Covid diaries from around the world – 23rd March 2020

So, after a weekend where many people ignored the instructions to stay home and socially distance and instead went to their caravans, to the pubs, to the beaches and mountains, what can we learn from Madrid, Germany and China who are ahead of us in this?  Thank you to the Philippa in Madrid, Iain in Shanghai and Paul in Germany; you write beautifully and thank you for taking the time to connect us all with your worlds.

Madrid – Saturday 21st March

So we’ve been in lock-down for a week now here in Madrid. As I write on 21/3/20 there are nearly 25,000 infected people and 1350 deaths over 300 of which occurred in the last 24 hours.

Madrid being the capital and the biggest city in Spain has been hit the most. Spain has a very good national health system just like the British system which is free at the point of delivery. However, like the UK it has suffered as a result of the austerity following the economic crisis of 2008 which has been putting its staff under increasing pressure. The virus has obviously ramped this up.

Quite a high percentage of the population are elderly (approx 19%) not that far behind Italy. They are the most vulnerable and are the ones most likely to need intensive care, but it is affecting everyone. Madrid is struggling to meet this need already. 

Thankfully no one we know has had the virus yet. It is quite possible many of us have or have had the virus but are asymptomatic or have only experienced mild symptoms. People are allowed out to go to work if they are unable to work from home; all schools and universities are shut; parks and playgrounds are shut; cafes, bars and restaurants are shut, as are most shops except food shops, supermarkets and chemists.

You can go to the shops to get food and can walk your dog but only individually. Public transport is still operating for those who need to go to work.The police will fine you if you don’t follow these rules. 

So far, there have been very few problems and people seem to be accepting that we are all in this together and this is what’s necessary. It is very very quiet – something you wouldn’t usually say about Madrid – and strange to see empty streets in what is normally such a lively, bustling city.

The Spanish are very sociable so usually out and about. At the moment it feels very surreal and we are slowly getting our heads round the changes and the fact that this may be the situation for the next few weeks.

Getting food hasn’t been a problem. Although there was a little panic buying at the beginning of last week when they announced that the schools were closing, that soon stopped and stocks are generally fine. They limit the number of people who can go into the shops at any one time and you have to keep your distance from each other.

Never has a trip to do a bit of food shopping been so appealing, as now, this is our only chance to go outside the building and get a tiny bit of exercise. We don’t have a dog but would so love to have one now as that would mean the chance to get a bit more exercise and fresh air.

We are very lucky to have a balcony at the front of out flat and a terraza at the back so can get some fresh air there. Every night at 8 o’clock people go to their balconies or windows and show gratitude to the health care workers etc by applauding and cheering. It’s a chance to wave to your neighbours and check in on them too. It helps lift your spirits.  Like Italy, people have been doing mini impromptu concerts from their balconies for their neighbours.

I am incredibly worried about my parents back in the UK (both in their 80s) . My mum has just come out of hospital and my dad recently broke his kneecap. Self isolation as requested by the UK government is not an option. They are currently living with my sister who is a nurse running a renal unit and her husband also a key worker. This is not ideal but our only option at the moment.

I am also worried about work. As a self employed teacher I am now unable to teach people in person only remotely. I am currently working out if this is going to be feasible as I mainly teach school age children and extra classes are probably not going to be a priority over the next few months.

I am increasingly frustrated at the UK’s reluctance to act. I don’t understand why they can’t see that they are going to be in a very similar place to Spain and Italy very quickly. The Spanish government has already said they should have acted sooner.

Time for me to go and listen to some music and check out the plants and flowers on our terraza. It really helps to soothe the soul and take you away from your worries.

Germany

Dear Julie,

Back when Corona wasn’t a European problem (oh my it seems like only yesterday..) there was talk in Germany about how the country would be prepared for a pandemic virus. People were reassured by talk of there being 28.000 intensive care beds in this country. (Remember that figure.)

I think the impact of COVID 19 really hit me when I looked up at the sky and realized I hadn’t seen a plane for days… unusual when you live less than half an hour from one of Europe’s most modern airports…however let’s backtrack.

