Diary of the ordinary during a pandemic – part I: Fire on the opposite shore

by Rie Atagi

Beginning of January

I heard news of a new virus, COVID-19, so called Corona virus, in Wuhan, China. Shameful, I know, but it was another sad news happening somewhere in the world. Fire on the opposite shore. It stuck in the back of my mind only because the news reported this virus could spread across boarders since the Lunar New Year holiday, the Chinese biggest celebration, was coming near and a massive Chinese tourist flow was expected. 

January 30

We went to Singapore for the weekend to cheer for our son’s sports tournament. Corona virus was a concern, but there were only a handful of cases in Singapore, and the tournament proceeded as scheduled. I heard there would be a screening of foreign visitors at the Changi airport but didn’t notice any difference from previous visits, except hand sanitisers were available for public use here and there. 

I expected the Singaporeans to be more protective, but the media was probably exaggerating the threat. Only some people on Orchard Road were wearing masks, most were not. I had given my son, who had left earlier with the team, a mask to wear on the plane. I wonder if he wore it. Probably not.

February 3

My dance teacher came from Japan for a workshop in Bangkok. She said she felt uneasy to travel due to the Corona virus outbreak, but I think PM 2.5 is much worse and threatening than Corona virus. I feel my throat is a bit itchy, perhaps due to PM 2.5. 

February 5

I went to voice training with my friend for the first time. It was fun to sing aloud, but I felt a bit hesitant when the teacher asked me to hold a pen in my mouth as a part of practice. It was my own pen, but it could still be covered with germs. I think I should carry a wipe-off now just in case.

February 17

My high school son started a week of “Global Citizens Week” where students participate in community services elsewhere in the world. However, due to the concern of the Corona virus spread, all overseas trips had been cancelled and switched to domestic travel. I guess school is taking a “safety first” policy, but I think they are being over cautious. By the way, commuting in a bus full of kids – will that be safe enough? I guess so.

February 20

My dance teacher informed us of the cancelation of the next workshop in March. Since Japan is on the list of “countries with ongoing local transmission,” those who travelled from Japan need to be “under observation (supervision without quarantine)” whatever that means. 

Thai schools are not receiving any visitors from Japan. I was helping to organise the Japanese teachers and high school students visits to Thai schools, but both were cancelled. I have five events cancelled for the next two weeks. What a bummer!

February 21

I went to Karaoke with my friend for a follow up voice training practice. It was funny she sprayed anti-bacterial spray everywhere and wiped off everything we may touch before starting. “All set.” She smiled. What if we are the carriers?? 

February 23

Prior to the mid-term break (Feb 24-28), my son’s school sent us a letter that the Thai Ministry of Education would require a mandatory 14 days self-quarantine for anyone returning to Thailand from China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. My friend cancelled her family trip to the US since her plane was to stop over at Narita for a couple of hours. The quarantine was required for travellers transiting at these places as well. “Ridiculous,” I thought. 

March 3

My son’s school opened one day late after the mid-term break since teachers needed to prepare for those students self-quarantined. During the break, some countries were removed from and added on the list of high-risk areas requiring self-quarantine. Accordingly, some had to quarantine unexpectedly when they got back from the trip. 

Quarantine was required even when a family member of the same household returned from these places. Some of my friends said their husbands were staying in a hotel after the business trips, so that their kids could go to school. Such dedication. I don’t know why this virus is so threatening, since regular flu takes away a much larger number of lives every year.

March 6

My son’s school called back those students who had been quarantined due to the trip to France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, since the Ministry of Public Health removed them from the list of high-risk countries. Yet, the Thai Ministry of Education still required them to complete their self-quarantine period. Accordingly, school was closed until March 16th. Miscommunication and inconsistency of policies amongst agencies happen, but this was very disappointing. My boy is a senior. He should be studying and enjoying his last high school days to its fullest. 

March 9

School informed us it will stay closed until March 23rd, since 14 days quarantine was required after 6th. I heard many students who had been to Japan during the mid-term break were allowed back at school. The newspaper reports many new infected cases in Thailand from those who had been to Japan. I heard my friend’s husband who works for a Japanese company was avoided by others when riding the elevator in the office building. I am a Japanese but haven’t gone back for more than a year. I feel I should wear a sign! 

March 11

The WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. Tension was heightening. Following China, Italy’s infection was overshooting. The fire on the opposite shore was blazing. 

However, only 59 cases and one death were detected so far in Thailand. Perhaps the tropical weather is helping. My husband said he is closing the office, switching to telework. I don’t think the situation is that serious. He found out his colleague had a dinner with a Singaporean friend who tested positive and his driver shared a public bathroom with someone who tested positive. Tele-work is fine, but I think he is overreacting.

March 12

The president of my daughter’s college in Florida announced school would move to virtual learning, starting March 23, which was when spring break ended, through the rest of the semester. I could feel his pain in this decision making. I heard some colleges in the Northeast were switching to online teaching, but I didn’t expect this in Florida. 

Yet no time for lament. We need to decide what to do since students are expected to vacate their dormitories in two days. She has nowhere to stay. She has grandparents and some aunties in Michigan. Can we ask them to host her? They would be happy to help, but the news said this Corona virus could be fatal for the aged and those with existing respiratory diseases. We cannot risk them. School said students could ask for special permission to stay on campus, but there will be no activities on campus. She is inclined to take this option, but only a handful of students will remain on campus. Can she cope with the uncertainty and loneliness alone? 

March 14

In the end, we decided to have her come home. At this point, neither the US nor Thailand is any safer to stay, but at least she will be with us in Thailand. She needs a stable place to study, even virtually, for another two months, and you never know how long this situation will last. Considering her need to pack up and avoid the flights transiting in high-risk areas, the most economical flight we could get is scheduled to arrive on the 18th

I have been very worried about her for the last couple of days. Congested airports and closed airplanes are not very ideal to be in for thirty-plus hours. There is no way of knowing the invisible virus spreading among the travellers. I heard four out of five infected have either mild or no symptoms. I kept telling myself, even if she gets infected, she would be fine since she is still very young and fit. 

