their families, essentially leaving many businesses shuttered and typically bustling streets in Shanghai deserted. Seeing major cities in China eerily quiet over Chinese New Year is nothing new. How long it would take for those streets to become filled with people again, however, was.

Just before and during Chinese New Year, Covid-19 began spreading like wildfire, with the government struggling to control it. Hubei province, the epicentre of the virus with a population roughly the same size as Italy’s, was put under strict lockdown overnight, with people across the country told not to travel. It became mandatory to wear masks in public, and we were issued passes to enter and exit housing complexes. Many other precautionary measures were put in place as well, with everyone being on edge and making sure they followed laid-out regulations carefully. In more seriously affected areas, only one person per family was allowed to make trips to the supermarket twice a week.

After weeks of a tough battle, lots of stress as well as thousands of infections and deaths, Covid-19 was eventually brought under control in China, with the country reporting no new domestic cases on 19 March (there were a few cases after that date, but in small numbers). We have not yet relaxed, but Shanghai has over the past week regained a sense of normalcy. Office workers have finally returned to work, and businesses that survived have reopened. Wuhan is due to be released from their lockdown in two weeks.

I remember phoning my mom in Cape Town nearly every day while I was on lockdown, giving her the latest updates. She was worried about me at the time, but now that Covid-19 has reached South African shores, the worry is travelling in the other direction. Seeing family, friends and fellow South Africans go through the same panic that we went through here is not easy. Ultimately, the most important things are to get your news from trustworthy sources (I cannot emphasise this enough), stay home, stay safe and stay positive.

There is light at the end of the tunnel.

29 March 2020

Tania Calleja Reina (Spain)

From my balcony

It is 7:50 pm, and like every day, we lean out from our balconies, windows and rooftops. From my balcony, I can see the avenues. Empty, quiet, lifeless. But things will change in a few minutes, since we love to take pleasure in every single moment.

It is 8:00 pm, and we are ready for the show to start. From our balconies, it is time to be united, to give love, to share the pain. Every night, we think about someone. Health workers, police bodies, armed forces, cashiers, housekeepers – tonight, this moment is for them. From my balcony, I can see my neighbours. Families, children, elderly – tonight, we feel closer than ever. We clap, we yell, we sing, we play, we cheer up. From our balconies, we also cry.

It is already well past 8:00 pm, and people refuse to come back to confinement. We have so much life to live, and so much love to give. From my balcony, overwhelmed by the unstoppable applause, I can see the gratitude of an honourable country.

27 March 2020

You don’t deserve us

During the last two weeks, Spanish society has shown its responsibility, humanity and generosity. Many gestures of solidarity have come up throughout the whole country.

Donations from individuals and companies, police and military bodies working against the clock, health workers doing double shifts until exhaustion, cashiers attending with a big smile in spite of the situation, cleaning services keeping our streets clean and disinfected, researchers building 3D protection masks and medical respirators, universities sharing their know-how, restaurants and takeaways offering food and refreshment for free to lorry drivers and health workers, artists sharing their talents, teachers pursuing online lessons, children behaving patiently, families staying safe at home, the elderly waiting for a miracle to come.

Spanish society deserves my respect and admiration, but you – you don’t deserve us.

28 March 2020

Tanya Brückner (from Namibia, studying in Amsterdam, the Netherlands)

I live in Amsterdam, and we’ve been in “lockdown” for almost three weeks now. Some people have not been happy with the way the Dutch government has handled the situation, as no full lockdown has been implemented, but the measures have been tightened almost every week. We’re still allowed to go outside and also visit people (groups not allowed, and if more than three people, you have to keep 1,5 metres’ distance, else you face a hefty fine of €400). I’ve noticed a big increase in police activity around; they patrol the streets and sometimes the parks, and are making sure that people adhere to the distancing rules. People have been pretty good at keeping physical distance and seem to respect the rules. Almost all businesses and shops are closed, and last Monday it was announced that all public gatherings and events are cancelled until June. My university is closed until then, too, and it’s been challenging for many lecturers to restructure education this way, and also to provide solutions for people whose internships have been compromised during this time. Many internationals have left Amsterdam to go home.

The government has been quite good with providing safety nets – they’re subsidising many restaurants and retailers so that they can still pay their staff, and tenant eviction due to lost income is banned during the crisis.

In the beginning, there was a sense of panic, with similar trends to other places around the world, like toilet paper being sold out; but, to me, it generally seems like people have started adjusting to life as it is now. There have been incredible acts of kindness and efforts to uplift other people – ranging from people leaving tulips outside their neighbours’ doors to hosting bingo for the elderly through the use of a speaker.

