Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Going Home

Nightime view of South Africa from a plane. Photo by @criene via Twenty20

The masked health official makes no attempt to reciprocate my small talk as she methodically reads my temperature and accepts my health form. She has a few hundred more passengers to check before any of us are allowed off the plane and pleasantries aren’t going to make it go any faster.

After a 23 hour journey from an eerily empty Newark airport, I have landed in my home country of South Africa on the last flight out before all major airlines discontinued the route due to concerns over the coronavirus. I still have another domestic flight to catch in order to get home, but it’s looking unlikely that I’ll make it after a two hour wait on the tarmac as health officials check the temperatures of all passengers onboard the plane ahead of us.

I breathe a sigh of relief as the official marks down my temperature and moves on, without forcibly removing me from the plane and ushering me into a forced quarantine detention center. Of course I wouldn’t have a temperature yet if I’d contracted the coronavirus during my long journey surrounded by a planeful of nervous mask-wearing and hand-sanitizing passengers. Or from the lovely gentleman sitting next to me who coughed about 42 times during the flight (not that I was counting). But for now I’m temperature-free and allowed to enter my home country.

It’s funny how a global pandemic forces you to rethink a lot of questions, including where home is. After six years living the United States, I generally consider it to be my home. But when the government tells all Americans to stay put and those abroad to return “home” – it doesn’t include me, a non-resident and non-citizen. 

Fully aware that I may be stuck out of the US for months, I made the decision to return to the place where I grew up and where my family still lives – the closest thing to home despite having spent most of my adult life abroad. Upon arrival, I was told that having come from a “high risk country” (the U.S.), I would be required to immediately self-quarantine for two weeks.

This isn’t easy when you’re staying in the same household as your 65 -year-old, at-risk father who doesn’t know what hand sanitizer is and who rolls his eyes at the mere mention of the term “social distancing”. After managing to escape his welcome home hug and cut the greeting short to an awkwardly polite wave, I then embark upon two weeks of avoiding the kitchen or any other communal living areas, and eating meals at a distance of 4 meters apart. 

I see his face wince at the sight of the terribly environmentally unfriendly foreign Clorox wipes that I have smuggled from the U.S. and am now asking him to use liberally. He politely nods, but I notice the supply hasn’t decreased at all besides from my own regular wipe downs of the fridge door, light switches, sink faucet, and trash can lid for on the odd occasion that I absolutely have to enter the kitchen.

Four days after arriving, the whole of South Africa was placed under a three-week national lockdown. No dog walking, no beach visits, no alcohol sales. In a country where health services are grossly under resourced, over 13% of the population has HIV and almost 1% has tuberculosis, coronavirus could hit hard. But with over 50% of the population living in poverty, so will an economic shutdown.

Right now, there are no flights between South Africa and the U.S. So if my boss requires me back at the office in New York City, it’s not going to happen any time soon. But when a global pandemic strikes and you’re forced to choose where you’re going to be stuck for an indefinite period of time facing a potentially deadly virus, home quickly becomes more than where you live or work, but where you’ll find the people you love most.

 


Other Stories in Special Report: Shutdown: The Coronavirus

A tribute to the mask pioneers

Bohao Liu July 11, 2020

Air pollution in China rebounds to pre-COVID level

Hannah Zhang July 11, 2020

ICE takes aim at international students

Maria Abreu July 10, 2020

Chinese students trapped by new ICE policy

Zishu Sherry Qin July 10, 2020

New ICE policy adds more turmoil to the lives of international students

Shiyu Xu July 10, 2020

Lawsuits follow ICE policy barring international students who are taking online classes

Joanna Lin Su July 10, 2020

Economists say the US needs a bold, generous fiscal response. Congress is likely to disappoint. 

Ahmed Mohamed July 9, 2020

Overseas Singaporeans have pandemic obstacles to voting

Yifan Yu July 9, 2020

Proximity sensors and hygiene stations are the “new normal”

Joanna Lin Su July 9, 2020

 Tour ticket vendors miss the hustle and bustle of Times Square

Narkwor Kwabla July 8, 2020

Dengue outbreak could be a greater threat than covid in Singapore

Yifan Yu July 8, 2020

Corporate bankruptcy: ‘A story that’s not going away’

Gaurav Sharma July 7, 2020

Beijing reopens as the second wave of coronavirus dies down

Hannah Zhang July 6, 2020

Masks or no masks?

Bohao Liu July 5, 2020

Varsity Flu

Madeline Gunderson July 3, 2020

Rail travel in China is popular during the pandemic and filled with safety measures

Bohao Liu July 3, 2020

Brazilian international student caught in US travel ban.

Marina Guimaraes July 3, 2020

MTA faces crisis following COVID shutdown

Daniel Girma July 2, 2020

Easter Market goes back to its roots

Kyla Milberger July 2, 2020

China’s Airline Industry Aims to Lure Back Passengers with Unlimited Flight Pass

Zishu Sherry Qin July 1, 2020

US corporate debt soars during coronavirus outbreak

Gaurav Sharma June 30, 2020

In Singapore, gay pride goes online

Yifan Yu June 29, 2020

The Hair Room reopens

Shiyu Xu June 29, 2020

A second wave of the coronavirus creates travel woes in Beijing

Hannah Zhang June 29, 2020

Despite a few bumps, NYC is social distancing more than not

Joanna Lin Su June 29, 2020

Backyard music lessons

Madeline Gunderson June 28, 2020

Experts say ISIS exploits chaos of global pandemic to rebuild

Marina Guimaraes June 26, 2020

Cutting through COVID

Thomas Hengge June 26, 2020

Venezuelan government leaves residents stranded in U.S. during pandemic

Maria Abreu June 23, 2020

Vulnerable communities fear eviction as COVID-19 rent morotorium comes to an end

Jonathan Sarabia June 22, 2020

Beijing is China’s new epicenter for the coronavirus

Hannah Zhang June 22, 2020

Clock is ticking for NYC restaurants even as outdoor dining resumes  

Gaurav Sharma June 20, 2020

Michigan hair salons are back in business

Kyla Milberger June 17, 2020

Seafood markets in China lose business over new COVID-19 scare

Bohao Liu June 17, 2020

China resorts to street vending to revive its economy

Hannah Zhang June 16, 2020

The East Village is open! Well, sort of

Thomas Hengge June 15, 2020

My trip home during the pandemic

Zishu Sherry Qin June 15, 2020

Popular India Square “won’t be the same again” 

Gaurav Sharma June 13, 2020

Feds will not raise its key interest rate until 2022 and project slow recovery

Zishu Sherry Qin June 11, 2020

Despite pandemic, thousands of Syrians protest against government as economy collapses

Marina Guimaraes June 10, 2020

On the frontline of two deadly viruses

Narkwor Kwabla June 10, 2020

Bronx fish market struggles to stay afloat during pandemic

Daniel Girma June 9, 2020

Venezuelans leave behind a country in crisis only to encounter a new crisis in New York

Maria Abreu June 8, 2020

China promotes street vendors to reboot the economy

Bohao Liu June 8, 2020

For the developmentally disabled, COVID-19 brings new challenges

Kyla Milberger June 7, 2020

Giving food to Staten island vulnerable communities during the lockdown

Alpha Kamara June 6, 2020

Hong Kongers gather despite COVID-19 ban on Tiananmen vigil

Yifan Yu June 4, 2020

Army returns home after completing COVID-19 mission in New York 

Maria Abreu June 4, 2020

Ailana’s life in quarantine

Talgat Almanov June 3, 2020

Venezuela has another obstacle: the pandemic

Marina Guimaraes June 3, 2020