Monday, June 28, 2021

The Plague Year

Monday, June 28, 2021

I recently read Lawrence Wright's new book, The Plague Year: America in the Age of Covid, where he tells the story of the COVID-19 pandemic from the initial outbreak in China, to the destruction it inflicted around the world, to the Trump administration's chaotic response to the virus, and to the vaccine rollout several months later. It was essentially a summary of the momentous events that happened in 2020. As these events were happening, I was stranded in Costa Rica, trying to live a normal life amid so much uncertainty. 

Italy went into national lockdown on 10 March. That was our third day in Costa Rica. The horrifying images from Lombardy—overrun hospitals and deserted streets—felt so far away from where we were. D and I believed that everything would be fine until we heard that one of the managers at the villa we're staying at got fired because of the many cancellations the hotel received. That was our first indication of the gravity of the pandemic. 

The United States of America declared COVID-19 as a national emergency on 13 March. On that day, still feeling invincible, we traveled from the mountains of Heredia to the beach town of Manuel Antonio. 

Countries in Latin America, including Costa Rica, started going on lockdown on 17 March. The day before that we went on a catamaran cruise filled with springbreakers. We didn't know then that that was the country's last hurrah as it would ban all tourists and restrict all non-essential activities the following day.  Subsequently, airlines started to cancel flights and countries allowed only the entry of returning residents. We decided not to travel to Brazil as originally planned and stayed in Manuel Antonio, instead, to luxuriate in its pura vida way of life. On 22 March my return flight to Manila was cancelled. We frantically looked for alternative flights to the Philippines, but most countries were on lockdown and all commercial flights were suspended. D was lucky enough to catch the last flight back to America a week after. Only repatriation flights have been allowed since then.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered non-essential businesses in the state to shut their doors and for everyone to stay at home on 20 March. New York was then the epicenter of the virus. Hungry for anything that would make sense out of what's happening, I watched and took comfort in Gov. Cuomo's daily briefings. In April, when I was feeling hopeless about my situation, D reminded me of the governor's words:

"And 10 years from now you'll be talking about today to your children or your grandchildren and you will shed a tear because you will remember the lives lost, and you'll remember the faces and you'll remember the names, and you'll remember how hard we worked and that we still lost loved ones.

And you'll shed a tear and you should because it will be sad. But you will also be proud. You'll be proud of what you did."

The epidemiological curve started to flatten in New York in May. That was also the time when the government of Costa Rica decided to open beaches and national parks. Beaches were open only from 5 to 8 in the morning, so I got up early every day to make the most of that limited beach time. I was supposed to fly to Manila at the end of the month, but my flight was again canceled. That was when I realized that there won't be any flights soon, and it's better to simply relax and enjoy my time in Costa Rica

The daily number of cases in America reached its peak in the middle of July, while the country fought over the wearing of masks. Costa Rica, after flattening the curve for several months, started experiencing a second wave of the virus. It mandated everyone to wear masks in all public places such as buses and supermarkets on 27 June. Nobody complained about it; we just followed the rule. We got away without wearing masks when we're at the beach, where people stayed within their burbujas sociales (social bubbles) and the risk of acquiring the virus was very low. 

The US Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention were held in August 2020. I microwaved popcorn and watched the events with gusto. When I told the Jim, the inn manager, about it, he said that I should've paired the popcorn with tequila for that's the only way to get through such events without losing one's sanity. The presidential debates, which I also watched, took place the following month, but I had ice cream in place of tequila. 

Costa Rica along with its neighbor Panama re-opened in October. Flights in and out of both countries were resumed, and Costa Rica started accepting tourists from selected countries. I was able to book a Copa America flight to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil through Panama City. After 236 days, I finally left Costa Rica. 

America held its presidential election on November 3. On that day I was busy exploring Rio's Botanical Gardens. The states were still counting electoral votes when I left Brazil for Manila two days after. While my co-passengers were drifting in and out of sleep, I was watching CNN's live coverage of the election on the plane. I was already in my quarantine hotel in the Philippines when Joseph Biden crossed 270 electoral college votes and became the 46th president of the United States.

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