1 April 2020

Emely Louise (United States of America)

I am a high school teacher, and although I have not felt the severity as directly as medical professionals, the task of moving our pedagogy and practices to a completely online platform has called for some radical ingenuity, flexibility and collaboration on everyone’s part. We found out on Friday 13 March that our school would be closed indefinitely, and that we had until the following Wednesday, 18 March, to prepare, invent and launch virtual high school. We worked incessantly for the next four days, navigating through all of the challenges and uncertainties that presented themselves. Our biggest concern as a staff was that we would lose kids – they would just “not show up” or not do work, and we would have no way to contact them. We all asked ourselves, “How motivated would we be at 15 to do this all by ourselves?” Well, Wednesday morning came, and despite an influx of questions and various hiccups, we successfully launched. With 96% attendance, our students showed up, did the work, asked good questions –and continue to do so. We all – teachers, staff, admin and students – have had to lean on each other in a new way through all of this. Although it’s most heartbreaking for our seniors – as it is for all seniors around the world – this experience has shed light on how caring, compassionate, dedicated, creative and loving people can be when posed with the challenge (or opportunity?) to be so.

28 March 2020

Matt O’Hallaron (United States of America)

I am currently working at the largest hospital in the St Louis area, and we are preparing for a massive outbreak. I have been pulled from my previous role and am now at the busiest entrance of the hospital, where I am screening every single patient as they enter, and enforcing strict hospital policies unthinkable just mere weeks ago. I have had to turn crying families away from their dying loved ones at the end of life, as only two family members are allowed in. Some patients choose to have a member of the clergy accompany them, meaning that only one member of their family may be with them in their final moments. I have had to tell a woman, dying of brain cancer, that she could not be accompanied by her husband to treatment, because they had recently come from New York, and all visitors from there are restricted – from there and 28 other states, a list that grows morbidly longer every day. On Monday, there were five. I can only imagine how my experience now will pale in comparison with those working in the ICU, just a few floors above me, in the coming weeks. There are white tents being erected nearby the hospital entrances, people in full protective gear waving cars into testing areas. Roads normally filled with cars are now barren during the busiest part of the day. The census of the hospital, normally close to 3 000, has dropped to 500 as we prepare for the flood. My neighbourhood, filled with restaurants and normally radiating with laughter and music, is silent. It is a strange feeling, our collective silence against the beauty of a spring bird’s song, the splendour of the dogwoods in bloom.

28 March 2020 

Maya Fowler Sutherland (from South Africa, living in Canada) 

I live in Revelstoke, a town of around 7 000 people in summer, and double that population in winter. We’re in British Columbia, which is the westernmost province of Canada. Like everywhere else in the world, much has ground to a halt here. Revelstoke Mountain Resort, the ski “hill”, as they call it (though it’s actually an enormous mountain), closed for the season on 18 March: a whole month early. It’s a major employer, and many of the employees there are from abroad: Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Japan, but also the east of Canada. At first, it seemed that things might be closed for a week or two, but as health officials provided information day by day and it became apparent that this would not be just some little hiccup, the seasonal workers started making an early exodus. Shoulder season is usually quiet, but this is tremendously so.

I was hoping to support the local bookshop before everything closed down, but have been unable to reach them by phone or even email. I tried to return my copy of Margaret Atwood’s The year of the flood (how did I manage to choose that one right now?) to the library, but found it closed “until further notice”. There was a sign asking people to refrain from leaving library materials in the drop box “out of respect for the health and safety of our employees”. The supermarkets (there are two in town) have clear notices at the door with guidelines: stay two metres from your neighbour, please refrain from handling things you’re not planning to buy, no reusable shopping bags, sanitise hands here and stand in line on the blue dots as you wait for the cashier. The cashiers at one supermarket wear masks; sneeze guards have been installed at both stores to provide a barrier between shopper and cashier. As I was struggling to get something into my car tonight, an elderly gent hollered from across the street that he’d almost rushed to my aid, but then remembered he’s not allowed to! We laughed about it. In person, people are mostly friendly; online, they are mostly rabid. Ah, plus ça change.

At this point, different provinces have called for different measures, but in a press conference on 12 March, Doug Ford, premier of Ontario, alarmed health experts by encouraging people to “go away and have a good time” over the March break. Things are very different now. While there are travel restrictions, the response is nothing like the lockdown in South Africa. That could change, but the government here seems hesitant to enforce the War Measures Act because of a reluctance to curtail civil liberties.

I look at the bookshelf beside me, and the copy of Deon Meyer’s Fever catches my eye. I picked it up from one of those marvellous Little Free Libraries in Vancouver just before moving here, but haven’t found time to read it yet. I reach for it and wonder whether now is a good time.

29 March 2020

Also read

COVID-19: Four continents. Eight stories.

COVID-19 diaries: An account from China

COVID-19: ’n Suid-Afrikaner in New York

"Ek het positief getoets vir COVID-19": ’n Suid-Afrikaner in Washington, DC

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