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Quarantine diaries: “‘Home’ has become a complicated concept”

Welcome to Kafkadesk’s Quarantine Diaries, our new segment gathering testimonials from across Central Europe to understand how people in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic are living through the unfolding coronavirus crisis and, maybe, give you some comfort to show you you’re not alone in this ordeal. Today, April, a U.S. citizen usually living in Slovakia but currently locked down in neighbouring Czech Republic with her husband and son, shares her story.

It’s been well over a month since my family – my husband, our young son, and I – made the decision to stay in Czechia during the national quarantine.

I grew up in the area in and around New York City, but left after university to work in international aid and disaster response. I’ve lived in eight different countries since. My husband and I met working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people and left at least 1.5 million people homeless.

We were both there for over a year, and in that time there was also a hurricane, a cholera epidemic, and a contested election accompanied by a brief period of civil unrest. Due to the nature of our work, our relationship was “lockdown tested” more than once before we were married, but I will admit it is a different experience in many ways this time around.

“Lockdown tested”, but an altogether different experience

Back then, we lived in tents within the perimeter of our NGO’s base, took bucket showers, and relied on our generator for electricity. When it came to supplies, we worried a lot more about running out of diesel than toilet paper, and the MREs we ate during lockdowns were a welcome change from our usual fare. We never had to think about a toddler interrupting conference calls, let alone who would care for him if we became ill or how to continue his vaccine schedule now that his regular pediatrician is on the other side of a closed national border.

Importantly, we had more or less chosen to put ourselves in that situation. One can never predict the future, but we had a good idea of the risks when we signed on, so we were to some extent psychologically and materially prepared. Our local friends and colleagues, however, had no more choice about their circumstances then than any of us have in being caught up in the current pandemic.

For the last six years, my husband and I have been splitting our time between his native Slovakia and Czechia, where he works and I am once again studying. Earlier this year, when people started asking me if we planned to stay in Brno or go home during the coronavirus outbreak, I had to ask if they meant Slovakia or New York, or even one or two other places where I’ve maintained deep connections over the years. In reality, it was an easy decision to make: it would make no sense to suddenly fly off to a country where I haven’t lived for years, and where my husband can only stay for a few months. Still, it is not entirely without emotion that I read the US Embassy’s emails detailing the last flights to the States, not because we were not on them, but because the decision to stay feels like an answer to a question that is often on the mind of many expats: where is home? (And perhaps by extension, where is it not?).

All things considered, we are fortunate to be where we are. My husband is able to work from home, and while my studies have been partially interrupted, it has given me the opportunity to focus on my thesis in genetics, which is what I find most rewarding. Plus, we have more time together as a family.

Children grow up so quickly, and too many times recently I have felt that I was working too much and missing parts of my son’s life that I would never be able to replace. Of course, I would never have wanted our lives to slow down for the reasons that they have, but all the same I can’t escape the feeling that this time together is precious.

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Czech Republic and Slovakia declared a state of national emergency early March, when both countries only had a few confirmed cases of Covid-19 infection.

Comparing the Czech and Slovak response

Outside of our home, the swift response of both the Czech and Slovak governments, combined with the willingness of the public to follow the implemented measures, has resulted in a relatively good epidemiological situation so far. Thus we are able to enjoy freedoms that are not possible in some places, such as going outside for exercise. How the situation develops moving forward will depend on continued good management by both the government and the people.quarantine diaries

In many ways, the Czech and Slovak governments are now going in opposite directions, with the Czech government preparing to reopen the country to some extent, and the Slovak government continuing to introduce still stricter controls.

Some say that Czechia is opening too much too soon and that people aren’t now following the measures as well as they were in the beginning, while others believe that Slovakia’s measures are becoming draconian beyond what is justified by the situation, but I will leave those debates to the experts. Time will tell who has managed best.quarantine diaries

What I will say is that the response of many individuals here has been laudable. So many people have reacted to the situation by asking, “How can I help?”, and because of that we have thousands of hand sewn masks, increased production of cleaning products, 3D printed respirators, childcare for frontline responders, cab drivers delivering groceries to the elderly, etc.

While there are pockets of dissent, overall there is a sense of solidarity and resilience. The organisation my husband and I worked for in Haiti, at the time called All Hands Volunteers and now called All Hands and Hearts after merging with Happy Hearts Fund (which was founded by a Czech woman – small world!), was built on the idea that with the right coordination, everyone with the motivation to do good can help in meaningful ways in the wake of a disaster.

Worries about my native New York

They have proven the value of this idea time and again since they began work in 2004, and it’s a concept that I see at work all around me now, with everyone from children to great-grandparents finding ways to help even without leaving their homes. More than any other experience I’ve had, my time with All Hands shaped my perspective on the world and our capacity as individuals to respond productively in the face of events outside our control and much larger than any of us. quarantine diaries

Seeing a similar attitude in action here resonates with me, and makes me feel at home. It is a mindset I can relate to and an approach that I believe will bring us through the pandemic as smoothly as possible.

The situation in New York was inevitably going to be difficult, given the amount of international travel in and out of the city and its high population density, and things were made worse by the late and erratic response of the federal government. Nonetheless, the local response led by Governor Cuomo has resulted in a remarkably rapid build-up of medical resources, and the projected outcome is much better now than it was a few weeks ago. I remember well the spirit with which New Yorkers came together in the wake of 9/11, and I have no doubt that they will find their way through this challenge as well.

