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Stranded Abroad

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

Madrid is currently in a 30-day lockdown, elongated today by Pedro Sanchez (22/03). The army are patrolling the streets and residents face hefty fines if caught travelling unnecessarily. I had the option to fly back to my native country of England to be home with my family on Saturday 14th March, a flight I had booked previously for £9 when others costed hundreds, but I abstained. As part of the large expat community, we have been debating the moral and logical actions to take for weeks, to leave or stay. My American flatmates bought two last minute flights home to fit into Trump’s painfully tight border-closure-window. My English flatmate Zoë fled to Almeria ‘out of fear’ to stay with her boyfriend, which was met with much hostility: he was evicted, fired and stranded. Days later after multiple forms of travel and accommodation they arrived in England; thus I became alone in my apartment at the start of a quarantine; which has proven worthwhile as friends have developed symptoms.

I decided to interview the people around me as to why they chose to stay abroad, and how they would cope mentally with the upcoming isolation. I asked everyone I knew still in the city and posted on Facebook groups to ask for stories on our situation; with 25 accounts received so far. This side of the documentation was incredibly moving, especially when I felt trapped initially. Many were total strangers, whom I’m keeping in contact with; making friends in isolation! As someone who suffers from claustrophobia, anxiety and depression, these past weeks have been mentally torturous. Maddie called this era a ‘crushing weight on my spirit.’ The idea of isolation puts an immense pressure on mental stability, as wellbeing and motivation must be sourced from within. Gaby stated that despite experiencing the effects of Dengue Fever, Zika and Chikungunya in Mexico, this feels different. As she suffers from anxiety she wished, ‘that the government had some kind of psychology program,’ as a core and possibly overlooked element of the quarantine, barely mentioned by governments. Miranda agreed, ‘it’s fine to instruct a ban but the implications mentally for the people doing so hasn’t been addressed,’ highlighting other complications of the rapid changes. It is one thing to be quarantined for others safety, but another if the isolated location creates more harm: without the prospect of travelling, this can cause a lot of stress.

Understanding the realities of living was vital. For myself as an artist I plan to use ‘my time,’ to develop personal projects and self-reflect. Ben asked, ‘What does one do when capitalism is temporarily suspended?… Everybody I assume will want to work on self-actualising themselves and pursuing things that contribute to their wholeness as a human being, which most people are not prepared to do on a daily basis.’ The structural change of our lives will require much self-motivation to replace our normal activities: as Johanna put it, people will, ‘learn about what they’re like in a totally different context.’ As a result, this phenomenon of seeking self-fulfilment could entice a new wave of creative thinking and culture afterwards. Already, this question of how to fill an abundance of time has serendipitously created a lot of online content with people gifting their talents and resources. The existence of high speed internet and social media permits for worldwide connectivity, invaluably providing reassurance and positivity. I think the world will be ultimately changed by this forced lifestyle, one that people will continually reflect upon.

Regardless of their native country, most contributors agreed the primary reason for staying was the risky aspect of travelling at this moment in time. Coming from a highly-infected area, the concept of potential infection to family members was a concern. Spain has practiced social distancing for some time now, whereas areas where the virus hasn’t spread to yet are behind, which is a major cause of its fast movement. For Aahuti, who stays ‘in a joint family in India along with my grandparents, parents, elder brother and cat. My grandmom is diabetic and had respiratory issues. I didn’t want to risk that either.’ The UK has been painfully slow in implicating measures, Will confirmed, ‘I only just this weekend managed to convince my family to take it seriously enough to practice social distancing,’ blaming the government’s actions on ‘ideological austerity and nationalism.’ To self-isolate once home is a noble idea that can be pointless if others aren’t also, making it much harder to ensure safety and limit potential infection. Helena stated, through ‘watching everyone acting dismissive’ she feels ‘at the mercy of other’s adherence to these rules,’ which is ‘psychologically terrifying,’ imploring the severity of these national differences. We are entitled to free healthcare as residents of Spain, and Shandor said this highly influenced his decision; to return to the US would incur ‘mountains of debt,’ if he caught the virus. Miranda told me her decision was based on a spiritual message she received to stay, and has trusted it without regret. These cultural differences and family dynamics worldwide have rendered these courses of actions extremely personally conflicting, and dangerous.