Another concern was immigration. Thailand has detected thirty-plus new cases per day for the last few days. Tighter measures to restrict the people entering the Kingdom have been discussed. I understand any traveller including my own daughter can be a carrier of the virus, but I just wish they will let her in. 

When she texted “On the way to the airport,” I learned that new measures including a medical certificate to prove negative for infection and health insurance over 100,000B to cover the medical cost were introduced. It didn’t say when to be implemented. She doesn’t have them. We may be able to buy the insurance online, but there is no way to obtain the medical certificate now. If she is rejected to enter, where should she go? Go back to the US? It’s very far and she has nowhere to stay. I got panicked and started looking for a place in Japan. Japan still seems to be relaxed with protection measures, and she shouldn’t have a problem entering. I could join her later, if necessary. I wonder if she has brought her Japanese passport with her. Finally, the Corona virus is no longer “fire on the opposite shore” but has become a threat to us. 

March 17

The Thai Ministry of Education announced all schools will be closed until further notice. Just a day before my daughter’s arrival. For the last three days, I have been busy looking for a place for her to self-quarantine, since the US was added to the list of high-risk areas, so that my son could go to school when it is supposed to re-open on the 23rd. After a frantic search, I found a sublet of nearby apartment. “Lucky indeed,” I thought. But after all, we didn’t have to rent this place. My son won’t be going to school anyway. Oh well, better be safe than sorry. She may actually be a carrier of the virus.

I went to the supermarket to stock-up on some food for a family of four. There was a temperature check at the entrance. It was not very pleasant to be aimed at your head with a gun-like thermometer, even though it’s visibly plastic. There was no toilet paper and canned foods on the shelf.

March 18

My husband went to pick her up at the airport. He sent a photo of the airport. It was empty. Very spooky. The bulletin board showed more than half the flights were cancelled. What a relief to see a photo of her arrival. I was exhausted of worrying about her: Are all her connecting flights flying as scheduled? Can she go through all screenings at the airports? Can she enter the country without a problem? However, when she arrived home, she seemed totally carefree. Why is mother the only one always worried about everything?

March 20

My days seems to be spent either cooking or reading about the Corona virus news. The situation is getting worse. It is like watching a horror movie, only real. 

I’ve studied about the Corona virus. Why is it such a big deal? How different is it from a regular flu? What are the best options to stop the spread? How effective are the prevention measures? 

I have learned that the world is trying to slow down the spread, so that our medical care system will not collapse before the vaccine/medicine is developed or herd immunity is reached. There are some infected (called “super-spreaders”), who have the potential of spreading the virus to more people than someone with the regular flu could, but these super-spreaders cannot be identified in advance. Trying to avoid closed areas, congested areas, and congregated areas can help to stop the spread. Accordingly, schools are closed, many events are cancelled, and public transportation including flights have started to be on hold. 

However, I got confused as well. In the beginning, the news reported the aged and those with existing respiratory diseases were the high-risk group, but young people including babies are dying. They said this virus wouldn’t be transferred to animals, but some pets were infected. Some say wearing masks is a must, but some say it is not effective. Some countries in the Northern hemisphere are saying this will end soon when the weather gets warm. But Thailand in perpetual summer cannot stop the spread. Schools are being closed, but some argue school closure is not effective. I did try to read “experts’” opinions rather than politicians’ but not sure who is saying the right thing and what to believe. 

March 21

The Bangkok governor announced closure of facilities except life necessities such as supermarkets, pharmacies, hospitals, and chemists until April 12. Shopping malls and department stores will be closed, and restaurants are allowed only for take-out. I went shopping for some food. The lady in front of me had three packs of 24 rolls of toilet papers. I was appalled but simultaneously, I thought, “should I get one pack as well?” When I texted the story to my friend, she said, “Oh my God, the first thing, first.” and went to dye her hair. I heard the salon will operate until midnight today. Maybe I should have gone as well…

March 22

Thai immigration started to implement the protective measures of medical certificates and insurance today, or at least that’s what I heard. Originally, they said it would start on Friday. They then delayed it to Sunday, but my friend’s son couldn’t check in at the airport in Canada on Friday for his flight to Thailand. They announce the change of regulations daily, and you never know how and when they are enforced in practice. 

This week, my friends, whose children are studying abroad, have texted each other non-stop to keep us updated. We were in panic. Some purchased an earlier flight, giving up a later one. Some got a medical certificate, not with proof of being infection negative, but hoping it will do some good: It is practically impossible to get the certificate since only those who show symptoms can be tested. It is times like this we feel like outsiders in this country. We tell our kids to “come home”, but our “home” is not legally supported. 

March 25

A state of emergency is to be announced tomorrow. I wonder how many times I have faced a state of emergency in Thailand. Perhaps this is the third time. Every time, I was amazed that our life of the ordinary somehow went on, like business as usual. Behind a serious historical event, a life of the ordinary was still the same as the day before, at least on its surface. 

I went downtown to do the last shopping. It only took half an hour to get there, less than half the usual time. The city view from the highway was much clearer. Obviously, less traffic means less pollution, but no one talks about PM 2.5 lately. In downtown, I found a secondhand bookshop that was open. I was not sure why it could stay open but went in anyway. I felt like I was a criminal but bought more than 10 books as fast as possible. I think bookshops should be considered a necessity, especially when we are homebound.

I heard the protective measures of needing proof of being infection negative and insurance are not required anymore to check in for a flight until March 31. What a roller-coaster.

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