Part of living abroad is knowing that you might have to experience a “reverse culture shock” when you get back to the US. Well, I got the exciting bonus twist of coming back to the US of the COVID-19 twilight zone reality.
I knew it was going to be interesting. But what I didn’t expect was how much I would be impacted by something so abstract as contrasting responses to the pandemic. For a couple of days, I felt like my grasp on reality was slipping like a sweaty palm holding on to another sweaty palm trying to keep me from falling into a mind warp.
- Quarantine in Argentina
For more than a month, I was living in a country whose response to the pandemic was a mandatory quarantine since March 20; the plan was to slow the spread of the virus while they shored up their medical facilities and waited for advances in treatment options.
The president had said frankly when announcing the quarantine that businesses were going to suffer this year in order to save lives, to protect the elderly and those most vulnerable to complications from the coronavirus.
He had a well-articulated nation-wide plan (constantly evolving as new information came in). Even if I didn’t agree with all the quarantine policies, I always felt reassured after his speeches, probably because of how well he articulated the plan, explaining that he was taking advice from a range of health and economy experts. He even used power point slides to explain the plan for flattening the curve and to visually show the successes they had had in preventing deaths by limiting the spread.*
The measures were strict, and we were only supposed to leave the house to buy necessities (food and pharmaceuticals), and you could get arrested if you were caught wandering around for any other reason.
Luckily, I was able to easily adapt to the situation; I paused my travels and stayed in a beautiful spot in Bariloche with a friend. With nature as my backyard, I took it as a fortuitous time to rest and write.
I would wake up in the mornings and look out the window into a forest of trees, listening to the river flowing in the distance. After a yoga and a meditation session, I would write and have lunch. In the afternoons, I would usually go running or hiking through the forest. The sun would set around 8pm, and I would cook and eat delicious, healthy food with my roomie, and later we would sing songs, listen to music, watch documentaries, or read.
When hiking, we would usually encounter quite a few other people out, often families, sometimes couples, sometimes single runners. Often everyone a little on edge at first, making sure it wasn’t the police or someone that would call the police to snitch on us for being out of the house. But after that initial awkwardness, we relaxed knowing that it was just other people who appreciated the benefits of being outside in nature during these stressful and confusing times.
I could go shopping every other day, according to my ID number (odds were allowed to go M,W,F and evens Tu,Th,Sa – a policy implemented after cases started increasing in Bariloche). Shopping was often a half-day adventure because of the long lines of people standing a few meters apart, waiting to go in a few at a time.
I was staying a few kilometers outside of the city center so I had more of a rural experience. I would ride Tomás’ bike to the main road, taking the scenic route. Along the main road, I would go to the bulk foods store to buy things like oatmeal, nuts, dates, rice, beans, and most importantly – dark chocolate. Then I would go to the fish market next door, later to the cheese (and meat) store, and finally to the fruit and vegetable stand. Every now and then I would go to one of the supermarkets, but I really enjoyed taking advantage of the more fresh and local options where I chatted with the store owners that recognized me and I supported the local small businesses.
I was not unaware of my privilege during these times. A friend working for the local government was tasked with helping distribute food for those in need since many people didn’t have income during the quarantine. Bariloche has a huge tourism industry, many people earning a good portion of their income during the ski season in the winter months of June-August, and many others are self-employed doing trade work. While the government prohibited price-gouging, provided financial assistance for unemployment, and mandated that deadlines for utilities and rents be extended, needless to say, some people were still struggling. And winter was coming. (Though a friend pointed out to me that she also saw that a lot of people really step up to help each other out during these times, a generosity that seemed to be characteristic of many Argentines that I had met.)
To prevent the import and spread of cases, national and international flights had all been cancelled since March 20, and travel was not allowed except for essentials (like transport of food). This happened just as some of my Argentine friends were vacationing in Peru, and they weren’t sure how or when they would get home. After a few weeks, they were repatriated on an Argentine Air Force, quarantined in a hotel in the capital for 14 days (flight, food, and room and board paid for by the government), until they tested negative and could return home.
Into the Twilight Zone
What a contrast to my repatriation experience! When I arrived in the US after traveling on a plane with more than 200 people for more than 9 hours, we arrived in Miami airport, and it was as if COVID-19 didn’t exist. Nobody took our temperature, tested us for the coronavirus, or required us to go into quarantine. No one even asked us politely to quarantine ourselves, nor gave us instructions to do so. Nothing was done to ensure I wasn’t bringing one more case into the US.
I shouldn’t have been surprised because over the last month I had had many friends return to the US from all over the world, and they had the same story. Of 11 friends, eight had not encountered any kind of intervention to ensure they weren’t bringing the virus in. The three others had their temperature taken and nothing more. Two were recommended that they quarantine.
This left me asking myself: “Is it so out of control in the US that they’ve given up trying to limit the spread?” Or maybe there’s just enough confidence in our health systems that they’re not worried about another collapse like happened in New York or like what happened in Italy?
When I exited the skywalk and entered the airport in Texas the next day, I was stopped by a gaggle of uniformed men (the Texas Highway patrol) and asked to sign a form saying I would do a 14-day quarantine. Finally, I felt a little reassurance that someone had acknowledged the benefit of trying to limit imported cases to protect my loved ones from this pandemic. That said, there were no guidelines on how to do the quarantine and there was no follow-up to make sure I actually did the quarantine.
Then I heard the Texas Lieutenant governor say that he thought it was reasonable to put lives at risk to COVID-19 to prevent an economic downturn. The faces of my many loved ones that live in Texas – my mom, my dad, my aunts and uncles, my cousins and childhood friends – came to my mind.
