Although COVID-19 has been part of my daily life for 10 weeks now I still feel like I don’t really know what’s going on. And by that I mean what’s REALLY going on. Yes, I read about it every day, it’s on Facebook, Instagram, the TV, the radio, the paper and I even get a daily COVID-19 newsletter updating me with the latest stats, how many deaths, how many have recovered and what the government is doing. But in reality, I don’t really know what COVID-19 means for the majority of people in the UK, let alone in other countries. So I decided to ask!
I reached out to my contacts across the globe to find out exactly what is happening in their communities. What is the real impact? What does it mean for their businesses and their families? How have communities changed? And what does the future look like? This is what they had to say.
Celia from Argentina Polo Day , Buenos Aires
Our day spent playing polo with Celia and her colleagues remains without a doubt one of my favourites from our Argentinian trip. We couldn’t have asked for better hospitality as we were wined and dined throughout the day with nothing but the best meat expertly BBQ’d. I wonder when the last fire was lit under that grill? Argentina has been on lockdown for 50 days as I write this with similar restrictions to the UK, however unlike the UK, they acted early. Their first case was confirmed on 3rd March and by the 20th March all non-essential businesses had closed down and mandatory social isolation was put into effect.
However, being in lockdown for a prolonged period without the government support,which we are lucky enough to be experiencing in the UK, isn’t sustainable for very long. Argentina has a high number of entrepreneurs, sole traders and informal jobs. They can only survive so long without a wage and they can’t really continue waiting, so an increasing number of individuals are breaking the government’s advice and restarting the economy. This is not a decision however that will have been taken lightly, the police do not mess about! They had over 45 arrests and imprisonments in the city of Cordoba just on the first day of lockdown!
It is worth noting Argentina’s recent history has been turbulent, to the say least, having seen several military governments in place since the 1950’s. The latest (1976 -1983) was responsible for the deaths of as many as 30,000 people who were tortured in secret prisons. I can’t imagine the decision to step outside to continue to earn and be able to provide for the family would have been taken lightly for the middle aged population who would have lived through those scary times.
Alex from Vietnam in Focus, Hanoi
You may even be familiar with Vietnam in Focus by now as I’ve mentioned them in a couple of my blogs. There is good reason for that! I owe them a big thanks. Without them my holiday photos would have been rubbish! It was this time last year that we were in Vietnam so I’ve been bombarded with Facebook memories prompting me to wonder how the chaotic city of Hanoi is fairing during the COVID-19 outbreak. Alex answered my questions so eloquently that I have simply typed them up word for word.
What is the COVID-19 situation in Hanoi?
Things have calmed down a lot here. There was a big scare at the beginning as we had a few infections and all schools were shut down. The government dealt with it very swiftly and effectively, using quarantines and contact tracing. We had a complete lockdown from April 1st to April 30th and now things are opening up again. Vietnam is not issuing visas to international travellers yet though!
How is it affecting the people of Hanoi?
People have dealt with it very calmly and maturely. (The) Vietnamese have had to deal with plenty of deprivation before so lockdown was not really a big deal. Also, being a very family-oriented society helps. People don’t mind going through a bit of an experience together.
Has there been any positive impacts to the pandemic?
The fresher air in Hanoi is nice! The sky seems bluer than usual. I think some of the over-touristed spots like Ha Long Bay and Hoi An will enjoy the break too.
What is the outlook for your business and what can readers do to help?
It is tough for us, as most of our clients have always been international travellers. We’ll be running more local workshops for the expat community and Vietnamese enthusiasts in the next year. I would recommend readers join one of our online portfolio reviews, which is a great way of developing their eye and editing skills, as well as helping out our photographers at this tough time. All details are right here.
Good deed stories
Alex also pointed me towards a great “Good News Story” that I had to share. Hoang Tuan Ang, an entrepreneur in HCMC, developed an automatic rice dispenser to help the poorest still access food without the risks involved in gathering and waiting for free street food. The rice machine has provided those in need with a life line by allowing them to collect 1.5kg of rice 24/7 at a touch of a button. I wonder how hygienic that button is?
Following on from his rice ATM invention, similar machines have appeared across many other regions in the country, including Hanoi, where over 700 people, mainly students, low paid workers and the disabled, collected rice in a single day.
Marius Ghisoiu from Untravelled Paths, Romania
Before 2018 I didn’t really know much about Romania, however, scouring the Much Better Adventures website I came across a very affordable long weekend trip to Bucharest and Brasov which promised seeing bears in the wild. And bears we saw!! It was absolutely amazing to sit just a few metres away watching them eat, play, fight and meander. When we opened the door to leave our shelter there was even one waiting for us at the door! Here’s the trip if you fancy it!
To avoid bears wandering into town and cities, feeding stations are set up on the outskirts of towns which also gives tourists a chance to watch from a safe distance inside a hut without interfering with the bears as they go about their business. I do wonder whether the lack of tourists to fund this element of conservation will mean less stations are operational? I should have asked that question!
Having had a chat with Marius it seems that Romania acted fast, declaring a state of emergency two weeks ahead of Italy, which gave them a chance to truly avoid the spread of the disease. The country remains in total lockdown and there are severe movement restrictions in place. You need pre-authorisation to be outside and you are expected to carry a signed copy of your itinerary. We were in Romania during the August 2018 protests that made the news due to police brutality, so I am certain of one thing. You would not want to be caught outside by the police if you weren’t where your itinerary said you should be! And it is therefore no surprise that they are leading the way in revenues generated through fining those in breach of lockdown. Someone always profits!
