Life abroad during the pandemic
‘I feel safer in the Netherlands’
10.6 million confirmed cases, over 152.000 deaths
Kishore Ak, a PhD student at the UMCG, recently spent a month and a half in Bangalore, where he got engaged to his girlfriend. He has just returned to Groningen. ‘In India, you have to wear a mask everywhere, since it’s impossible to stick to social distancing there’, he says. ‘If you don’t follow the rules you’ll receive a huge fine of 1000 rupias.’ That’s 10 euros, ‘which is a fortune in India’.
Unlike in the Netherlands, Kishore says, everything is open in India. He was even able to throw an engagement party, although a smaller one than he would have liked. ‘Usually, there are up to two thousand people at engagement parties in India. I was disappointed that mine was with only a hundred people. Everybody was wearing masks, of course.’
Despite these rather relaxed measures, India’s total number of covid cases per one hundred thousand people is much lower than in Europe or North America: 774 as opposed to 5265 in the Netherlands, according to data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Kishore nevertheless feels safer in the Netherlands, he says, since the healthcare system is more advanced and more reliable here. ‘Hospitals in India are beyond full.’
Almost 150,000 confirmed cases, over 5,500 deaths
Greece has a curfew between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and all cafes, restaurants and entertainment venues are closed, as well as the schools. When international security master student Xristos Tzagas went back home for the holidays, he lost track of time after a dinner with his family. He left the house at ten minutes past ten. ‘I was scared the police were going to see me and I would have to pay the 400 euro fine’, he says.
He took the darkest route home and even though he was in familiar surroundings, the adrenaline was coursing through his veins as if he was running for his life. ‘I like the measures in the Netherlands better’, he says. ‘They are strict and the government is doing a good job, whereas in Greece it is too much. Sometimes I felt like I was in a trap.’
Over 24 million confirmed cases, over 400,000 deaths
Journalism student Emily Zaal flew across the ocean to spend the holidays with her family in the United States, but it was a challenge to get there. ‘I didn’t have a direct flight and because there were so many requirements, I was afraid I had missed something.’ She needed to present a negative PCR test and a filled-out form about her health, and she had to have a good reason to be granted access to the country.
All in all, it was a long journey. ‘‘It’s not easy to wear a mask for more than 24 hours’, says Emily. But when she landed, it was as if she had entered a whole new world: almost everything was open. ‘I was shocked. It felt kind of wrong, especially since I had been used to the almost complete lockdown in the Netherlands.’
Mask regulations differ from state to state. In Wisconsin, where Emily’s family lives, it’s strongly advised to wear a face mask, but not compulsory. ‘The face masks are such a big part of our daily routine, that we even have a name for the people who put it under their nose – undernosers.’
Over 212,000 confirmed cases, over 8,600 deaths
‘Cafes and restaurants as well as shopping malls are closed in Bulgaria’, says international security master student Alexandra Davri, ‘but shops on the streets are not. Masks are mandatory when you’re in a closed space, though.’
She did fly home for the holidays, even though she has her doubts about the measures in her country. ‘If you impose a lockdown, I feel it should be complete.’
Since there is a limitation on the number of people gathering – fifteen – but not on the number of households, Alexandra’s family were able to have their traditional Christmas dinner with her boyfriend’s family (three people), as well as her brother’s girlfriend. ‘We were all dressed up in Christmas costumes’, she says. ‘When I opened my gifts, there were a bunch of masks and hand sanitiser. That’s how much covid has changed our lives.’
1.2 million confirmed cases, over 22,000 deaths
Science communication master student Rouèl Gnodde spent his Christmas holiday in the Ukranian village of Dnipro, where his girlfriend’s parents live. He knew that he would need to quarantine upon arrival, but he hadn’t expected he would be required to install an app on his phone that followed his movements. ‘It checked my location and required me to send pictures three times a day to prove I was at home’, Rouèl says.
Otherwise, the corona measures in Ukraine are similar to those in the Netherlands. ‘The problem is that there, people tend not to follow rules’, he explains.
Rouèl needed a negative corona test to be able to fly back, but it turned out he was positive and he needed to stay in Ukraine a little longer. He’s currently feeling fine and is hoping to test negative again soon.
Over 4,500 confirmed cases, 19 deaths
Baukje Sjoerdsma is currently in Curaçao, where her family lives. The international relations student had tried to go home before the first lockdown in the Netherlands, but the island had closed its borders by then. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to enter, even though I was born and raised there’, she says.
When visitors were allowed again in July, she went back, not having seen her family for a year. At that time, it felt as if there was no pandemic raging. ‘We had parties with at least a hundred people and it was legal. We’re fortunate that most things happen outside here.’
Anyone who wants to come to the island has to fill out five different forms and provide a negative corona test no older than 72 hours. ‘They’ve turned people away at the airport who then had to get on the next flight home’, Baukje says.
From September onwards, a curfew was introduced. Islanders are currently not allowed to leave their homes between 11 p.m. and 4.30 a.m. According to Baukje, just before the curfew starts, the streets fill up with cars and everyone races home to avoid the 1,000 guilder (460 euros) fine. ‘Speeding doesn’t get you a ticket here’, she says.
