Southwest Louisiana Native Speaks From Experience
By Kerri Cooke
I first met Vickie Peoples five years ago when we were co-workers in Lake Charles. Three years ago she made the decision to go back to teaching English as a second language (ESL) overseas. She had previously taught in South Korea.
This time she was offered a position at a university in China. She’s been happy there, but plans to come back to live in the states when she finishes the current spring term (due to personal reasons that have nothing to do with COVID-19.)
Needless to say, things have been uncertain and scary since the COVID-19 outbreak began in China. I interviewed Vickie to relay her first-hand experience of what it was like to go through a lockdown in a foreign country.
Signs Of Trouble
Vickie told me she remembers going out with a friend on New Year’s Eve. (You know, the day when we all rejoiced because we had high hopes for 2020 and the new decade.) She says everything was business as usual. Nothing seemed to be wrong.
It was two weeks later when she started hearing buzz about a sickness. She had access to news channels such as CNN and BBC, so she first heard about what was happening in Wuhan through these outlets.
Vickie lives in Suzhou, an eight-hour drive from Wuhan. She said, “I thought the situation looked serious in Wuhan, and I did worry a little that it may spread. I was especially concerned when the ambassadors and their families were flown out of Wuhan.” On top of that, Vickie saw that Wuhan was building hospitals as quickly as possible to be able to treat the number of people infected.
On Jan. 24, the Chinese government sent out two different letters to foreigners working in the country. The letters contained a list of instructions on what to do as Suzhou and the rest of the country was put on lockdown.
The steps we have come to associate with prevention of COVID-19 were in the letters, as well as a few stricter instructions – only go out when necessary, wash your hands thoroughly, use hand sanitizer, cook meat and eggs thoroughly, avoid contact with wild animals, avoid crowds and gatherings and wear a mask whenever you leave your residence. Restaurants, movie theaters and cafes were shut down, and church services at Vickie’s house of worship were canceled.
“I did begin to get anxious at that point. The lockdown happened so quickly. I’d like to say that I believe the Chinese government was very efficient at keeping people informed. They took measures that helped to flatten the curve of the virus. Chinese people were also a factor. They complied with the measures,” Vickie said.
The streets were eerily quiet during the quarantine because there were “no people in a normally bustling city of about 10 million people.” As the infection rate in Suzhou, and China as a whole, began to increase, Vickie said some foreigners began to leave. One of her co-workers at her university left.
When I asked if she ever considered leaving, she said, “There was one night I did. I had a panic attack about the situation. My family wanted me to come home. That was early on.” A friend of hers who worked for an airline also urged her to return home. But she decided to stay once she heard that COVID-19 would most likely become a pandemic.
In China you had to wear a mask when you went anywhere. Your temperature was taken in order for you to get into places, such as the grocery store or a doctor’s office. Vickie’s passport was also checked in some places to verify she hadn’t been in a different city or country within the last two weeks. She had to create a QR code regarding her health on her phone which she would sometimes have to show as well. As of the time of this interview, Vickie still had to report her temperature twice a day at her apartment complex.
As far as containment measures go, Vickie said, “I believe these measures have been extremely helpful. I have diabetes, so I am extra careful. People with autoimmune illnesses are especially at risk.”
Anyone who has experienced quarantine knows how hard it can be. So I asked Vickie, who lives alone, how her experience was and is and what she was doing to pass the time.
“I’m more of an introvert, so it’s not as difficult for me as it would be for extroverts.” She added that she missed her students. She spends her extra time cooking, reading, taking long walks, dancing while listening to music and watching her beta fish and guppies swim around in their fishbowls. She added that she does meet with a couple of friends occasionally.
As far as working goes, Vickie said she was supposed to start teaching again on Feb. 17, for the spring 2020 semester. Due to the national emergency she didn’t start teaching until March 23, and even then, it was online.
Vickie predicts she will be teaching online for the whole semester. Fortunately, she still received pay during the interim, saying that the government mandated that teachers continue to get paid. However, since the spring semester got off to a late start, it will last into the summer now.
As China began to report a steep decline in cases, I asked Vickie if people are still required to isolate. She said restrictions have loosened, but many precautions are still required.
Businesses are starting to open again, particularly restaurants. But everyone is still required to go out with a mask and receive temperature checks.
“The worst seems to have passed. Now there are strict border controls for those coming into the country. I still cannot leave my city or I’ll have to be quarantined for 14 days when I return.”
During the COVID-19 surge in China, Vickie had a friend and colleague who was in Thailand. She said when he returned to China, he had to self-quarantine for two weeks. She went to the grocery store for him and left the groceries at the front desk at his apartment complex.
When I asked if she had any idea when the Chinese government will give the all-clear, Vickie said, “I don’t know if they know. But people are optimistic, though.”
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has delayed the projected time of Vickie’s homecoming. She said, “I was hoping to come home at the end of June, but now it looks like it will be Aug. 1 at the earliest.”
Humanity In The Midst Of Adversity
One thing Vickie noticed as COVID-19 was spreading in China was “even though people are wearing masks, you can tell when they smile at you. There’s this sense that we’re all in this together.”
Advice she gives to us here in Southwest Louisiana is to “practice good hygiene, stop hoarding supplies (there are plenty), have respect for the elderly and those with lower levels of immunity and stay at home as much as possible. Use this time to reach out to your community and help others, especially those who may have lost their jobs. Show appreciation for service workers, such as restaurant workers, custodians, etc.”