Earlier this summer, alumni from around the world shared their experiences with COVID-19 and how they have differed from what many of us have seen in the U.S. with Director of Alumni Relations Maria Taylor. Here are some of their stories.
Rick Wasfy ’00 - Calgary, Western Canada
Here in Western Canada, we have been quite safe compared to central Canada and so many other countries. Calgary, where we live, was the hardest hit in the province but case numbers never got that high, and with 1,000 ICU beds available we never got over 20-30 in use. My wife Amber and I “moved” to our lake house on March 13, when we thought we were just coming down for the weekend, and other than two trips to Calgary for supplies and to check on that house we have stayed here. My first day back at the office will be on June 16. We usually have 15 people in our office and we are moving forwards with a 6-person limit so I will be in the office 2-3 days a week and spending the rest of the work week working from the lake house.
The toughest part has been living in a country with a locked border with my mom on the other side. She has made the decision during this pandemic that she does not like that feeling and she is going to move to Calgary when borders open and she can be sponsored for a visa. My family has started a Saturday Zoom call. My aunts, cousins, and their kids in England and Switzerland plus my mom in Virginia, and Amber and me all join up and spend an hour talking about what is going on in our lives, seeing each other, and waving our arms off as people pop in and out of the meeting as their schedules fit. It is something that I hope lasts long after the pandemic is over as I have never felt closer to my family.
Canadians are very similar to Americans. There were shortages of toilet paper at stores but also people standing outside giving some away for free. What people had extra of they shared, and what they needed they were given. It was the same way during the floods in Calgary five years ago, just really good, giving, helpful people.
Terrence Chu H’11 - Hong Kong
Due to Hong Kong's early response to the situation, there wasn't a complete lockdown as compared to the U.S. and some European countries. We were allowed to gather in [groups of] a maximum of four people with public health measures (e.g., temperature screening) and social distancing measures at restaurants. Other than restaurants, public facilities and movie theaters were all closed. It did last quite a while, but things are easing up now as the party size is increased to eight as we haven’t had any new local cases in a while.
In 2003, Hong Kong had been through SARS, a much deadlier pandemic, so the community was acutely aware of the need to improve personal hygiene and maintain physical distancing.
I think the experiences [in the U.S. and Hong Kong] were quite similar in the beginning. We went through the panic buying, work from home arrangements, shortage of surgical masks, etc. The difference was that we did it months before and that people were more willing to abide by social distancing measures and wear surgical masks. I think life has pretty much returned to normal in Hong Kong, but everyone is seen wearing masks on a daily basis even in the hot and humid summers!
Melody Edemen ’17 - Spain
There was a very strict lockdown procedure put in place by the Spanish government, which was enforced by the Spanish military and police. We have been in lockdown since the middle of March, and have only started to open the economy (properly) at the beginning of June.
The Spanish community responded in a very understanding yet extremely concerned manner. When the news broke that the Coronavirus had been very rapidly and negatively affecting Italy, everyone in Spain started anxiously wondering when it would officially hit our country. Once we got the alert that it was spreading, especially in the capital of Madrid, we called a meeting with my school and my job to create a plan for studying and working in the walls of my apartment in Barcelona. Grocery stores emptied out in the blink of an eye. From the first day of quarantine, the citizens of Barcelona came together every single evening at 8 p.m. to chant and clap and sing for the courageous medical community for all their hard work and bravery … it was beautiful. Watching everyone’s homes light up, and the people coming out to their balconies. It gave us a sense that we will fight through this together!
The experience in Spain was very different from what I saw and heard for the U.S. Our lockdown was strictly patrolled by the police and military. If we needed to go outside, we had to be alone, wearing masks and wearing gloves. If you needed to go to your job or school, you needed an official/signed document by your boss or administration to present to the police if you were stopped. And if you were out for reasons other than official job/school reasons, medical reasons, or for groceries, you could be fined anywhere between 250-3,000 euros. We were not allowed to travel — for the first time in my life, holding an American passport did me no good. I attempted to come back to the United States twice and was denied the first time, and only made it the second time through a very extensive period of speaking to airport, airline, government, and embassy officials.