Close to 89,000 confirmed cases, over 4,600 deaths
When she compares the corona measures in the Netherlands to those in her home country China, the Dutch government has been too easygoing, Yishi Peng feels. ‘It’s hard to control the situation if you just advise people to wear masks’, the society, sustainability and planning student says. ‘Here, people think it’s a democratic right to not wear a mask if you don’t want to.’
In China, it was very different. From the end of January last year until September it was mandatory to cover mouth and nose anywhere outside your own home, even when visiting a park, Yishi says. All non-essential stores were closed. Now, people are still obligated to wear masks when entering public spaces, but that’s a big improvement over the previous situation.
The Chinese government has implemented a system dividing the country into different zones, to keep the virus from spreading. When Yishi travelled to another Chinese province from her home town Guangzhou back in May, she had to prove that she didn’t come from a place that is considered high-risk. ‘We have to show something like a QR code in order to travel’, she explains.
Yishi didn’t mind the strict rules. In fact, having seen the situation in the Netherlands, she respects the approach her government took even more, she says. ‘Within a couple of months, they managed to control the situation. It makes me feel proud of my country.’
Over 176,000 confirmed cases, over 2,700 deaths
Roisin McManus decided to go back home to Ireland for the Christmas break. She had already spent the first lockdown there, from March until the end of August. ‘During that period I didn’t see anyone but my family’, the European languages and cultures student says.
The measures to keep the coronavirus in check were very strict then. People had to stay within five kilometres of their homes, although that range was later extended to twenty kilometres. You could only go beyond that if you had a permit from the police, for example because essential stores were unreachable otherwise. ‘In March and April it was even forbidden for two people of the same household to be in one car’, says Roisin.
Even though the Irish have more freedom now, they are fed up with the restrictions still in place. ‘People think now that it’s a new year, it’s suddenly possible to meet up with each other again. Within a week about a hundred house parties had to be broken up in the north of Ireland.’
Still, Roisin thinks that in comparison to the Netherlands, her home country handled the situation quite well. She was shocked when she came back to Groningen after having spent the summer at home. ‘It was like stepping into a portal and going into a different world. People were hanging out in groups, no one was wearing masks in stores, it was mind-blowing to me’, she says. ‘How can you just go about business as usual?’
3.46 million confirmed cases, over 91,000 deaths
The covid situation in the United Kingdom is quite tense at the moment, due to the new, more contagious mutation of the coronavirus that’s sprung up. History student Genevieve Nwaojigba was in England for the whole of December, so she’s had enough time to compare the measures in the UK and the Netherlands.
‘In my opinion, the UK government is not handling the crisis properly, leading to a lot of indecision and confusion. The system in the Netherlands is more clear’, Genevieve says. ‘When a Dutch measure is coming into place, you know about it.’
What is special about the British covid measures is that they are regional. Genevieve spent her holidays in Durham in the north of England, which was in tier 3. That means the area is on high alert, but you can still go out of the house and have some social contact. Genevieve’s sister wasn’t as lucky. She was in London, which was tier 4. ‘The government was trying to prevent the spread of the new mutation, so London was put under a lockdown just before her flight and she couldn’t leave.’
2.07 million confirmed cases, close to 49,000 deaths
In the middle of the pandemic, Tiddo Bos, who’s doing a PhD in private and notarial law, decided to go on an adventure. He travelled from Groningen to Hamburg on a motorbike so he could work on his research project there.
‘The Dutch government had changed Germany’s safety status to orange, meaning only necessary travels were allowed. My supervisors and others had to decide whether I was still allowed to go there. Fifteen minutes before I was set to depart, I didn’t know whether I was allowed to leave at all.’
In Hamburg, he spent most of his time at the Max Planck Institute. The strict covid measures in Germany – similar to the ones in the Netherlands – made him feel safe, he says. He wouldn’t hesitate to make the 234 kilometer trip again. ‘I don’t believe people will stop travelling because of corona, as long as they’re able to find a safe way to do it while respecting the safety measures.’
Over 1.9 million confirmed cases, over 49,000 deaths
Silvia Angélica Puertas Céspedes had just started her Idealab PhD programme at the University of Groningen when the second lockdown started. She decided it would be better to go back to Bogota during the pandemic. ‘I feel safer with my family here in Colombia’, she says.
The measures in Bogota are more restrictive than in the Netherlands. People aren’t allowed to go outside from Monday to Friday between 8 pm and 4 am, and when they do go out, they have to wear a mask everywhere or risk a fine.
One of the most unusual measures they are supposed to follow is called ‘pico y cédula’. People are separated according to the last number of their ID. If it is an even number, they are allowed to go out of the house only on odd days and the other way around.
The pandemic is not easy on the Colombians, Silvia says. ‘It’s a huge challenge. Colombians are very warm people and it is considered disrespectful here if you don’t hug or kiss a friend to say hello. All these different measures confuse people.’