Over 65’s are only allowed out at certain times of the day and schools remain closed. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel as the state of emergency has been descaled to a state of alert and as of the 15th of May residents can expect additional freedom of movement.
On the face of it, it seems like a crisis well handled, however, the same theme from our holiday re-emerges: government corruption. From what Marius was telling me, as well as what I’ve been reading online, the number of deaths has been inflated and not all COVID-19 deaths reported are actually virus related deaths.
Corruption, terrible hospitals and lack of equipment aside, the government is at least able to support those furloughed or those who have lost their jobs, as well as helping companies out financially and postponing mortgages for up to 9 months. The challenge, however, lies with the Roma Gypsies and casual labourers of which there are a lot of in Romania. Because they work without contracts or on the black market there is no government help for them which is causing turmoil in those communities.
Bucharest must also be one of the few places where pollution has increased during the COVID-19 outbreak. It seems a number of companies looking to make a quick profit have been burning garbage, debris and other waste, illegally brought over from the UK, out in the open (quicker and less facilities needed I guess). The “wood mafia” have also used the crisis as an opportunity to further increase the amount of illegal logging, further accelerating the loss of habitat for the wildlife. Maybe De Niro or Al Pacino can have a role playing out the mafia scene of Romania, there is certainly a good story to be told.
When I asked Marius what can tourists do to help tourism during these hard times his answer was the same as everything I have seen echoed throughout blogs, newsletters and social media: “If you can afford it please don’t cancel, please postpone instead”. The high number of cancellations will mean many tour operators will simply not survive the COVID-19 pandemic so if we want our favourite companies to still be standing when this is over then we need to support them now.
Chernobyl Tour, Ukraine
The final company that I reached out to was Chernobyl Tour with whom we explored the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone back in March 2018. The best way I can describe Chernobyl is as the largest open-air museum in Europe. Where else do you get to step back in history to a location where time simply froze?
However, whilst the rest of the world has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, Ukraine, and specifically Chernobyl, have other worries to contend with too: fire! Wildfires started on the 3rd April and soon developed into the biggest wildfires ever recorded within the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone. 22% of the area has been burnt to a crisp perilously close to the abandoned nuclear plant.
34 years on and the danger is not over
The reason there is an exclusion zone surrounding Reactor 4, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, is the fact that the forests, those same ones that are now burning, have gathered toxic levels of radioactivity. And what makes this fire so dangerous is that it is releasing these particles back into the air where the wind can pick them up and carry them further afield thus expanding the boundaries of radioactive contamination. Higher levels of caesium have been recorded as far away as Norway as a result of the fires!
Fires aren’t necessarily an anomaly in the area, however, the ill equipped local firemen have previously relied on the help from Russian firefighters who this time were unable to help due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What is worse though? The spread of the virus or the spread of the fire?
Additional strains on the tourism industry
For Chernobyl Tour the fires have been an additional source of worry. As with all other tourism companies across the world, trade has disappeared overnight. For Chernobyl Tour trade and their location is in question! A number of the abandoned villages they would take tourists to explore are now gone forever; luckily Prypyiat remains. They are campaigning, and rightly so, to have better measures in place. Chernobyl is a reminder of what happens when things go wrong; of how much damage we as humans inflict on nature; of the devastating results of nuclear power; and of Soviet history. It needs to be protected!
If you are interested in why they want better emergency services and why they are petitioning for Chernobyl to become a UNESCO Heritage site then watch this video (it does have English subtitles, you just have to give it 20 seconds before they kick in).
Street Child, Sierra Leone
My final destination takes me to Sierra Leone, where I should have been jetting to this month on a very different type of adventure. As well as having set myself the crazy challenge of running a half marathon in 30 degree heat and 90% humidity (bearing in mind I was a couch potato in January when I set myself the challenge!!), Sierra Leone was going to be my first proper solo adventure. The plan had been to stay on and explore the country on my own for a week to discover what it had to offer to other intrepid travellers. Alas, it’s going to have to wait!
One of the things about the COVID-19 virus is that it has taken so many countries by surprise, particularly in Europe. I can only speak for myself, and I am ashamed to say it, but when I first heard about COVID-19 my thoughts went out to the countries who were going to have to deal with it, just like with SARS, Ebola, and Zika. Always far away. It never crossed my mind that we would ever be affected in the way we have been, yet as I write this we have recorded over 30,000 deaths in the UK. Could those have been avoided had we taken faster action? Probably!
Sierra Leone however was taking no chances. They know what hardship is. They know how devastating a disease like COVID-19 can be, and therefore they closed their borders very early on and put into practice everything they learnt during the Ebola outbreak.
Street Child COVID-19 Appeal
Street Child launched a COVID-19 appeal straight away and the money I had raised for my half marathon so far got diverted into supporting the local communities. They wasted no time in setting up feeding stations for the street kids that otherwise would struggle to get access to food during lockdown. They also set up over 150 hand washing areas to help improve hygiene and minimise the spread of COVID-19. And they did what they do best. They got out there and started educating locals as to why they needed to take the outbreak seriously and exactly what they needed to do to prevent catching and spreading it. So far they have had only 16 deaths. Lets hope the numbers remain that low!
If you want to support Street Child efforts in helping the most vulnerable children across 13 of the poorest countries of the world then please donate to my fundraising page. Not only will I still be running the half marathon (albeit locally) I have also upgraded my Sierra Leone run to a marathon so you can guarantee your money will not just be saving lives, but will also be funding significant sweat, blood and tears!
What’s happening where you are?
I’d be really keen to know what is happening where you are, wherever that might be? How have you faired through the COVID-19 outbreak? How has it affected your community? Please share, I’d love to hear.