I find it very funny (and tremendously interesting) just how different the cultures are in the U.S. and Spain … even with a topic as random as hygiene, there are huge discrepancies between the Americans and the Spanish in regards to their hygienic habits. In America, most people use an excess amount of toilet paper, whereas in Spain, you use less toilet paper and a bidet … so toilet paper was definitely not an issue! However, finding any form of meat, pasta, or rice was very difficult (and of course face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers were almost impossible to acquire).
During quarantine, I decided to take advantage and make the best of the situation and circumstances! Since I live by myself, I knew it would be very lonely and difficult to feel in control and optimistic about my day. I woke up early every morning and stuck to my morning routine, and also incorporated yoga and meditation. I spent my days reading books (on my iPad as bookstores were closed), doing work for my internship and school, exercising vigorously towards the end of the day (through YouTube tutorials), being extra vigilant about my nutrition and self-care routines, reading the news throughout the day, and staying in contact with all my loved ones. I also decided to take a certification course with Cornell University, as I saw this was a great opportunity to expand my mind further my knowledge without any interruptions! As bizarre as it was to not enjoy the outdoors or get to see my friends and family, I personally loved the way I utilized my time at home. This was a chance for me to really push myself with my discipline, and also to focus more on what I love and wanted to do … so I did it!
Carolina Mello Reis ’07 - Brazil
Right now Brazil is under an on-going lockdown. A few stores are open, but with reduced working hours and restrictions regarding how many people can be inside. Some restaurants have opened again with the same restrictions, and shopping malls remain closed. I live in Porto Alegre City, which is the capital of the largest state further south of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul. So we border Uruguay and Argentina; we are in the region where the Gaucho culture exists.
People down here are more used to cooler weather and familiar with intense seasonal changes, which is different from the other regions in Brazil, such as the north which is the Amazon Rainforest region where people do not experience major temperature changes from summer to winter. Keep in mind this is the Southern Hemisphere, so the lockdown began at the end of summer for us and now we are entering a very cold winter that will last until September. Because folks down here know how severe the weather can become and how viruses can easily spread, and how vulnerable people, animals, living beings in general can become in harsh winters, people took the lockdown very seriously. The state capital and suburban area has around 4.5 million people, and since mid-March the streets have been quiet and very empty. Everything has slowed down and the vast majority of the population has stayed at home.
If you leave home now, everyone is using masks. You cannot enter stores or use public parks without masks on. There have been recent attempts to re-open some services, such as the ones involved in the tourism sector, but recently many services/locations closed again. So right now, things are mostly closed.
At first, we had a major shortage of hand sanitizer, so we used more soap and water. At the beginning people rushed to stock food and cleaning products, but nothing got out of hand. Major industries such as beverages and cleaning products brands allowed their factories to produce gel hand sanitizer and some states passed laws to encourage production so the hand sanitizer scarcity ended in less than a month.
During March and April, I reached out to close friends in the U.S. to find how if they were doing well and they were. We talked about the lockdown situation — some friends were spending more time at home with their children, others work in the medical field and get to experience the situation more upfront, which is very tough, and I appreciate their courage and immense effort, and feel extremely proud of them. Our experience seemed very alike. Those of us that were able to work from home, were sent home and began working; we were all focusing on obeying the lockdown and only leaving home for essentials such as groceries and pharmacies.
Thankfully I am able to work from home. I am the sales executive at a startup company that connects people with social projects around the world for volunteer exchange programs. Besides my job, I have used this opportunity to connect more with family and friends, I FaceTime more with the people who are dear in my life. I make sure I talk with my parents and my aunt a couple of times a week, just to check in how they are doing, because everyone is bored after months of lockdown, so it is important to connect and ease the burden a bit. With close friends around once a month we plan Zoom chats and gather in larger groups, which is fun. Whenever someone is having a birthday we have to start to share delivery for birthday presents such as breakfast baskets or birthday cakes or balloons. These actions are tiny but they can cheer up someone’s day and these are times that we need to focus on finding creative solutions to bring warmth to those who are important to us.
