living abroad amid the Covid-19 pandemic

On Sunday, March 8, I took off on a five-day road trip from Bariloche, Argentina, my home base, to Pucón, Chile with a family of four friends from Traverse City, Michigan, who are in their third month of a three-month sabbatical in Argentina. Now, a week later, I look back on photos and videos from our day crossing over to Chile—and also me launching a crowdfunding campaign for a short documentary I’m directing and producing—and feel as though that was a lifetime ago. It’s amazing how time altogether sped up and slowed down this week. The world is certainly different than it was a week ago.

My friends, the Kirkwoods, and I were all aware of Covid-19 and, more or less, how and where it was spreading, but the reality of what this strain of coronavirus is and how quickly and easily it has and can spread hadn’t hit home yet. Wednesday evening, our last night in Chile before crossing back to Argentina, that all changed.

The U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires sent an email saying, “The government of Argentina announced upcoming enhanced screening and quarantine measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Travelers should be prepared for travel restrictions to be put into effect with little or no advance notice. Public statements by Argentine government officials noted a 14-day self-isolation quarantine for anyone, regardless of nationality, arriving in Argentina who has visited a country with sustained transmission, including the United States, all European countries, China, Japan, South Korea and Iran.”

I quickly forwarded the email to my mom and uncle, who were scheduled to land in Argentina from the U.S. on Saturday, March 14 for an 11-day visit. For all three of us, our initial reaction was the same: “Let’s chat tomorrow and make a decision.” Then, I read the email again as well as a statement from President Alberto Fernández. With tears in my eyes and a shaky voice, I told the Kirkwoods, “They’re not coming. There’s no way. There’s just no way.”

In that moment, I knew the decision was for the best, but it still stung that after a lot of planning—and being within days of hugging my mom and uncle and spending time with them in and around Bariloche—they wouldn’t be able to visit. Well, they could, but they’d be quarantined for their entire visit.

The Kirkwoods, too, were faced with a dilemma. With three weeks left in their sabbatical, did they stay in Argentina and continue on with their travels or cut their trip early and return home to the U.S.? With businesses, employees and more back in Traverse City—The Workshop Brewing Company for Pete and nonprofit FLOW for Liz—that undoubtedly are and will be impacted by Covid-19, the decision on whether to stay or go became real and pressing. Of course, the health and safety of their family—they were also traveling with daughter Ella, 13, and son Miles, 11—were of high concern.

Hundreds of thousands of expats and travelers around the world have been faced with similar questions, concerns and decisions in the past week. It seems like all of a sudden a switch flipped. The Covid-19 situation became alarmingly real in multiple countries, and just like that, everyone was jolted from their slumber.

Among the five of us, I don’t think anyone slept much Wednesday night. I talked with my mom and then went down a bit of a rabbit hole reading about Covid-19 on the internet. This article from Tomas Pueyo, which now has more than 28 million views and exists in at least 26 languages, really helped me start to grasp what’s going on. I started to understand how important it was that Argentina’s government was taking Covid-19 seriously and putting these restrictions in place “early.” I started to understand how potentially harmful it was that the U.S. government still hadn’t done much of anything. I read accounts from medics in Italy, and the reality of what’s happened, is happening and is likely still to come started to sink in.

Thursday afternoon, in the shadow of Volcán Lanín, the Kirkwoods and I crossed back into Argentina. The entire day felt different. Among us, the air felt heavier. Our energy was noticeably lower. Throughout the car ride, we tried to share jokes in Spanish, sing and dance to upbeat music and talk about other things. Though we succeeded a few times, Covid-19 was clearly on everyone’s mind—and our conversations almost always came back to the pandemic.

At the border, due to these new restrictions, the Argentine agent thoroughly studied all five of our U.S. passports. He reviewed stamps and dates and asked us where we’d traveled in the last two weeks. Only Argentina and Chile. He gave us slips of paper with all of our names that said we were risk-free.

Inside the office, a television played an endless cycle of news about Covid-19, Argentina’s new travel restrictions, school closures in Jujuy and Misiones and more. As of today, there are more than 50 known cases in Argentina and two related deaths. Argentina is trying to get ahead of the curve, and knowing what I know, I applaud their government for that.

