Hector Cure (C ‘22) looked out over the Pacific Ocean from the pristine sand of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It was a clear afternoon in mid–March as waves crashed and friends chatted behind him, happy to get away from the slushy, grey winter that drags into spring in West Philadelphia. Like many undergraduates, Hector and a couple of friends were on a spring break trip for the week. At the time, coronavirus cases in the U.S. were slightly over 500 and Coachella had just been postponed. About a week earlier, the U.S. saw its first coronavirus death.
Hector was taking in the warm air of the Mexican tourist city, thinking about the uncertainty that lay ahead, when a long–awaited email arrived. Around 3 p.m. EST on March 11, from the mountains of Colorado to the streets of Tokyo and New York, Penn students’ phones all buzzed with the same message: School would be online for the rest of the semester, and they were required to return home.
Despite communications from the school urging that no one return to Penn, many local students drove back to campus to pick up their belongings. For international students like Hector, however, March 11 marked the beginning of an entirely new set of challenges. Penn’s decision to close did not just mean missing Spring Fling and Hey Day, but ignited widespread panic regarding if, how, and when they would make it back to their families and homes.
The United States has the highest coronavirus case and death count in the world, which is climbing to excruciating new heights each day. Many other nations, however, have reined in the virus, with some nearly reaching full containment. As a dark picture of the year ahead emerges in the U.S., each country across the globe must face its own unique set of struggles. Four international Penn students share their accounts of how their countries are dealing with COVID–19, and what their near future may hold.
Colombia’s Two–Headed Fight for Survival
Hector’s journey back to Colombia happened in the blink of an eye. He flew to Philadelphia from Puerto Vallarta, packed up his things and caught the next flight back to Bogota. When he took off, Colombia’s borders were still open. By the time he landed, they had closed. Luckily, Hector’s flight was one of the last to gain entry into the country.
The Colombian government’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak was relatively comprehensive. President Iván Duque Márquez initiated lockdown protocols early on, closed Colombia’s borders, and moved all schooling to an online format. However, enforcing stay–at–home orders proved to be difficult in Colombia due to the country's widespread informal economy, in which workers provide goods and services without official state acknowledgement or approval. In Colombia, many of these workers are street vendors, cleaners, and construction workers who cannot work from home and are now jobless. This has led to what Hector considers one of the greatest problems his country is facing: hunger.
“People here are not that afraid of coronavirus. They're more scared about dying from hunger,” Hector says. “A lot of the economy here in Columbia is an informal economy. Those people don't have means to gain money, to provide for their families, and to bring food to the table. I remember going to the supermarket with my parents and seeing people in the streets begging for money, hearing their children crying, saying that they're going to die.”
He notes that although the government has had a strong handle on the virus so far, the economic consequences of a nationwide shutdown are growing.
“I do think that it’s going well because the cases have been going down recently,” he says. “They have been trying to give small subsidies to employers, but it's not enough in the long run.”
Hector and a group of Colombian students and young professionals are fighting to provide relief for their country through the new organization COL5VID. The group manages donations and works to get food to the many who are starving.
“It's very nice to see that this situation has brought us together as a community. The Colombian students in the U.S. have come together and brought a philanthropic culture,” he says.
Hector hopes to return to Penn in the fall, but his parents are skeptical about the American response to the crisis.
“I really do want to go back. [My mom] thinks that in the U.S. people are not taking care, there are basically no regulations, and you can go out, especially in Florida.” Hector usually flies through Miami to get back to Penn. “If you're in Colombia, people are super scared about what's going to happen in the U.S., and they're looking down at...how [America has] been dealing with current affairs.”
From the Quad to Quebec in Just One Day
Sophie Legler (C ‘23), a Montreal native, lives only an eight–hour drive from Penn’s campus, making her physically closer to home than many American students. When she received Amy Gutmann’s email this past March, she knew she needed to act quickly before the border between the U.S. and Canada closed.
“We drove [from Montreal to Penn in] eight hours, packed up that very same day, slept over at a hotel, and then, the next day, drove back,” she says. By March 21, ten days after Penn's move to online learning, the Canadian border was closed to all non–essential travel for the first time since 1867.
Upon returning home, Sophie thought she would see friends, study at the local library, and spend time with family while away from Philadelphia. Many of Canada’s universities had not yet closed and her high school friends eagerly awaited her return. Soon, however, that would prove to be impossible.
“A week or two later, they got the notice [school] was shut down for them too,” she says.
Compared to its southern neighbor, Canada weathered the pandemic storm with relative ease. Each province was in charge of individualized lockdown protocols based on caseload. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led Canada towards near containment; however, public health officials remain wary, as young people begin to abandon social distancing and gather at parties and bars.
Although Sophie plans on returning to campus in the fall, the American mishandling of the virus makes her nervous.
