As we all sink into the new normal that is life in the time of the Covid19 pandemic, our focus begins to shrink and our world to become ever smaller. Many of us are working from home, and talking only to our closest family and friends. Social media has become a lifeline.
But it’s strange that we are looking inward and shrinking our view at a time of global crisis.
The entire planet earth is being impacted by this virus. Doesn’t that seem like a good time to look outward, to check on each other outside of our own personal spheres?
Realizing that my family knows many people living in different countries around the globe, I wondered if I could get a picture of how the pandemic is being experienced in other countries.
I was curious. So I sent out a request to friends and family, asking them to help me gather some basic information about the virus in their home countries.
Everyone got the same questions. I asked them to tell me what businesses were closed (as of March 20) and whether they were told to stay in the house. I asked them if everyone in their country would continue to have some payment, either through paid leave or some type of unemployment pay. I wanted to know if every one of their citizens had a guarantee of free treatment, or if they’d have to pay. My last question was about the children and the schools. I wanted to know if all of the schools had closed and if so, did that impact the ability of children to get enough food.
While I know that this information is anecdotal, and not official in any way, it was a fascinating discussion.
Here’s what I learned by talking to people from Canada, England, Ireland, Italy, France, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Kuwait, and Iran.
In this strange moment in time, all of the countries represented have closed at least some of their schools. Children around the globe are losing out on learning and socializing. Countries both rich and poor are asking parents to replace the structure of the school day.
I suspect that support for public education and the teachers who provide it will be increasing rapidly.
The question of business closures is interesting to me. If we compare the answers from my friends, we see that most governments start out very slowly when it comes to slowing the economy. Many of them (Many US states, Canada, UK, Italy, Netherlands) started out by closing only businesses specifically designed for social interaction. Restaurants and bars were closed first. Hair and nail salons were closed early on in several countries (Germany, Canada, Ireland.)
Gradually, however, as people failed to follow government recommendations and illnesses increased, many governments began to increase both closures and plans for keeping us apart from each other.
In Italy, for example, after the first round of closures, the government ordered theaters, cinemas, and museums to shut their doors. When that failed to slow the virus, every business was ordered to close. Today, no businesses are open other than pharmacies, grocery stores, and medical facilities.
The idea of social distancing has evolved around the world, too. But just as business closures seem to have followed the same path, social distancing recommendations have also looked the same around much of the world.
Nearly every country has started out with general “suggestions” from the government. But it seems that humans are not so good at changing our behaviors.
For example, in Italy, the request to stay at home has progressed from a suggestion to a mandatory quarantine. As of today, Italians are ordered to stay indoors unless they have to go out for food or medicine. One person at a time is allowed outside, and then only for specified reasons. A dog walk is limited to 200 meters from home. Italians are allowed to shop for groceries, but only one person at a time can go, and then only within their own towns. Almost the same limitations are seen in France.
Restrictions in Germany have also increased over time. In fact, in the 24 hours between my conversation with my German friends and the writing of this article, the orders have changed. At this point, Germans can only go outside in groups of two, and then only to shop or to get medicine. The government is imposing fines on those who break the rules.
So why are people not simply following the recommendations to stay away from each other?
In the US the virus hit during “spring break” season. Many Americans of ALL ages head to Florida to enjoy the beaches and sunshine every spring. It was hard for people, it seems, to give that up. Voluntary requests for people to stay away from the restaurants and bars did nothing to diminish the crowds.
In Iran, the virus hit during the Persian New Year, and many people were out buying special foods for Nawrooz. They wanted to see their families and friends, so they went out to parties and dinners and shopping centers.
But it’s more than that, I think.
For some reason, humans around the world seem to embrace the strategy of denial.
My German friends told me that in spite of the order to remain at home, when they ventured out for groceries, the streets of Dresden were filled with people. In Italy, people continued to gather and socialize after being asked to stay at home, and the government’s restrictions increased. And in Kuwait, when the government asked people to isolate themselves, they didn’t. In response, they have now initiated a dusk to dawn curfew.
I’ve certainly seen the same thing in my home state of Massachusetts. The few times that I’ve ventured out in the past ten days, I’ve seen people in parks, gathered outside of grocery stores, and going in and out of the liquor store and weed dispensary.
From my limited information, it seems that people in the Scandinavian countries have been more responsible. I’m told that businesses in both Sweden and Finland are closing voluntarily. They have been asked to do so, but none have been ordered to close. My friends in those countries have also said that most people are doing their best to stay at home and to work electronically.
My friend in Russia had an interesting observation. He told me that the people there really don’t know much about what is going on in their country. They haven’t been ordered to stay at home, and businesses have not been shuttered. He said that cultural events and gatherings have been canceled, but that his country has an advantage over many others. In Russia, he explained, people don’t travel around that much, especially in the winter. They are already pretty isolated. His impression of his countrymen is that “we are behaving ourselves.” He said that people are told to wash hands, so they do. They are told to quarantine themselves if they have traveled, and they comply.
Finally, I’ll turn to the issue of how governments provide for their citizens. In every single country in my story, the government provides free medical care for everyone, specifically for this pandemic. With the notable exceptions of the U.S. and Iran.
Other than Iranians and Americans, nobody in any of the countries contacted is worried about how to pay for testing, or for treatment.
I find that information shocking.
Some of the people I talked with were surprised or confused by my question, which asked if everyone was “insured.” Some answered that there was no need for insurance because the public health system provides treatment to everyone.
It was interesting to see that like the US, many countries have a law requiring businesses to provide unemployment assistance to anyone laid off. In Germany, bigger companies provide paid leave or other financial support for laid-off workers, but those in the so-called “gig” economy are on their own, much like here in the US. But in Italy, France, the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Kuwait, Finland and Sweden, pay will continue. There are different paths to this financial support, but all of these governments have either planned ahead and set up ongoing support for all unemployed people (Sweden) or reacted quickly and set up Covid-19 funds that are going out to people.
In Russia and Iran, people are simply on their own.
So, what are the takeaways from my little experiment in global communication?
First of all, I find it oddly reassuring that we are all, truly, in this disaster together. Often when disaster strikes, we feel an intense kinship with those who are suffering with us. In the ice storm of 2008, when my town had no power for a couple of weeks, neighbors shared water and food, we helped each other sawing up tree limbs. It felt good to be close to each other. Like a cool new club.
Maybe for once the whole human race can begin to feel like a big group. Maybe we’ll start offering each other some sympathy, some support and some understanding. Maybe.
Secondly, humans are humans everywhere, in all of our faults and strengths. We sure seem to have a tendency to deny reality when we don’t like it. I am beginning to wonder what anthropological benefit there is in pretending that the dangers in the world can’t get to us or those we love.
Thirdly, I am grateful to live in a time of technology. We are scared right now. We are frustrated and feeling helpless. Our leaders, those to whom we look for guidance, are as unprepared and unsure as we are.
But through it all, we still have each other. I was able to simultaneously chat with friends and family in the UK, Russia, and Germany. I can instantly check in on my children across the state and friends across the ocean.
And finally, it seems to me that one way to see ourselves through this crisis is to stay connected, to keep sharing information with each other, and to remind ourselves that this small blue planet really is just one family.
Maybe this whole thing is the universe’s way of giving us a little head slap and getting us to change our ways.