I, (Paul, 54) live on a farm near Munich, Germany with my wife Sibylle (47) and  two daughters Josie (9) and Penny (7). I commute to work. It is an 80 minute drive to my office in Munich. My wife has spent the last six months campaigning to become mayor of our local town. We are very lucky. We have good jobs and we can plan our lives. The farm is our dream – and of course a financial black hole but that’s another story.

Sibylle and I are both what you might call digitally aware but we are not digital natives – (our children are already well on the way to earning that epithet.) So when corona virus began to impact we were already quite used to home officeing – it appears these days job interviews always begin with the question whether home office is part of the package – I am old enough to remember a time when that was unheard of.

And then there were the first cases in Germany – ironically in Starnberg, one of Bavaria’s wealthiest communities – an auto industry supplier had been using teaching personnel from China and they had infected some of the local employees. The first cases of enforced quarantine. Not enough as it turned out. The next instance I recall is of skiers in Austria contracting the virus and then spreading it everywhere from Hamburg to Reykjavik. Skiing is not cheap (which perhaps explains why many skiing resorts were unwilling to shut down their operations the moment the first corona cases were confirmed in their bit of the Alps.) Money makes the world go round and has a nice line in furthering viruses too.

And yet it still hadn’t impacted me until I realized that things were going from bad to worse in Italy and that this was affecting life in neighbouring Switzerland. I work in the automotive industry – it seemed obvious to me that conferences and car shows were the perfect breeding ground for a social bug like COVID 19. Naively I expected the Geneva Motor Show organizers  to do the right thing and cancel the show immediately. Naively. A virus loves naivety. It took action by the Swiss government to force the cancellation of the biggest   event in the automotive industry’s calendar this spring. The debate in Germany intensified. As we got further into March, the more apparent it became that “social distancing” (what a wonderful juxtaposition) was the only measure available to authorities as long as there is no cure to be found and by imposing social distancing rigorously there may be a chance of reducing the exponential rise of this killer.

Germany is of course a nation of federal states – it is such because of its unusual history – the last time national government was in charge of everything here the world ended up with World War II – so this is why Germany likes to devolve responsibility for matters such as health, police and education to its federal states. It has worked well for over seventy years. COVID 19 has been a bit of a tester though. It has seen one state (Bavaria, where we live) taking the lead and preempting the rest of Germany. Not everybody in Germany is a fan –  seeing it as an example of the Bavarian “Minster of State” conservative Markus Söder scoring leadership brownie points for a time when German  Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel finally vacates her post. Personally, while I am no conservative, Söder has done the right thing for Bavaria insisting on more rigorous social distancing  than anywhere else in this country and was early in closing schools.

For over a week now our girls have been cocooned like their parents surrounded by the paraphernalia of office and school life within the four walls of our farmhouse. As I wrote – we are lucky – we are surrounded by forest and fields and there is no sense of going stir crazy just yet. If you believe the media here most Germans are well behaved – no corona parties or late night raves sticking up two fingers to the establishment. We eat at home, we shop strategically (ie there is no panic buying in our part of the world as that is neither necessary nor is it  socially acceptable) – the logistics chain appears to be working

(still).

So the children have mountains of homework, mum and dad are faced with one telephone conference after the next and if it all gets too unbearable, the kids can skype with their mates (and I can skype with anyone who wants to share a beer digitally).

Did I say lucky? We know people who have been tested and have had a negative result. Thus far I know of no one who has tested positively. I pray that it stays that way but I suspect it won’t.

The mood here in Germany is one of quiet optimism but people have all seen the images of Italian army trucks transporting hundreds of coffins. Has my (our) life changed. Yes –  fundamentally and unequivocally. I wonder today how easy it will be to pick up where we left off. And I wonder whether we should.

And finally, to that figure. The Germans have just announced that they are preparing 56,000 intensive care beds. And there is talk that this won’t be enough.

Shanghai – China

Social distancing is the only strategy that, thus far, has proven to limit the spread of the deadly Coronavirus that is now gripping the world. I feel strongly that it is our duty to practice social distancing, not just to protect ourselves, but to protect the most vulnerable amongst us: the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, and those with essential professions, who must continue going out into the world to work each day.