“I'll be wearing my mask, obviously, when I go back to the States,” she says, “But it's scary because when I wear my mask it's to protect other people, it doesn't really protect me from very much. A lot of people are not willing to wear a mask and it's kind of selfish in that regard.”
Despite her concerns, having signed a lease off–campus, Sophie feels obligated to come back to University City come September. All of her Canadian friends will be taking classes completely remotely to limit the spread of the virus in Canada.
“A part of me really did want to consider [not coming back],” she says. “But at the same time…[I‘ve] been paying rent since June. If I didn't have that, I would consider taking all online classes from home because I'd feel safer. I wouldn't be hemorrhaging money.”
Repression and Lies in Central America’s Poorest Nation
Valerie Perez* (C ‘23), a rising sophomore from Managua, Nicaragua, was drawn to Penn’s international community, academics, and social scene when she ventured to the U.S. for college. Valerie was in Mexico visiting her roommate’s family when the news about the spring semester broke.
In Valerie’s words, life in Nicaragua is bad, and only getting worse.
“There was never lockdown here,” she says matter–of–factly. “It's been an absolute disaster. I cannot name you one thing that I think the government did well.”
Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, is known globally for his brutal suppression of free speech and human rights and his concentration of power under the executive office. Rather than enforce social distancing and mask wearing, Nicaragua’s government encouraged citizens to gather in large groups and called the virus a hoax created by the United States. Although the country has only reported around 3,500 cases of the virus, Valerie explains that this is far from reality. Public health officials have been mis–reporting COVID–19 cases as other diseases in order to keep case numbers artificially low.
“There are thousands and thousands of cases of this 'illness' and they write it down in the medical reports as ‘unusual pneumonia,’” she says.
Additionally, Valerie notes that Ortega’s denial of the virus and an underfunded healthcare system made testing and personal protective equipment virtually unavailable despite growing infections. In June, five doctors in Nicaragua were fired for expressing concerns about the country’s response.
“Doctors cannot receive donations and hospitals don't have enough masks…so a lot of doctors sadly have been dying,” she says.
On Sunday July 19, Ortega appeared on television, stating that the virus was under control, unlike in “capitalist countries.”
Valerie remains quarantined in her home as the virus decimates the small nation. She hopes to catch a flight back to Penn this fall, but acknowledges that it is unlikely if commercial flights don’t begin again soon. She also must face the reality that if she leaves Nicaragua now, she may be barred from seeing her family indefinitely due to travel restrictions.
“I’d miss my parents, and I'm Catholic and it's going to be Christmas, so I’m definitely going to be sad. But I do think that I'm lucky that I have options as to what to do,” she says. Many other Nicaraguans are not so lucky.
An Island of Safety in a Sea of Global Chaos
By all accounts, the country winning the war against COVID is New Zealand. The island nation gained international attention this year for their swift containment of the coronavirus, and as of July 27 had only 21 active cases.
“It's pretty extraordinary,” says Auckland native and rising senior Linda Zou (C’21). Linda stayed back in Philly during spring break and was studying alone in Huntsman Hall for an upcoming exam when she heard the news. She initially decided to stay in Philadelphia despite Penn’s closure but changed her mind as projections for the coronavirus in the United States became increasingly worse.
About a week after Penn’s announcement, she flew from Philadelphia to Houston to Auckland, arriving home shaken, but thankful.
“It was already getting really bad and flying was not recommended,” she recalls, adding “It was rough to fly through three international airports.”
When she arrived home, New Zealand mandated she quarantine alone for two weeks. Through a government website designed to notify New Zealanders of possible exposure, Linda learned that a few passengers on her flight had, in fact, been infected with the virus. Luckily, she was not.
Today, Linda says, New Zealand looks like it would on any other normal August day.
“I feel like we're in some kind of little bubble, which I guess we are,” she says. “I feel very fortunate that, [for example], today I get to go to the beach. The vast majority of people in New Zealand haven't been wearing masks outside."
However, reading American news makes her weary of what can happen when restrictions are lifted too quickly. She says, "It's important that we don't get complacent, and if there is an outbreak, I'm sure more stringent measures will have to be taken again. But, honestly, I feel very safe.”
As cases rise each day and hospitals are overwhelmed with patients in the U.S., New Zealand paints a very different picture of what life could be like in a COVID–contained world.
In Linda’s words: “At the end of the day people are just really grateful.”
Linda will not return to Penn in the fall to start her senior year. Although she’s sad to miss out on living with her friends, she acknowledges that under the present circumstances, returning to Philadelphia would not make sense. She would be traveling through three or four international airports, only to take classes online and be confined to her off–campus house. With no homecoming toast throw or Feb Club events, senior year in West Philly loses some of its appeal.
“I was disappointed,” she says, but adds, “It just seemed a bit counterintuitive to leave the safest place to go somewhere that was much less safe.”
*Name has been changed to protect student’s identity.