Tales From the Lockdown: How COVID-19 Has Changed Lives Around the World
In South Africa, people are brewing beer at home. Muslims in India are celebrating Ramadan alone. And city streets everywhere are vacant.
Almost no nation has been spared as the novel coronavirus has swept around the world. But responses to the coronavirus have differed greatly from country to country. Quarantines and lockdowns have become ubiquitous, but even then there is great variance in their severity. In South Africa, tens of thousands of troops have been brought in to enforce one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, while countries like South Korea and Taiwan have managed to contain their outbreaks without closing everything down.
Foreign Policy spoke to people in Belarus, Cambodia, Chile, India, South Africa, and South Korea to get a snapshot of how the coronavirus has changed the way people live their lives around the world.
When Jess Byun returned to South Korea from the United Kingdom, where she is a graduate student at University College London, she was taken by a government-arranged bus to a resort. There, she waited for five hours while the cleaning staff disinfected a room for her (a process that involves leaving the room alone for three hours after the cleaning). She was then taken to a tent outside where she was tested for the coronavirus. The next day, after she tested negative, she was sent home and asked to complete 14 days of self-isolation. Byun documented her experience in a video on YouTube.
On Sunday, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun announced that social distancing restrictions that had been in place since March would be relaxed starting May 6. Gatherings and events would be allowed to take place while businesses would also be allowed to reopen in phases. However, even before the restrictions were lifted, South Korea never saw the kinds of lockdown measures implemented in many other countries around the world. “Nobody stops you at all. Going outside or not is your own choice,” Byun told Foreign Policy in late April. “In some indoor places like banks or offices, wearing a face mask is required, and they encourage you to wash your hands as frequently as possible.”
By the end of February, South Korea had the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world outside mainland China. But an aggressive testing and contact tracing strategy enabled the country to get a handle on its outbreak without implementing blanket lockdowns. To date, South Korea has reported just under 11,000 confirmed cases of the virus and fewer than 300 deaths. Like Taiwan, which has also so far successfully contained the virus, South Korea has had previous experience with outbreaks of infectious diseases. After experiencing an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2015, South Korea adopted new infectious disease legislation that gave health authorities sweeping power to use CCTV footage and geographical data in phones to fight outbreaks.
Once in self-isolation, Byun was given a quarantine package from her local health center. It included tips on how to manage her mental health while self-isolating, a large bottle of hand sanitizer, two bottles of disinfectant spray, and face masks. And the help didn’t stop there. “When I was in self-isolation, my local public health center called me to ask if I’m doing OK, if I need anything, and to monitor my location as well,” Byun said.
Sor Chandara, who works at an international nongovernmental organization in Cambodia’s development sector, was hoping to visit his family during the Khmer New Year in mid-April. But due to a new set of lockdown restrictions on April 7, he was unable to.
“At New Year, I didn’t visit my family,” said Chandara, who works in the country’s capital of Phnom Penh. “Every year, I must go home—it’s like Christmas. And this year, I eat in my room alone.”
In the early days of the coronavirus, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Asia’s longest-serving leader, was slow to take action out of fear of offending his country’s main financial backer, China. In the early days of the outbreak, he refused to repatriate Cambodian citizens from Wuhan, where the virus originated, and chided reporters for wearing face masks. But as the epicenter of the virus shifted from China to Europe and the United States, authorities in the country began to implement preventive measures. Schools, restaurants, and casinos have been closed and flights canceled, but crowded garment factories, which account for some 40 percent of the country’s GDP, remain open.
“The government has encouraged people not to go out unless it’s a necessity, but it doesn’t mean a mandate that you have to be inside,” Chandara said. “It’s just an encouragement not to spread the coronavirus.”
In April, Hun Sen canceled celebrations for the Khmer New Year over fears that people would spread the virus by returning home to their villages for the festivities. During that time, Chandara said, his country looked unrecognizable. “When I go out on the street, it’s empty, I mean almost empty,” Chandara told Foreign Policy in late April. “People are still driving motorbikes, but less motorbikes, less cars. It’s strange.”
Despite its initial delay in responding to the virus, Cambodia has not seen a dramatic surge in infections. There are currently just over 120 confirmed cases in the country, although questions have been raised about Cambodia’s testing strategy.
Despite the threat of a second wave of coronavirus cases, Chandara said he has begun to see people back outside, emboldened by the news that the curve has seemingly flattened. “People are coming back,” Chandara said. “People are starting to get out, start to travel. Not fully, but they’re getting out. People are less tense now.”
Mzwakhe Tyali, a student at Stellenbosch University, doesn’t drink. But after South Africa banned the sale of alcohol and cigarettes as part of its lockdown measures, his friends began brewing beer from their homes to deal with quarantine.
“It’s been interesting to see the lengths people want to go to get their alcohol consumption,” Tyali said. “For me, I would have taken it as a good thing. Like you get to, what do you call it, detox for more than 21 days, which is the optimal, I think, number to get rid of that habit.”
South African health officials say that memories of the country’s disastrous response to HIV/AIDS, where misinformation and denialism cost hundreds of thousands of lives, have spurred its reaction to the coronavirus crisis. South Africa began to gradually ease its lockdown on May 1, but until then the country had implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world as 70,000 troops were brought in to enforce it. All outdoor activities were prohibited, including dog walking, which has often been a rare exception elsewhere, even under strict lockdowns. Citizens were allowed to leave their homes only to buy food, and only essential workers were permitted on public transport.