Regarding home, the UK’s approach to this situation causes a lot of anxiety. As the country hasn’t shutdown yet, many Brits are filled with concern and fear, including Will. ‘Whether or not their plan for herd immunity works in the long run, their failure to act immediately is going to kill many more people than could have been avoided, will drive the already overburdened NHS likely to destruction, and misses the point that this strategy requires control using vaccines.’ The expat community is already built on financial uncertainty, as often professions are freelance or self-employed. As a teacher, I have could find work teaching online, where parents are willing to pay to keep their children entertained and educated, with schools are closed for the foreseeable. For small business owners like Maria C. A., ‘it’s going to be a tough time.’ Countries such as France have implemented grant schemes and reduced electricity bills to help citizens, which we are waiting for in Spain. In terms of the UK a lot must change to handle the future, as many predict an economic crisis. The younger demographics will be relied upon worldwide as the least affected group of the virus, and the ones to endure the after effects the longest. Brexit has weakened the young population’s relationship with the government, as many didn’t support the decisions made. In terms of rebuilding the economy post-pandemic, Boris Johnson will certainly have to change his tactics.

This endeavour of collecting opinions has certainly made me feel more connected to the community here, as its reassuring to empathise and know people nearby are willing to trust you with their personal insights. the constant flow of news has been a burden as well as a lifeline to the outside world, with scaremongering and unreliable sources: this research has felt very grounding. For the future, nothing seems certain. Maria S. R. argued ‘people forget very fast.’ Maria O. agreed, ‘I hope this all serves us as a lesson, we need more compassion and a larger sense of community; we need to think of ‘us’ before we think of ‘me’. I hope we emerge kinder and more tolerant to others.’ Many agreed the pandemic has proved indicative of necessary global changes, including Maria S. R., ‘something in our way of living has to change. The social and economic impact that crisis is causing is the result of a society that lives too fast and without a backup plan.’ Aahuti worried, ‘I just hope people don’t get awkward in social gatherings after isolating themselves for so long.’ Regarding the warm-nature of Spanish culture this is an interesting social aspect. Johanna predicted ‘different forms of intimacy,’ to come from the forced distancing. This may not last long post-quarantine in Spain, but in other countries it could prove harder to break the habit.

Despite the fear, worry and anxiety in the air; many messages I received concluded with hopes of a different world post-pandemic. These predictions could be coping mechanisms, or opportunities for change; or as Alfred called it, ‘an evolution.’ Miranda thought, ‘whatever happens after this will be immeasurably different by the way we have all handled this in communities and by ourselves, which will change us and society.’ These people who contacted me are filled with emotion and thoughts, but what stuck out was their underlying optimism for bettering themselves and the world. Maria C. A. hoped that, ‘we emerge kinder and more tolerant to others.’ Maddie felt, ‘more connected to people in general, like the world is one place.’

With the fast pace and underlying uncertainty of this climate it’s impossible to predict the future. However, if amidst the panic and danger there is hope such as this, perhaps this period will serve as the catalyst for the social/economic/personal change needed to ensure we are better equipped for future pandemics. For now, I will wait it out and seize this opportunity to control my time fully, in the hope of becoming a stronger and more conscientious person. This detrimental and catastrophic virus is a pivotal point in history, shining light on many economic, structural and personal problems. The vast implications of this virus are unknown for now, but what we learn from it will prove to be the silver linings.

By Eleanor Cowell.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support.

For the full accounts and extra information click here or on the names below. I’d like to thank everyone that got in touch with me and allowed me to share their stories.

With great thanks to:

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