A Glimpse of the Pandemic: An Interview with Global Correspondents

In March, the University of Southern California made the decision to switch all classes from in-person to completely virtual as a result of the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. Since then, Glimpse from the Globe’s correspondents have been living, attending class and reporting from all around the world. 

In this feature, I wanted to catch up with four of our publication’s correspondents who are living in different regions. Our President, Maxim Haskell, lives in London, England, Ngai Yeung is reporting from Hong Kong, Sangeeta Kishore spent her quarantine in Princeton, New Jersey, and Ruhi Ramesh is writing from Bangalore, India. Each of our correspondents have had vastly different experiences during this pandemic, and have taken their time to speak with me about  those experiences. 

How has your country been handling the pandemic?

Maxim (London, England): The UK government has handled it woefully. There is a lot of misdirection and fragmentation between local and federal structure. Boris Johnson’s government will provide one order and local constituencies will go directly in the opposite direction. There are some idiocratic policies too. Like if you’re going to close stadiums, then close theaters too. But if you’re opening theaters, then open up the stadiums as well. Or how pubs will only close after 10 pm instead of the normal 11 to 11:30 p.m. That one hour doesn’t do much for restricting the spread of the virus. I’m pretty sure contagion doesn’t stop after a certain hour of the night. Silly stuff like this is permeating the spread of the virus.

Ruhi (Bangalore, India): India took swift, decisive action when it came to implementing travel bans, foreign flight restrictions, government quarantine, and local lockdowns early on in the pandemic. I think these measures were pretty effective in containing a first big surge in coronavirus cases. As the summer months went on, however, restrictions loosened and cities have started opening up. In the past two months (August and September), cases rose by a significant amount — I believe India was reported to overtake the United States in total number of cases, but I’m not sure that has happened yet. I do think there is a significant amount of underreporting, considering the populations that live rurally. However, in saying that, the fatality rate is thankfully much lower than expected and recovery rates are pretty promising. 

Sangeeta (New Jersey, USA): The way the United States has been handling the pandemic varies state by state. New Jersey had extremely high case rates during the beginnings of the pandemic (March through May) — we were second after New York with the highest number of cases in the country. During that time, the pandemic was taken extremely seriously — hardly anyone ever went outside and basically, everything was closed other than for delivery or curbside pickup — which I think contributed to NJ being able to somewhat contain the virus while other states began to peak. 

Ngai (Hong Kong): In the beginning, the general consensus was that we did well because we had it pretty bad during SARS in 2003. When we first got the virus in February, everyone was on pretty high alert and wore masks and protective gear. Politics aside, in times of crisis with public health [the government]has handled it pretty well before. So most everyone followed the government’s instructions. We’ve had three waves and it’s been a bumpy ride, with lots of untraceable local community infections and slow policy-making, so confidence in the government has waned since. But I think in general, we’re already better than lots of non-Asian countries because we’ve had previous experience and everyone’s pretty wary. Everyone’s cautious and cleans stuff a lot, using lots of hand sanitizer, washing hands and so on. 

What protective measures are in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus if any?

Maxim (London, England): There are the typical mask and social distancing requirements, but the disconnect happens in public. The whole thing on face masks, much akin to the U.S., around 3 to 4 months ago when you were at the supermarket, etc, supermarkets had to enforce it with their own measures, however even in supermarkets there is a person outside instructing people to wear face masks, and you’re not obligated to wear face masks. And then the person would make some kind of complaint being like, do we have to and the person would just permit them to go through. So it would be situations like that where you know, there is one thing actually coming out of the policy, it’s another having people abide by that policy. I think Boris Johnson said about a week ago that “the British people like the taste of freedom” and that in itself was a classic Johnson fashion. He would cover up the notion of saying the Brits don’t really like adopting protective measures and whatnot.

Ruhi (Bangalore, India): Almost everybody outside of their homes wears a mask, which is pretty amazing. Restaurants, supermarkets, stores, and gyms all have contactless hand sanitizer stations and a contactless thermometer to check temperatures before customers enter. Many employees wear gloves when dealing with customers and more stores have employed contactless forms of payment such as tap payments or virtual payment apps (in India, the big ones are PayTM, Google Pay, and Phone Pe). Early in the pandemic, the federal and state governments imposed strict weekend curfews and lockdowns that restricted any sort of travel from one’s home. However, these sudden clampdowns led to the large-scale issue of migrant workers trying to get home. For the past month, cases have been rising rapidly within India but there have been no mandated lockdowns.

Sangeeta (New Jersey, USA): Masks are required everywhere and it is enforced very strongly. Indoor dining and gyms only opened up very recently compared to other states. New Jersey is considered to be one of the slowest states in the country to reopen. Even as things open up, people are taking mask-wearing and social distancing very seriously for the most part. The state is also introducing widespread contact tracing via an app very soon. 

Ngai (Hong Kong): Right now we have a six person per table limit in restaurants, but a four person limit remains for public gatherings both indoors and outdoors. Doesn’t really make sense but I’m not complaining. Everything is pretty much up and running: school is half day, bars, cinemas, pools, beaches and pretty much everything are open at 75% capacity. And, of course, masks are mandatory, though social distancing is practically impossible in such a dense city. 

Are there any penalties for not abiding by these measures?

Maxim (London, England): Mainly fines. I think they vary in terms of region and monetary amount.

Ruhi (Bangalore, India): Earlier in the pandemic, I saw news articles about policemen strictly enforcing curfews and lockdowns by manhandling the perpetrators. Recently, I’ve heard of policemen fining people who don’t wear their masks even inside their vehicles but I’m not sure if that’s an official state or federal government policy or a more local initiative. 

Sangeeta (New Jersey, USA): The state government is considering fining people for wearing masks, but as of right now, there are not any firm penalties — more so, you cannot enter any establishment without a mask. 

Ngai (Hong Kong): I’m not really sure of the exact penalties. It’s just kind of interesting because everyone assumes that you will follow the measures. It’s expected of each other in Hong Kong. If someone disobeys the rules in public, it’s more likely that other people around them would shame or scold them into compliance without any need of fining people. No protests are allowed because it’ll count as illegal assembly.

Do you think that your city, state, or national government has been doing a good job?

Maxim (London, England): No, I think the British government has been doing a pretty awful job. For some reason, northern England has been hit significantly harder than say, London. And even when compared to Scotland or Wales, we have been doing much worse.  

Ruhi (Bangalore, India): I’m pretty surprised to see everyone wearing a mask when I go out so I think the governments have done a good job of explaining the need to wear a mask. However, I think there should be some restrictions to slow down the opening up of local economies – just to ensure the virus doesn’t get transmitted and cause a sudden surge in cases. 

Sangeeta (New Jersey, USA): I think my state has been doing a good job. The state government took the pandemic seriously and has encouraged mask-wearing and social distancing from the very beginning. I feel like if the national government had taken similar steps to what the NJ state government did, the country would be in a much better place with the pandemic. 

Ngai (Hong Kong): I think they’re trying their best, but because Hong Kong is such a trade and finance centred city it’s hard to strike a balance. But another main theme is how many citizens perceive the government as sluggish in their public health policy making. For example, citizens would say please close our borders and the government would only do it a few weeks after people started asking for them to do so. Nowadays they’re really keen on mass testing and are subsidising it so it’s good to see that they take things seriously. 

Is there anything you believe could be done better?

Maxim (London, England): I think I speak for all the English when I say I wish there were a better strategy and more cohesive information being passed down.

Ruhi (Bangalore, India): I’ve seen a lot less news coverage of the pandemic, its effects on the Indian economy and statistics related to deaths and infection rates. In recent months, most news outlets have been engaged in discussions about sensationalist news (such as Bollywood scandals) and so I feel there is no clear gauge on how India is actually handling the pandemic. Our PM actually gave a speech earlier this week saying that the curve has flattened but we all still need to be wary and careful in our interactions but that is the closest thing to an official announcement that I am aware of.

Sangeeta (New Jersey, USA): Although they have been quite cautious with opening up, I feel like the state government is starting to succumb to societal pressures to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, which might not be the best. Already in New York, cases are starting to spike up again so I am worried the same might happen in New Jersey. 

Ngai (Hong Kong): Hong Kong is in a highly politically sensitive state right now because of pre-COVID issues. Of course not everything should or needs to be politicized, but I wish the government would at least be more transparent in and willing to address concerns of a political agenda behind their public health policies.

Is there enough testing in your area?

Maxim (London, England): There wasn’t at first but there is now. It goes through cycles of the government cutting spending on testing, and then the people are outraged, and the government brings back more funding for it. Right now there is an adequate amount of testing and they have been doing a better job with contact tracing. But still nothing phenomenal.

Ruhi (Bangalore, India): I live in a gated community and the housing association actually offers RT-PCR testing to all the domestic workers once a month. The testing is quick, efficient, and free which makes it a great checkup tool for my neighborhood. Outside of my community, I don’t think there are any exclusive testing clinics (such as the drive-through ones I know are popular in the US) but it is pretty easy to walk into a regular clinic and ask for a COVID test. 

Sangeeta (New Jersey, USA): There was not in the beginning but now testing is largely available.

Ngai (Hong Kong): I think there is. And one thing that I think we’ve been doing well is testing. Testing is pretty accessible and there’s a lot of testing points in this city where the government covers almost all of the cost for it. So it’s pretty cheap and affordable for almost everyone. So I’d say they’re doing testing well.

Do you know anyone that has gotten COVID-19? What are the steps after testing positive?

Maxim (London, England): Yes, I have two friends that got Covid in March. In the UK, you are advised to quarantine if you test positive and to only go to the hospital if you feel symptoms are severe.

Ruhi (Bangalore, India): Yes, there are people in my network that have gotten COVID-19 but from what I’ve heard, they’ve all isolated themselves at home and recovered completely. 

Sangeeta (New Jersey, USA): I do know people that have gotten COVID-19, but not with serious symptoms. Once testing positive, they reach out to people that they have been in contact with to let them know (or the doctor does that contact tracing for them) and they self-isolate for 14 days if they do not have serious symptoms. 

Ngai (Hong Kong): My dad’s colleague had it. He had to go to a government-designated facility for quarantine. Despite how many Hong Kongers value individual liberty, most people don’t mind having to do so because they understand it’s for the good of the community. Recently, there was this one guy in our National Orchestra who caught coronavirus. He tested positive and now all 100 or so other musicians in the orchestra had to go to quarantine in the government centers. It’s pretty sad because it shut down orchestra season. They have advertisements everywhere sayong, ‘oh we’re coming back!’ Their season started just a few days ago, and then the guy tested positive. They also closed the concert hall, Hong Kong’s biggest concert hall, for cleaning for 14 days. So all other programs are also canceled, just because of that one guy. I think they’re being really careful.

Do you think your city/state/national government is ready to handle the next wave?

Maxim (London, England): I think so. The UK has not done well with handling the previous outbreaks. Recently there was a blunder with an Excel spreadsheet that led to 16,000 people not getting contact traced. Hopefully, with this new three-tiered system there is more communication with the local governments and the lockdowns can go into effect more quickly 

Ruhi (Bangalore, India): Given that hospitals in India don’t seem to have been overwhelmed the same way the hospitals in the US have been, I think India could handle the next wave. But I also want to note that the infection rate has been rising so I don’t think the virus is coming in “waves” per se. Rather, it’s one big wave that’s about to crest (if I may extend the metaphor).

Sangeeta (New Jersey, USA): I do think they are ready to handle the next wave. They were quite successful the first time around, so I believe that they are prepared to tackle the next spike should it happen.

Ngai (Hong Kong): I think it’s also because the nature of Hong Kong is so capitalist that the government can’t issue any lockdowns or like any curfews. And because Hong Kong is so business and finance oriented, it’s almost impossible to close down borders. They just can’t close down the borders completely. There’s a lot of things that would be wise from a public health angle, but because our country is so economically focused, we just can’t implement those measures.

As a college student, you have a unique perspective, being both old enough to understand the consequences of the pandemic, but young enough to still have optimism. Do you think that you have a fresh perspective that’s worth mentioning?

Maxim (London, England): I think coronavirus might be accelerating the demise of some of the big countries. The UK, Spain, and France have all performed awfully during this pandemic. Germany has performed brilliantly with its contact tracing and handling of the pandemic and has come out ahead in terms of perception. 

Ruhi (Bangalore, India): I think the hardest thing to grapple with is deciding when and how to return to some semblance of normalcy. I feel like it is possible to return to normalcy in a safe way but it is also important to balance that with the very real health risks the pandemic poses (given its level of contagiousness). I think it is unrealistic to expect countries and citizens to stay on “lockdown” forever, which is why opening up business (such as restaurants with an outdoor setting) is important. But I also think that there needs to be a balance with enforcing health & safety regulations within these circumstances. 

Sangeeta (New Jersey, USA): I feel like I was more optimistic about the pandemic in the earlier stages, since I did not really understand what we are dealing with. I am optimistic that we will return to some semblance of normalcy soon, but that can only happen if the pandemic is considered as a universal health crisis, and not as a political issue. 

Ngai (Hong Kong):  I think the pandemic really showed the full extent of the fragility of nations and institutions worldwide. That may be super disheartening for some, but it’s also prime time to reevaluate what assumptions we hold about the stuff we trust in.

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Madeleine Nations

Madeleine Nations is a junior majoring in Central European Studies with a minor in Cultural Diplomacy. She has grown up around the world and currently lives in Naples, Italy. Her degree focuses on the culture, language, and history of Russia, Germany, and Poland. In her spare time, she is also trying to learn Italian. Madeleine’s interests in NATO, the European Union, and military alliances stem from her background in NROTC and growing up in a Navy family. On campus, she is involved with the Teaching International Relations Program and is a research assistant for the Center for Innovation on Veterans and Military Families.