After Wuhan - a city the size of New York - got locked down, I began to pay special attention to the news about the ‘novel coronavirus’. I was far from home whilst the situation developed, visiting Indonesia and later Malaysia. Being on the other side of the world during what quickly became a massively disruptive global crisis was very scary, so I eventually made the call to fly home.
When the Coronavirus first became a big news story, I was in Indonesia with my girlfriend. Every day she would ask me “What is the latest news on the virus?” and I’d be able to tell her the latest headlines without having to look them up: “China broke 28,000 cases today.”, or “First confirmed cases in the United Kingdom”.
Excluding China, it initially looked like there were just a few isolated cases being spread internationally. These cases seemed to be caught fairly early on, with contact tracing preventing further spread. The world seemed to be doing a good job of containing the outbreak.
Clearly that assumption was wrong and things started going wrong. The problem escalated. Meanwhile, I carried on with my schedule and transferred to Malaysia in early February.
The fact that China was taking drastic actions made me believe things were serious. You don’t lock down a city - and later a whole region - like that for no reason.
I wasn’t sure what the best course of action would be for myself moving forward. If I had a permanent home base I’d know exactly what to do - stock up and be careful - but being alone on the other side of the world comes with it’s own set of challenges.
Preparation Has A Cost
Unlike folk living in one place, ‘being prepared’ for a traveller has a high cost and is more difficult. Worse, if preparation turns out to be unnecessary, it can be very wasteful.
For instance, whilst staying in Asia, I eat out for every meal. It’s cheaper and easier than cooking, which is often difficult because most hotels are under-equipped.
My hotel didn’t even have any hobs (cooktops), baking trays, or the like. It only had a single fridge/freezer and two microwaves (one disguised as an oven) to share between all the guests. Curiously, the hotel did have a few saucepans. I think that they must be decorative; there’s no way to heat them safely.
If I continued to stay at this hotel, my cooking potential would be very limited, so naturally I would prefer to continue eating out.
It’s easy to justify ‘stockpiling’ non-perishable food when you live in one place. If you don’t end up needing your stockpile - perhaps because the crisis comes to pass - then that’s fine; you’ll eat it eventually.
If a traveller chooses to stockpile, they have to consider their purchases. Any uneaten food will be a wasted expense when they move on; you can’t exactly take food on to a plane.
Speaking of planes, another way a traveller might ‘prepare’ is to temporarily stop being a traveller. They might choose to fly back to their home country.
That also has risks: if the crisis comes to pass uneventfully, you’ll feel pretty silly to have disrupted your plans and wasted your time and money. Alternatively, the situation might completely flip, and your home country ends up being worse than the one you fled. You’d probably feel pretty silly then, too.
As the crisis continued to escalate, it became clear that it wasn’t going to go away uneventfully, and therefore some action or decision was necessary. More and more locations were reporting community spread, and countries like Italy, Iran, and South Korea became hotspots, before spreading massively across Europe and the USA.
I almost became paralysed, not knowing what the smart move was. Should I cancel everything and return home? That would mean I probably wouldn’t travel again for a long time; then when would I next see my girlfriend? At the same time, she was considering booking a flight to visit me in Malaysia (and later did book a flight - for April. Naturally, it was cancelled.)
I really didn’t know what to do.
I watched the figures worsen every day, hoping that things would miraculously resolve. Regretting that I wasn’t doing more to prepare.
I was really hoping that Malaysia wouldn’t see a spike in cases, and that if it did, that the government wouldn’t do anything too drastic like completely closing the border.
I extended my hotel stay until mid-April, anticipating that hotels might stop accepting bookings without warning.
I continued running outdoors, cycling in the gym, and lifting weights. I was trying to become as healthy as I could, so that if I got infected I could beat the virus.
Malaysia Locks Down
In early March, I heard reports that a Tabligh event - a Muslim gathering where worshippers live, pray, and sleep in close proximity for many days - was held in Kuala Lumpur, just 7 miles from where I was staying. Early reports indicated that 5000 people had attended during the four day event, though later figures estimated that there may had been as many as 16,000 visitors, some 14,500 of whom were Malaysian nationals.
Someone who had attended inevitably tested positive. My stomach dropped as I realised the possibilities, thinking back to the Shincheonji Church that had caused South Korea to become a hotspot.
Why was this event allowed to go ahead?
I felt dread; before this, Malaysia had seen only a few cases according to the official statistics, and all of them had been discharged. After the Tabligh event, there were suddenly 100 or 200 new cases every day, and the country quickly responded by going into lockdown.
For some reason, after the lockdown was announced, I was more concerned about the fact that my gym would be closing than I was about the virus. I had just booked a month pass a few days earlier and wouldn’t be able to use the space or get a refund. It was a silly reaction, in retrospect, but I think my brain was struggling to come to terms with what was happening.