Other than connecting with people, I find a lot of happiness watching nature and observing it; it's my personal anti-stress activity. I am lucky that I had pets before all of this started, so right now I have three guinea pigs: Luna, Illi and Flocke. They bring me a lot of joy on a daily basis. Guinea pigs demand attention and care, and ask for food a lot, so they help me take my mind off the major worries and focus more on the present. Mr. Atwood would love them!!!
Diego Fildes-Torrijos ’04 - Czech Republic
These months have been rather eventful and odd for me as a music producer, DJ, and event manager at a local club in Brno called Vibe Club. There was an immediate lockdown restriction here in the Czech Republic starting before virtually every other European country at the very beginning of March when the first cases in Italy were reported. Borders here were closed and Czech citizens who had the misfortune of being abroad at that time had to be quarantined for two weeks in complete isolation from everyone upon their return. The general quarantine for all of us here who were not abroad lasted throughout April, and the city of Brno where we live was like a ghost town. Wearing masks outdoors and indoors was required from early March all the way through June 15. Now we no longer have to wear masks outside, but there are measures still in place for offices and businesses, especially clubs, bars and restaurants.
The community responded diligently and proactively. Two things that Czech people value apart from hockey, beer, and spas, are comfort and safety, therefore not abiding by laws and regulations was simply not an option, and it was what spared us the worst of this pandemic, thankfully.
Our experience here was extremely different from the U.S. People did not take the quarantine period lightly and by not being at social gatherings early on we incurred very few deaths and incidents, comparatively. Within approximately two months’ time we more or less returned to our normal routines here without suffering any notable threat to our health.
During the quarantine I spent loads of quality time with my wife and baby, and worked loooong hours in my music studio on new songs and albums that I am currently publishing under the moniker James D. I also managed to get many financial tasks completed since living abroad also comes with the need to abide by U.S. tax requirements. Thankfully, we received extensions on our tax deadlines and COVID returns. I am grateful that the U.S. continues to consider its citizens living abroad and assists us wherever possible.
I have been living in Europe for 10 years now and homesickness begins to settle in every now and again. My wife, baby, and I were meant to travel back to Washington in 2020, but alas these plans did not go through because of COVID-19. We only hope next year to have the chance to return, enjoy some time for me back home, and see friends and family.
Brian Lainoff ’07 - London, UK
Lockdown officially started on March 23. In my local area, it seemed like most people stayed inside or left for the countryside. In the UK as whole, there were some pretty cool stories about clapping for carers every Thursday at 8 p.m. — this made international news. I live in a flat on a garden square with my wife, Daisy, and the local real estate agent held a social distance concert on the square for VE Day, which was a nice way to lift spirits in the middle of lockdown.
It seems both the U.S. and U.K. has similar responses to the pandemic. The U.K. has been slower to re-open, which is for the best, but that doesn't erase the fact that the U.K. was the last country in Europe to close its borders and enter lockdown. I don't think the U.K. experienced the toilet paper craze as much as the U.S. We were more focused on food back ups and ensuring everyone had access to food. There was a funny story about lasagna pasta being the only type of pasta on shelves because no one wanted it.
During quarantine, I’ve spent my time house cleaning, doing family Zoom sessions and pub quizzes, building a massive Lego Harry Potter Castle and the Millennium Falcon, and drinking wine! But for the most part I’ve been focused on work.
Now retail stores have opened and there are definitely more people out and about. I coach baseball in the U.K. and some of our players are meeting up to train at safe social distances. I don't think we will see the true impact from the pandemic for a while though.
These stories have been edited for length and clarity, but reflect first-person testimonials as shared during the months of May and June of 2020.