Right now I am in voluntary self-quarantine after returning from overseas. When I flew into Kansai International Airport from the island of Bali on March 23, Indonesia wasn’t on the list of countries with known coronavirus infections, and local authorities had not yet asked returnees from abroad to self-isolate for two weeks. Although I am back home in Japan, I have checked into a hotel to self-isolate because I feel I pose too much of a risk to the community of 450 people, most of them elderly, where I live.
When I left Japan on Dec. 4 last year, few people had ever heard of the novel coronavirus. I flew to Europe with my husband to drive from Frankfurt to Madrid, a rambling road-trip during which we watched the crisis unfold via the TV news.
“It’s ridiculous,” said my Hungarian friend when we caught up with her in Austria. She works at a Suzuki factory in Esztergom. “The Japanese managers have removed the handles from all the doors in the plant and you have to sterilize between each room.”
By then it was Jan. 25, and the disease didn’t yet have a known presence in Europe. (Italy’s infection is traced back to Jan. 31, but experts now suspect the virus was hanging around before then.) By the beginning of February, however, the mysterious virus was rampaging through Japan — hitting the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Yokohama, appearing in Hokkaido and then popping up in areas further south. Japan’s two-week school closure proved prescient.
One morning in late February, the TV doled out bleak news of what was now called COVID-19 to a room full of breakfast patrons. I was dismayed to see a chef sashay out of the kitchen with a new tureen of scrambled eggs, scrape them into the old container using the same serving spoon that had been handled by multitudinous diners, and put the utensil back down to be used again. Not only could the cook have infected the food, he could have carried pathogens from the utensil back into the kitchen. Numerous such instances revealed a woeful lack of basic hygiene among food-related industry workers across the continent.
As we drove from east to west, little did we realize the pandemic was fast on our heels. Italy was first hit, but luckily we had not visited that country. Then a ski resort in Switzerland closed down just after we left, and Germany exploded with the virus. Two days after flying from Madrid to Bali, hundreds of infections were confirmed in Spain.
By March 3, my husband and I had racked up 60 nights in 3- and 4-star hotels across five countries in Europe. That’s 60 hotel-provided buffet breakfasts shared with hundreds of other guests who, like a revolving door, checked in and out of each establishment, leading to an exponential increase in the number of different people who touched the same lobby doors and pushed the same elevator buttons as we did. Normally, there is nothing unusual about this. With a contagious virus going around, however, it’s a recipe for mass infection. One quickly begins to understand the role hygiene plays in the spread of infectious diseases.
After 14 days in Bali, we felt lucky to have escaped the worst of it. In addition, Indonesia had not yet been struck, thus mollifying our fears. But, of course, we knew better. With no COVID-specific test kits available, denial was easy. A week later, two foreign tourists in Bali died from the respiratory illness, and cluster outbreaks appeared across the archipelago. A helicopter flew over the island of Bali, imploring people to stay home. We fled the next day. By then, 90 percent of international flights had already been grounded. Seven days later, Indonesia declared a public health emergency.
Most surprising of all was that, in this age of globalization, despite the evident warning signs of the inexorable pandemic, so many people remain in denial. I encourage everyone to resist this urge. Since symptoms of COVID-19 can take up to 14 days to reveal themselves, it’s better to consider that you may be carrying the virus. Practice social distancing. Stay at home as much as possible. Self-isolate if you feel it is prudent, rather than waiting for government approbation.
This is the only way to contain the epidemic.
Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).
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