With one day’s notice before the lockdown took effect, I went between the various local supermarkets to try to buy food. Predictably, they were very busy. Some items were completely out of stock, but it didn’t seem to be as extreme as I had seen my friends and family in Europe and the US reporting.
I bought enough food to last an estimated two weeks or more. I made several trips, filling my backpack with nuts, cereals, wraps, canned vegetables, canned soups, and chutneys.
It was obvious by mid-to-late March that this crisis wasn’t going to go away.
Europe had become the epicenter, and my government in particular were approaching things very badly. Meanwhile, many countries in Asia were doing a comparatively good job.
I was happy to see that the Kuala Lumpurians seemed to mostly obey the lockdown. The normally busy road outside my hotel was very quiet.
Perhaps selfishly, I had been considering riding out the storm in Asia. I was contemplating sheltering in place until I had to leave, then flying to nearby countries that were doing a good job of containment like South Korea or Singapore.
I still had a month and a half remaining on my Malaysia visa, so wouldn’t have had to leave the country until early May (as long as I could keep booking into hotels).
That said, I noticed that more and more countries were completely forbidding entry to foreigners, and I wondered: “What will happen when my visa does finally expire?”
Airlines were ceasing to operate, flights were being cancelled, and there were reports that some airports were closing. I feared that I might come to a point where no nearby foreign nations would accept me, but could not travel to my home country because all of the routes were closed.
Meanwhile, my family unanimously asked me to return (or hinted very strongly that they thought I should). In particular, my father had said one thing that greatly influenced my choice:
“Being a visitor is not the same as being a citizen.”
That wasn’t something I had considered, and it was very true and very scary. If things got crazy, I wouldn’t be a priority to the government of wherever I was staying.
I decided to bite the bullet and fly home.
Waiting To Return
It seemed like insanity that I was voluntarily choosing to go somewhere that was being hit harder than where I was currently located (and at the time I made the decision, the UK hadn’t even entered any lockdown measures yet!). The UK had 6x more recorded cases than Malaysia, which meant that the UK was several weeks ahead. At the time of writing, more than two weeks since I made my decision, Malaysia still hasn’t officially caught up with the number of cases that the UK was seeing at that time.
Frankly, I felt anxious about flying at all. Yes, it would be safer to be at home long term, but there were still significant short term risks involved with getting home. Most of the available journeys were 24 hour to 36 hour trips. These long stints in confined metal tubes meant many potential opportunities to become infected. I thought about World War Z; just one zombie infected the whole plane.
Ultimately, I booked a flight for the 26th March. I was able to find one with “just” 18 hours total travel time, flying with Qatar Airways and transiting through Doha before landing in Manchester Airport. My sister would pick me up from there.
The few days whilst I waited to fly were uneventful, but very stressful. My government instituted a lockdown and were repeatedly warning that all British travellers should return home, whilst airports warned that they may close without government help. I’d repeatedly check to see that my flights were still operating and that the three airports were all still open. I really didn’t want to be trapped in limbo.
Given that I couldn’t exercise in my gym, I had begun to workout in my hotel room. I used my resistance bands (and calisthenics) to replace weightlifting, and replaced my regular runs with ‘Quarantine Walks’ (where I walked around my hotel in a big loop for an hour or two after midnight). Neither felt adequate, but they were better than nothing.
KL Ghost Town
On the day I was due to fly, Kuala Lumpur had already been on lockdown for a week and a half, and I’d spent it entirely indoors.
My flight wasn’t until 2AM, but the 10PM curfew that had been imposed with the lockdown meant that I had needed to checkout earlier to get to the airport on time.
I decided to leave my hotel at 8PM, catch the monorail to KL Sentral, then take the train to the airport. Out of curiosity, I decided to take the monorail from Bukit Bintang - essentially the Times Square of Kuala Lumpur - rather than the nearest stop. Bukit Bintang wasn’t a far walk, so no pressure.
It was quite strange to wander through the city and see how much of a ghost town some places had become. In my experience, Bukit Bintang never really sleeps. I went through the area a few times during my 4x4x48 running challenge, and it was lively and busy even at 4AM. During the lockdown, I only saw security guards. Eerie.
I reflected that this would be the perfect time to take pictures of world monuments and heritage sites. Maybe one day, when we all have vaccines and TARDISes, hmm?
The Monorail was mostly empty. Some seats were blocked off to encourage people to keep their distance, but that was hardly necessary - I had half a carriage to myself! I was careful to avoid touching anything, and instead just enjoyed the ride.
KL Sentral is usually one of the pulsing hearts of Kuala Lumpur. It’s the only real direct transit hub that links to the airport, and there’s a large, 8 floor mall called Nu Sentral right next door.