The stark difference in approach from what I had gotten used to in Argentina, was shocking. I felt like I was going from one extreme to the other in the blink of an eye. (Well, Brazil might be the complete other extreme, but this still offered a stark contrast to what I had gotten used to).
I was surprised to see how much I was emotionally impacted by those larger forces around me making policy decisions, creating two different sets of rules for the same game. (Unsurprisingly, a policy based on the assumption of protecting public health and the lives of our loved ones had been more reassuring than a policy protecting the economy first.)
But at least now I understood better why I had been struggling to adapt to the new reality during the first few days, and why it had been so shocking and upsetting at first.
I had been living in a place recognized as one of the countries that has best controlled the spread, and I suddenly entered the country with one of the highest COVID-19 deaths per capita.
I have to say that it was fascinating to have had the opportunity to live in these two different realities – where different value systems, cultures, and economic circumstances were creating two different sets of rules.**
One of the most fascinating aspects is that Argentina, a country whose economy was already struggling through a serious downturn this year, decided to prioritize public health – people’s lives – over wealth. And the US, with one of the strongest economies in the world decided to prioritize it’s wealth over protecting the lives of its most vulnerable people. It really aligned with the experiences I had had in Argentina – the hospitality I had felt and all the experiences of people taking care of people and not expecting anything monetary in return – and actually being offended if you tried to offer something monetary.
- Quarantine in Texas
I arrived in Texas when the “Stay at Home Order” was being lifted, which also happened to be the day after the state recorded its maximum number of deaths due to COVID-19 so far up to that point.***
I had 14 days of quarantine to do, so the official announcement didn’t really impact me (other than the psychological aspect of it). While my quarantine was not being enforced by anyone, I did not come all the way back to the US to be closer to family so I could put them at risk.
I probably don’t have COVID-19, but I might. I traveled on three airplanes (2 completely full), walked through 3 airports, stayed in 2 hotels, and traveled in 2 taxis in Miami.
I don’t have symptoms and I don’t believe deep down in my heart that I have been infected. But reality doesn’t care what I believe. Many carriers that have been responsible for spreading it were asymptomatic. Since I don’t know for certain, I am acting like I am a carrier so that I can protect my loved ones in case what I believe is wrong.
Since I am in the same house with my aunt, this quarantine thing is a little tricky. I walk around with a mask on whenever I leave my room and go into the common areas. I wipe everything down with disinfectant after I sit somewhere for a long period of time, or after I eat. I disinfect the kitchen after preparing my food. Just in case, I don’t share the food I prepare with my aunt, which makes me feel like a horrible person, especially after living in a Latin American country for 4 years.
I maintain the 6 feet of distance from my aunt, whether we are inside or outside. When we are outside together, I try to stay downwind from her. I don’t pet the dog or the cats (just in case).
I touch my face a lot. My nose always itches probably because of the allergens here and/or the face mask always touching my nose. So I wash my hands a lot and use a lot of hand creme. It is a weird life. I was never the OCD type, at least not like this.
I spend most of my time outside, where I don’t have to wear a mask and I can breathe fresh air (and because I’m an outside, nature-loving kind-of person.) One time I ran to a park to exercise, and it there were so many people there, running and exercising! It was like normal, pre-COVID-19 times. It was a real challenge trying to stay a good distance from everyone.
My uncle and his wife surprised me and came to visit when I first arrived. It really made my day to see them! They brought their own chairs and sat 2 meters away from all of us, and we conversed for a few hours without physical contact. I didn’t hug them and I haven’t hugged my aunt since I got here a few days ago even though we haven’t seen each other in over a year. In Peace Corps, I won the “Most Likely to Give You a Hug” superlative, so you can imagine how hard that is for me. It’s a weird life.
My quarantine time is coming to an end, so I’ll be able to hug my aunt and visit my parents. I can’t wait to start living a “normal” life. Except not normal. Since there is a lot more movement here in Texas, I feel like I have to be extra careful since many others are not. There will probably be a higher risk of infection in the next couple of months (or who knows how long?), and I still am not trying to be a carrier and accidentally infect my parents or loved ones.
Living in two different realities under this pandemic has allowed me to see some of the pros and cons of different approaches. When it comes down to it, I don’t have any control over the policy choices that have been made, and I can only adjust to the situation under which I’m living. I feel encouraged by the fact that every week there is better understanding about the disease, how to treat it, how it spreads and what we can do to prevent spreading it.
This article in particular, “The Risks and How to Avoid Them,” made me feel a little more assured that by eliminating large gatherings (like the cancellation of sporting events, conferences, etc.) and taking the precautions that most people are starting to take individually, we can keep the spread low enough not to overwhelm hospitals.
Maybe I’m being optimistic. But for me, that’s one of the most important things to hang onto, even as your hands get sweaty, during any kind of crisis. Hope for the best, while being prepared for the worst.
* The quarantine started as a two-week duration and was extended three times while I was in Argentina. In the third extension, the measures began to be loosened in places without cases or with few cases. More power has been given to local governments along with the guideline to keep the rate of new cases lower than doubling every 15 days.
**One thing that I keep remembering is that one policy solution does not necessarily fit all. There are different customs, cultures, ways of gathering, ways of greeting, ways of getting around, etc, in each place, and those all can have profound impacts on how a virus spreads. One example (of many): In the few days I have been here in Texas, I am reminded of how much people are in their own cars, live far apart, and have a larger “space bubble” around them, compared to my four years in Latin America. That expectation of “personal space” that pervades much of American culture is something that might actually help with the COVID-19 physical distancing to minimize the spread of the virus.
***Reported numbers of deaths and confirmed cases tend to reflect the reality of the impacts of the disease spread from about 1-2 weeks prior (due to incubation time and the time it takes for symptoms and complications to appear). This was more than a month after the “Stay at Home” order was put in place.