Tyali said the military and police enforcement of the lockdown was not evenly spread throughout the country. “I think they focus more on going to the places where there are a lot of cases and also [places] with a lot of black people,” he said. One of his friends was sent home when trying to buy groceries at 5 in the evening. Videos have circulated on social media of South Africans being forced to do pushups and frog jumps for breaking the lockdown. Whips and rubber bullets have also been used to enforce restrictions on movement.
The lockdown has also brought a crime wave to the country. Dozens of schools have been burgled, trashed, or burned to the ground. There have also been robberies of dozens of liquor stores. However, perhaps the most startling crime trend has been the increase of gender-based violence. In the 16 days after the lockdown began, 148 people were arrested for gender-based violence.
Tyali has been able to protect himself from most of the more violent measures of the lockdown, secluding himself indoors and watching anime. Thus far he hasn’t faced a shortage of food, but he is worried about his parents, and he is unlikely to be the only one. South Africa has been described by the World Bank as the most economically unequal country in the world, a disparity that the pandemic will only drive deeper.
“My mom is a domestic worker, so she has stopped working,” Tyali said. “Because now it’s going to be the end of the month, and they’ve been home for the whole month, I’m not sure if she will get paid. That’s my worry—if they’re going to be able to survive the next month of this lockdown.”
Normally, at this time of year, Omar Khan and his family would be preparing to go to the mosque for the start of Ramadan. But after the majority of mosques in New Delhi closed their doors as the country went into lockdown, he and his family have been forced to celebrate at home.
While Khan said he and his family have prayed at home before, the atmosphere has changed under the pandemic. “Everything feels very different when you have the head of the mosque take to the mic and say, ‘Look, the times are very difficult.’ When you hear those things on loudspeakers during the night, it’s a completely different, surreal sort of situation and a feeling.”
On March 24, Indians were given four hours’ notice by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the country would be placed on lockdown, confining 1.3 billion people to their homes for 21 days. A curfew was imposed, and most businesses were closed. As a result, a staggering number of Indians lost their jobs, with the last count being 140 million unemployed people. The lockdown measures also saw a massive internal migration as Indians fled cities to return to their villages, leaving some of the world’s most commonly crowded areas desolate.
“India is such a populous country,” Khan said, “and when you see empty roads, empty alleyways, you don’t see people the way they are, it feels very real.”
India’s lockdown restrictions, which began to ease this week, were some of the most strictly enforced in the world. Videos emerged of police beating and whipping people found to be disobeying the rules. When Khan leaves his home, he is often stopped by police, but since he works as a freelance journalist, he is allowed to continue. However, the police presence is everywhere, and Khan said he has seen large groups of police officers patrolling the streets and often wakes up to blaring police sirens in the night.
India’s 200 million Muslims face another unique challenge during the pandemic: violence and harassment. The country’s largest religious minority, Muslims have been scapegoated and accused of spreading the virus, allegations that have been fueled by TV news and some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. They have also become widespread on social media, where Khan’s friends often ask him about claims they saw on WhatsApp or conspiracy theories they found on YouTube. One of his friends recently asked him if it was true that Muslims wanted to spread the coronavirus. “I said, ‘Come on man, do you seriously think someone would deliberately get themselves infected and then go out and start spreading the virus?” Khan said. “You know the general animosity is incredible. You cannot target one community.”
In April, the Chilean government announced that it would move ahead with a controversial plan to introduce immunity passports to people who had recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, enabling them to go back to work. Immunity passports are based on the assumption that people who have had the virus have developed antibodies that will protect them from contracting it a second time, but the World Health Organization has warned there is no evidence of this.
Before the pandemic, Chile was rocked with mass protests against inequality and government corruption that put a referendum on its own constitution into question, but demonstrations have been put on hold as lockdowns came into force. “The sentiment of Chileans is very divided according to social class,” said Pedro Prado, a recent graduate of legal studies from the University of Chile who lives in Santiago. “Despite masks being obligatory, it’s practically a privilege for those who have more resources.” The price of N95 medical masks has nearly doubled since the lockdowns began, rising to $7.
Prado said the government’s efforts to reopen the economy will have serious consequences on vulnerable populations, referring to an interview last month by the general manager of the Santiago Chamber of Commerce, who said, “We don’t have to kill every economic activity to save lives.” It may be older adults who subsist on Chile’s precarious welfare and retirement systems, or those in job markets that provide limited or day-to-day income, who would be neglected, he explained.
“But who are the lives that we should sacrifice to save the economy?” Prado said. “We should be willing to endure this as a society in order to get on with our normal lives.”
The president of Belarus has once again distinguished himself for all the wrong reasons. Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, has described fears of the virus as a “psychosis,” prescribing vodka and a sauna instead of social distancing. Some Belarusians have taken matters into their own hands, implementing a “people’s quarantine,” said Hanna Liubakova, a freelance journalist based in the capital, Minsk. “We are used to the situation where the authorities are saying one thing, that there is no crisis, but we know that something bad is happening and that we have to be prepared,” she said.
Volunteers have worked to crowdfund, source, and deliver protective equipment to front-line hospital workers. Other grassroots efforts have worked to sew and deliver masks, make meals for health care workers, and look after the pets of people hospitalized with the virus, Liubakova said. While faith in civil society is growing, the president is gradually losing his power and authority in the eyes of many Belarusians, she said.
Darcy Palder is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @DPalder
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack