Coming home during a global pandemic
The dark night sky outside filled the window of my studio apartment, but my nerves awoke me with a jolt of panic at 5 a.m. It was March 20 in Melbourne, Australia, and an anxious pit formed in my stomach as I got ready to hop on a flight to travel back to the United States. I prepared my N95 face masks, tupperware of sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer and latex gloves for my journey. I watched my last Melbourne sunrise through my window, the usually-hostile Australian sun diminishing into a soft, orange glow like a halo around the Melbourne skyline.
Just a week ago, the Australian sun shone through that same window of my studio apartment, pleasantly warming up my cheeks until I slowly woke up. It was 7 a.m. on Friday the 13th, and I felt the nerves setting in as I pushed my bed sheets off my body. I stretched my torso across the gap between my bed and my desk, anxiously reaching for my phone and clicking on my email app.
“[UPDATE] -- CGIS Winter 2020 Programs” read the subject line to a new email in my inbox.
The words were ominous and sunk heavy in my mind. I took a deep breath and clicked the email. As my eyes perused the bright screen, they felt sandy from exhaustion. Then, in bold letters: “You must return to the United States by March 20, 2020.” I kept looking for the words “but” or “exception,” but I couldn’t find them anywhere.
A few days before the news that I had to leave entered my inbox or thoughts, I was living a slow-paced life in Melbourne. I was taking three classes at the University of Melbourne about subjects I actually found interesting and the coursework was not overwhelming. In just a short few weeks, I had met enough people that whenever I walked through campus I bumped into someone I knew. My evenings consisted of sitting on benches in grassy park squares, basking in the sun to make up for the Vitamin D I had lost from being at home on the East Coast of the U.S. for too long during winter. I could understand Aussie slang well, but I was still learning and I indulged in at least two cups of coffee per day (Melbourne is known for their amazing coffee). I was preparing to go to surf camp with my friends at Lorne Beach, a little, surfer, hippy town on Great Ocean Road.
After receiving the news that I had to return home, it felt surreal walking along the sunny streets of Melbourne, the cool breeze hitting my warm and flushed face. It felt like I was sleepwalking. My brain couldn’t process that I would have to leave Australia in a week’s time. I felt an unnamed emotion — fear and anxiety mixed with anger — hitting me so abruptly that I became dizzy from the impact.
My anxiety took over as I thought about the impact — on myself and others — if I were to contract COVID-19. There are currently fewer cases in the entire country of Australia of COVID-19 than there are in New York state. To get home, I would have to go through three airports and spend a total minimum of 24 hours traveling, including 18 hours on a plane. In the U.S., I would automatically join the shared mindset of panic and worry, not to mention I would be living in a home where a family member of mine recently suffered from a pulmonary embolism, a condition that increases risk for those who contract COVID-19.
Even more so, as I read that email in Australia, one thought came to the forefront of my mind: It’s been a blessing being far away from the U.S. I watched from halfway across the world as the U.S. fumbled with the outbreak of the new virus: clumsily mishandling COVID-19 tests, having lax travel restriction policies and a president who ignores the warnings of public health officials. I watched as the U.S. slowly crumbled under the hands of this pandemic.
The mental toll of the news was extremely difficult. I felt exhausted at every second of the day for a week, my eyes perpetually brimmed with tears that would spill onto my cheeks as I explained to my new Aussie friends why I had to go. Every morning that I walked to class, I would look around the beautiful city I’d come to love, watching the people walk by the street and giggling at the thought of the funny lingo and unnecessary abbreviations they use.
While living in Australia, the pandemic, to me, only existed on social media and headlines. COVID-19 did not dominate everyday conversations yet; it was more of an afterthought. The government of Australia was preparing for the pandemic from its inception, with travel restrictions and monitoring border control. I felt like everything was going to be OK and that I had some control over the situation. I wasn’t afraid to look at numbers or projections, and I knew that if I were to experience symptoms, I would be able to get a test. Panic-buying toilet paper and other goods was still happening in Australia — there wasn’t a complete detachment of what the world was dealing with — but I still felt safer in Melbourne than back home in the U.S.
The stark reality in the U.S. and around the world was very different. As of March 25, there are over 50,000 cases of COVID-19 and 700 deaths related to COVID-19 in the U.S. Globally, there have been tens of thousands of COVID-19 related deaths, with that number climbing.
Reaching out to the University of Michigan for answers and support proved moot. The feeling of not having control came back again — the familiar feeling that I can walk up the door to President Schlissel’s home, knock on it, scream my anxiety and grievances in his face and still not be heard.
“Get out by March 20,” they said. Then, a generic list of our “next steps,” including booking a ticket and notifying our parents and a blurb telling us we should contact the institution we were currently studying at to determine an academic plan. It was business-like, transactional and cold, completely neglecting the fact that I might need time and space to breathe and genuine mental and emotional support to guide me through this process. I was left to strategize my exit plan with only my peers and whatever information our parents could gather, which was not much.
It did not seem to cross the minds of those in power at the University that traveling halfway across the world during a global pandemic might be as mentally taxing as it is financially taxing.
The University made me feel as if I was more of a liability to them than a student they cared about being safe, healthy and mentally-well — receiving information when it’s too late, giving me the same cookie-cutter responses and, most importantly, not making me feel like my voice or concerns were being heard.
Even though I landed in New York City less than a week ago, there is an incredible sense of fear and panic that is constantly in the back of my mind. After enduring a 16 hour flight to Los Angeles International Airport, my first stop back in the U.S., I faced no screening — no one asked me any questions, no one checked if I had a fever or a dry cough. I was released into the empty airport, except for the people also trying to get home. I boarded a desolate flight to New York City, the epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S. When I landed, I again faced no questions or recommendations to self-isolate for two weeks.
I fear the possibility of having contracted the virus while traveling, that I might spread the virus, that I am an asymptomatic carrier and will add to the problem and, even worse, that if I develop symptoms, I will not be able to get the treatment that I need or even a test due to limited resources. Though there are signs of spring in the trees and bushes, the New York City streets and roads are barren from human life. Even though I have not seen anyone outside my own family since I’ve landed, I can still sense the mass panic hanging heavy in the frigid air. The once bustling streets in the city that never sleeps are empty and it’s a terrifying contrast to the sun-filled and easy-going atmosphere I was in not too long ago.
Now, I struggle to find out what my academic schedule will look like my senior year of college given the circumstances and new “Pass/No Record-COVID” grading system, what the financial impacts of this pandemic will be on my education and whether or not, when I graduate next year, there will be a job waiting for me. The future is uncertain and up in the air as the world is at a standstill. I can’t help scrolling through my camera roll on my phone at least once a day to look at pictures of the Melbourne skyline pierced with shiny skyscrapers or the hilly landscape of the countryside. I think of the budding friendships that were cut short and the missed adventures at surf camp. While I am grateful to be home safe, I can’t help but think of what would have probably been the best four months of my life.
Isabelle Hasslund is a junior studying Music in SMTD and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in LSA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.