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Lessons Learned Living at Coronavirus’ Ground Zero


American Amy Brill, an international teacher based in Beijing, during better times. She shared her dispatch from the front lines of the COVID pandemic exclusively with The Boro*.

But the others wait in Casablanca, and wait . . . and wait . . . and wait. Insert any other city’s name and you will see the connection between the greatest movie of all time (Casablanca) and the contemporary horror flick the whole world is now forced to watch. With canceled flights and closed borders, millions of people are now displaced indefinitely. The lucky ones wait with family or in hotels they can afford; the unlucky ones are sleeping on beaches and benches. I am a medium lucky person-in-waiting. An international educator, I am currently based in Beijing. On January 17, 2020 (the beginning of the Chinese New Year holiday), I went in for scheduled knee surgery - planning to use the three-week holiday to recover before resuming work. Within five days, it became increasingly apparent that life had changed drastically. When I went back to the hospital for my first physical therapy session, both attendants were masked and gloved. They began the session by suggesting I film the exercises as all non-emergency departments would be closing for an indeterminate time. Not knowing what to do, I quickly packed a few things for a “quick” trip to Phuket, Thailand for what I assumed would be a week or so of physical therapy. I packed a swimsuit, two t shirts and a cover up. That was nearly seven weeks ago. And so I wait. Now forbidden from returning to China, I will soon have to leave Thailand because visitors can only extend visas once. So, I am medium lucky. I am in a lovely place with a friendly staff, good physical therapists, and a pool where I can painlessly practice my newly acquired exercises. I am also burning through my meager savings. I do not know when I can return to my home, or how I will continue supporting myself between now and then. When one week turned to two, I became obsessed with the news - checking infection rates in China multiple times per day. Listless and unable to concentrate, I felt cut off and abandoned (although I realized the last part was irrational). My fellow expats and I kept in touch, but the conversations were often strained as our moods swung at different times. If I was having a terrible day, I didn’t want to drag down a friend who was managing well, and the reverse was true. Facebook friends expressed some sympathy, but I could tell they didn’t “get it” and I was frustrated by the politics and puppy videos. Now the whole world “gets it” and I wish it didn’t. This virus is going to continue disrupting everyones’ lives and, sadly, taking many, for at least several more months. We don’t know and not knowing is very difficult. We have all lost the illusion of control and that’s frightening. I am alone and I am frightened, but I have also slowly learned some things (although, admittedly, have to relearn them some days): * Fear is more dangerous than the virus - checking the news once a day is enough. * It is not air borne, so social distancing and hand washing are the best defenses. * Accept that life will be full of disruptions for the indeterminate future. Fighting that inevitability only raises anxiety; it does not change anything. * People must work together. Those at little risk have to consider those who are at higher risk and take the precautions anyway. * As we struggle to contain our own anxiety, we need to be patient with others when they are unable to contain theirs or they do so in a socially unacceptable way. * It’s ok to grieve and admit to the grief, but be aware others have or will have lost more. * Nobody needs a lifetime supply of toilet paper in their closet. As I was writing this, the coronavirus cases jumped in Thailand. I woke up to a lobby full of health inspectors in face masks, a taped-off pool, and the knowledge that the plans I was hatching last night are once again on hold. And so I wait . . . reread my own advice . . . and wait some more . . . and I remember that, in Casablanca, the good guys did win in the end. So will we. Amy Brill is an American-born international school teacher currently living and working in Beijing, China. She first moved to Asia in 2009 after a 17-year career in American public schools. She has taught in Thailand, S Korea, and China and will be moving to Egypt in the summer of 2020. She teachers High School Humanities. She has two grown children - one of whom followed in her expat footsteps (and teaches HS Science at a different school in Beijing) and the other of whom is a business man in his hometown of Nashville. While she loves her expat life style and the opportunity to travel extensively and interact with people from all over the world, there are times when she wishes her family could all be together in one place. This pandemic is one of those times P.S.: We received this from Amy two weeks after she submitted her column: “We are now going on to 24/7 lockdown and I am frightened and confused and lonely. I can't wrap my head around another 4 weeks or more (entering week 13). Just beginning the process of figuring out how to get my Beijing apartment packed up as it's looking less and less likely they'll let us back in before lease is up in June. As it is, all planes grounded in Thailand now anyway and all but five hotels on the island are now closed.”

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