That being said, the political divisions among Americans are at present the deepest they’ve been in decades, and there is a lot of anger and finger-pointing going around. Also, there seems to be a keener focus in the US on the ways in which people’s lives have been disrupted and the things they are missing. I’ve heard Americans, particularly those of my generation, use words like grief, trauma, and hardship much more often in contexts where people here would tend to choose a word like inconvenience or disappointment. quarantine diaries

Perhaps this is partly because it has been longer since an event of this magnitude happened on their home soil. In Europe, I’ve heard many of the older generation draw similarities to sheltering during WWII, and of course Czechs and Slovaks have experienced several major historical events in relatively recent history, each of which was accompanied by a period of disruption and uncertainty.

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Earlier this month, the Czech Republic unveiled a 5-step plan to ease anti-coronavirus restrictions.

Trauma and hardships: the U.S. and European differences

I can only speculate here, but I suspect that cultural memory and the lessons learned may be a source of strength in facing new events. Whatever its origin, this reaction among my American friends and family is difficult for me to relate to. For example, I’ve seen several articles published by Americans discussing how giving birth during the pandemic is traumatic because only the fathers are allowed to be present and they can’t receive other visitors at the hospital. (Here even the father is not allowed to be present, but that is not the case in US.).

When my son was born, I didn’t have any visitors at the hospital aside from my husband, and because of the distance and health issues it was a year before my father and my son were able to meet each other. My dad and I are very close and it was sad for all of us that he wasn’t able to meet his grandson as a baby. But I would not call it traumatic; that is a word I reserve for situations that involve much greater loss, risk, or fear.

I don’t know if the difference in how we describe things lies in the way we use language or represents a real distinction in how we are experiencing and processing events. Either way, it complicates communication and adds a layer of disconnection, even at a time when I feel more connected than usual because I am receiving many more calls and emails from the States than normal. All of this contributes to the sense that “home” has become a complicated concept.quarantine diaries

Vulnerable countries and communities most at risk of the pandemic

What concerns me the most are the potential consequences of the pandemic in developing countries as well as in refugee and IDP camps, where access to health care is often limited and social distancing and sanitation measures can be more difficult to implement. My first job abroad involved work in rural villages in Rajasthan. Some villages could only be reached on foot, making travel to nearby towns a prolonged process, and one that would be difficult for an ill person who needed to leave for medical treatment.

Many of the rural health centres were partially or fully unstaffed, and the medical supplies were often limited to gauze and NSAIDs. Such villages not only lack access to health care, but also are often outside the scope of government monitoring measures. It is highly unlikely that widespread testing will be possible there (although I hope that to some extent NGOs will be able to supplement the government in this endeavour), and therefore there is the risk that COVID-19 may spread widely within a population before it is identified.quarantine diaries

Even the dissemination of information regarding the occurrence of COVID-19 and preventive measures is more complicated in such contexts. Not only is illiteracy common, but villages only a dozen kilometres from each other may speak mutually unintelligible dialects. We once needed five different translators for a single day of field work.

The dissemination of information will therefore often need to take place on the village level, and this will have to be carried out by a limited number of people and with limited travel and interpersonal contact. At the other extreme of population density are urban slums and refugee camps, where the conditions are rife to facilitate the spread of deadly diseases, like cholera at the time, coronavirus maybe today.

The scientific community on the frontline

Despite the challenges, I see many reasons for hope. Around the world, the vast majority of people have willingly complied with the necessary measures for the good of their communities. Because of our advances in technology, governments have been able to communicate these emergency measures quickly and clearly. Moreover, we are able to stay connected to friends and family all over the world even while self-isolating. Perhaps my greatest cause for hope comes from the scientific community.

While the roots of the study of genetics lie in Mendel’s work here in Brno in the 1850s and 60s, it wasn’t until 1976 that the first full genome sequence was completed by direct determination sequencing. Less than 50 years since then, after several iterations of the introduction and refinement of improved sequencing methods, the full sequence of SARS-CoV-2 was available almost as quickly as the outbreak was recognised. Scientists now sequence many samples of the virus daily and deposit them to a database available to other researchers. quarantine diaries

As of 17 April, there are 1084 sequences of SARS-CoV-2 samples from around the world available to researchers on GenBank, along with tools to search the genome and to compare it to other sequences of interest such as related viruses. Tracking mutations (small changes in the sequence of the virus) provides the key to reconstructing how it has traveled around the globe. Further, knowing the virus’ genetic sequence allows us to predict its protein structures, and that in turn gives us information on how it can interact with and enter human cells, which other species it might be able to infect, and potential target sites for drugs.

Humanity’s better nature on full display

Specialists from a wide spectrum of other fields, including bioinformatics, molecular biology, and pharmacology (among many, many others), are likewise advancing our knowledge of the virus at breakneck pace. Never in history have we had so many tools at our disposal to understand and fight against a pathogen, and every day new steps are made towards the development of vaccines and treatment options. Indeed, the scale of the scientific collaboration now taking place is truly remarkable. One need look no further than this effort to see humanity’s better nature on full display.

In the words of Dr. Jane Goodall: ”You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.” It is inspiring to see so many people, from those sewing masks at home to scientists to frontline responders, choosing to have a positive impact in these times. quarantine diaries

There are still many challenges to overcome, as to some extent is always the case, but I am greatly encouraged by the resourcefulness and resolve that I’ve seen demonstrated in so many communities, both locally and globally.

Stay tuned for more of our ongoing quarantine diaries segment, Central Europe edition!

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