Thursday night, back in Bariloche, I said a difficult goodbye to the Kirkwoods. They’d decided to head north to Salta—always the plan—for one more week of travel before ending their sabbatical early and heading home to the U.S.

Friday morning, more news hit and everyone, including me, was forced to reevaluate their plans. In an email, the U.S. Embassy said, “The U.S. Embassy is aware of reports that the Government of Argentina will restrict direct flights between Argentina and the United States, beginning Monday. The U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens with plans to depart Argentina to strongly consider departing as soon as they can while commercial flights are available. U.S. travelers should contact their air carrier to rebook travel before that date.”

This restriction includes other countries with major outbreaks and will be effective for at least 30 days.

Even though Bariloche is my home base, my core community—family and friends—is primarily in the U.S. So I was faced with a personally-tough decision. Do I stay here and potentially deal with all that’s to come at a distance from my family, or do I head back to the U.S. for the foreseeable future? There are pros and cons to each.

While the distance feels greater right now and I, like most, am not a fan of the unknowns, I’ve decided to stay put and look after myself here. It feels like the best course of action for me, my family and others. Passing through 3-4 airports right now to get back to the U.S. does not seem like the best course of action. The potential of contracting Covid-19 along the way and sharing it with my dad, sister and grandparents, who are all high-risk, does not appeal to me in the slightest.

To be honest, Argentina’s government also seems to be responding more urgently and taking more preemptive measures than the U.S. government. Should there be a major outbreak here, I do have some very real concerns about the health care system’s ability to manage that, but that’s where it’s also on each of us, no matter where we are in the world, to do what we can—such as washing our hands thoroughly, practicing social distancing and staying home whenever possible—to slow the spread of Covid-19.

I will note that it also makes a difference that I have a home base here in Bariloche. If I were traveling, I would without a doubt be returning home to the U.S.

This is my story, and it’s one of millions. Throughout the past few days, I’ve found it fascinating how we’re all seemingly lost in our stories and bubbles. I think it’s good that everyone is looking out for themselves and those they love. In many ways, it’s all we can do. But I hope that we don’t go so overboard in safeguarding ourselves that we forget to help others, especially those at high-risk, when and where we can.

I suppose I share this story, one from a U.S. citizen living abroad, because I can see how much I’ve gotten lost in my own story and bubble lately. On the whole, I’m really only aware of what’s going on in Argentina, South America and the U.S. But globally, at this point, we’re all in this together, and I’m so intrigued by the fact that we are, on the whole, oblivious as to how each community and country is responding to Covid-19. In some ways, it’s all too much to take in.

The Kirkwoods have now cut their sabbatical short by three weeks and are on their way home. Another American friend, who was traveling the world through July as part of a research fellowship, flew home from Argentina on Saturday. A friend from Ohio cut his travels through Eastern Europe short and journeyed home from Moscow on Friday. A childhood friend is a month into graduate school in Switzerland and, like many, now taking classes remotely. An Argentine friend in Japan is navigating if and how she’ll get home to Argentina at the end of the month. The stories go on. Even as I write this, Argentina has closed its borders to non-residents; Chile will do the same on Wednesday. The last of my plans for the foreseeable future has been squashed.

At this point, while distant, we—as a global community—are closer than ever and all in this together.

Last Wednesday night in Pucón, Chile, with that email from the U.S. Embassy and the rabbit hole reading that ensued, I finally woke up. I understood what coronavirus is; more about how it is spreading and what’s going on in countries around the world; and what governments, companies, people, etc. are and aren’t doing.

What’s the point of all this? I don’t know. Maybe we each need to take care of ourselves within what’s possible but also take care of each other and remember that everyone has their own story. Covid-19 has and is going to impact everyone in different ways. We need to support each other, in all our scenarios, to live through this as best we can.

While this is one story from one person, it’s not about any of us individually. It’s about all of us collectively.

Monday, March 16, 2020

One thought on “living abroad amid the Covid-19 pandemic

  1. Sandra Hopcian

    I enjoyed your writing Emily. Please know that you are so correct that we are in this together. As Mr. Roger’s mom taught him-“when there is trouble- look for helpers- there always be helpers. Stay safe and know that you are in my prayers, Aunt Sandee

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