As an American living in Shanghai, I have seen firsthand how effective the policy of social distancing has been in containing the virus. While life is not yet normal here, the situation has improved drastically since the start of the outbreak. The city is slowly re-opening for business, and the days are getting warmer and sunnier. People are outside again trying to enjoy the first breaths of fresh air after nearly two months in isolation. I spent this past weekend reopening my restaurant for brunch and dinner. It was the first time I had seen groups of friends in nearly two months, and there was a cautious but joyous feeling among us.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, but living under isolation wasn’t simple. What seemed like an impossibility in late January became a firm daily reality, as businesses and schools across the city closed, and people hunkered down in their homes to try and stem the spread of the contagion.

This past week, as the virus exploded across Europe and the US, friends from abroad began reaching out with questions about living under lockdown, social distancing and what this would all mean for their daily lives and sanity. So, here are my humble thoughts, after over a month of home isolation in Shanghai.

First, there are a few practical things you need:

1. Food, Glorious Food

A good grocery delivery service is a life saver but going to get groceries can be a nice break in the day.
Grocery stores will restock every day or two, so there is no need to hoard, just get a reasonable quantity of the groceries and supplies that you need.
Use a fruit and vegetable wash to clean all fresh produce.

2. Essential Protection

Face masks. There wasn’t a run on anything in Shanghai except face masks. If you can find masks from legal, regular sources (not price-hiked in dark corners of the web or diverted from medical workers) then you should get them. They are useful no matter what people say. They help keep your hands off your face.
Ethanol alcohol (70 percent+) to spray down items entering your home and clean your phone a few times a day.
Hand sanitiser and plenty of hand cream to keep your hands from drying out from the sanitiser.

3. Hygiene at Home

Create a quarantine room or area of your house for all external clothing. Shoes come off before you step inside your house and all outdoor clothing items — coats, jackets, shoes, etcetera — stay in that room or area unless they are going back outside with you or you are washing them.
Hats like beanies are useful, so your hair is protected.
Wash your hands twice when you come home; a shower is best.
Wear clothing that you can easily wash; your dry cleaners will probably close.
My early days of isolation were full of frantic communication with my team, suppliers, lawyers and landlords, as we worked to put our businesses into endurance mode, facing a total suspension of venue operations until further notice. Once stability measures were in place, I turned to helping my friends and industry peers — even direct competitors — by acting as a sounding board for decisions that none of us had ever had to consider before. There was unbelievable camaraderie and peer support throughout my industry.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, but living under isolation wasn’t simple.
But over time, the phone began ringing less and less each day and I was enveloped by an eerie blanket of quiet. Faced with the prospect of weeks or months spent primarily at home, my anxiety levels ran high, as the speed of normal life collided with the surreal, suspended nature of life in isolation.

Initially, I lost my rhythm. But after making the mistake of starting The Irishman at 12:30am one Tuesday night and “jet lagging” myself for several days, I made the decision to reset, get on a better schedule, and try to live out the remainder of my time in isolation with some sense of purpose.

A few final pointers:

Don’t binge Netflix. Watch quality movies: cinema classics, documentaries.
Read more, watch TV; favour books over articles.
It’s hard to find so much uninterrupted time on a normal work schedule, so use it wisely.
Don’t watch any TV news and limit your media intake to well-regarded sources.
Keep your home super clean and organised; this also helps you not go insane.
Don’t get on a late schedule with work from home. It’s easy to start going to bed at 3am.
Still go out for a run or bike every day; early mornings are best. Yoga and body work are also great.
If you have kids, drive them out of the city every 1-2 days and run them around at big open parks.
And if you can find a way to be of service to others — helping an elderly neighbour with their groceries, or taking care of a friend’s pet if they’ve suddenly decided to leave town — you will be doing your part to help society and also providing yourself with further sense of purpose during your time of isolation.

In the end, the more than a month I was locked down and barely leaving the house was the best rest I’ve ever had and resulted in some of my most creative thinking in years. I used the time to reorganise my house, computers, catch up on admin, meditate a lot, read several books and watch great films. The hours I worked each day were intense, but less in quantity than what it normally takes to put out the daily fires of office life. My friends with children said these were truly cherished times with their family and they wouldn’t have traded them for anything. I feel energised now, and ready to reengage with the world. I hope that friends elsewhere now undertaking necessary isolation measures can ultimately find some joy and purpose in them, too.

So there we have it.  Let me know how you are so I can share the stories of our lives as these times change and so do we.

x

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