Unsurprisingly, KL Sentral was also a ghost town. I literally only saw three people: A security guard in the mall, and the two guys who sold me my train ticket to the airport. The mall was cordoned off so that you could only transit through between the monorail and the train station, and it felt like I in some kind of zombie apocalypse to see it so empty.
As with the Monorail, the train was also almost completely empty, which shocked me as it has always been completely full in the past. Just how empty must the airport be right now? I even started to get worried that the airport was closed and that I’d somehow missed the announcement.
Thankfully, the airport was open, but predictably very quiet. I got thermal scanned before being allowed into the check-in area, though I wasn’t allowed to check in to my flight for a few hours, leaving me to wait in a quiet corner of the airport and watch Cast Away alone.
Whilst walking, I took a glance at the flight schedule board, and was shocked to see the sheer number of cancelled flights.
Checking in was a somewhat stressful experience. The passengers whom had arrived to check in before me were in a tightly packed queue, whereas I wanted to maintain a 2m distance. New people assumed I wasn’t part of the queue and kept queuing in front of me, and I’d have to point them to the back. They generally weren’t very happy about it.
Yes, I know that I would soon be on the same flight as them, and therefore breathing the same recycled air, but planes have HEPA filters to try to combat infection. Additionally, those particular people might not be close to me at all. I’d just feel safer to limit my overall exposure.
My flights passed uneventfully. I made sure to drink lots of water (and event got a comment about it from a flight attendant), and tried to sleep somewhat. The first plane was a bit over a third full; many people got 3 seats to themselves, and lay across them to sleep. The second was packed - as had been Doha airport - and I hated every minute of it.
At a guess, most of the passengers on the second flight (the flight to Manchester) were probably UK citizens who had chosen to leave the UK to travel abroad within the prior two to three weeks. That’s well within the period where it was obvious that travel would not be wise, so I think it’s safe to assume that these people hadn’t been taking the virus seriously and may not have been taking precautions. Few wore masks. I didn’t trust any of them, and I cringed whenever I heard a cough.
But eventually it was over, and I was back on British soil.
My sister and her boyfriend picked me up from the airport in Manchester, as planned. We had felt that it would be safer for myself (and others) for me to avoiding the train, as I was now possibly contagious. Instead, we needed some way to prevent me from infecting my sister. We had the idea (planned whilst I was still in Malaysia) to put up some plastic sheeting between the front and back of the car in an attempt to isolate them from me. It wouldn’t be perfect, but any protection would be good.
Whilst they applied the sheeting to the car, I tried to decontaminate myself with a bottle of hand sanitiser. I took off my jacket and trousers (I had shorts on underneath), and lathered a tissue with the sanitiser and wiped myself down with it, before wiping my clothes and belongings.
Eventually the police arrived and told us to move off, as we were in a high security area. They weren’t willing to wait for us to finish. The sheeting wasn’t fully secure yet, so I had to hold it and better secure it whilst we drove away.
Once the sheet was secure, I continued to try to decontaminate. This might seem like I was overreacting, but there are many people in my family who may be high risk. I was determined to kill any virus - or as much as I could. If my family are going to catch it because of me, I’d prefer to start them off with a low inoculum.
At one point, I rubbed sanitiser on my chin, and the fumes caused me to choke. My sister and her boyfriend interpreted this as a Coronavirus cough and started to panic! I’m not sure if they believed my explanations.
Eventually, they dropped me off at my Father’s house. It was a really weird reunion. There was no hugging; usually a sign of a troubled relationship, here a gesture of mutual kindness and respect.
The three groups - My sister and her boyfriend; me; and my Father - all kept a distance from each other. In these times, we all have to act as if we are infected, to try to prevent infecting others. Especially those who are more at risk.
My Father let me in to the wooden cabin where I would be staying, joking that it was my ‘cell’. They had moved my old bed into the room, and set up a desk and cooking space for me. The cupboards were stocked with a week and a half’s worth of food, and I essentially had everything I needed.
Well, almost. The cabin lacks a bathroom. In normal times, this wouldn’t be a problem as guests can use the main bathroom inside the house. I had insisted that I wanted to avoid going inside as much as possible, so had proposed that I would bathe on the veranda of the cabin, using my neice’s paddling pool. It’s not overlooked by many other houses, so I have privacy, even if cold and uncomfortable.
As for the toilet, I have no other option than to use the small downstairs bathroom near the front door inside the house. That sadly means that I risk exposing my parents to the virus (if I have it). I’ve been taking precautions as best I can though, like washing my hands thoroughly before going inside, wearing a face mask every time, and avoiding touching any doorhandles.
I have now spent a week and a half in self isolation in the cabin. Before that, I was indoors for 8 days in Malaysia. I’m showing no virus symptoms, which is good, but I may just be asymptomatic, so will wait out the full 24 days quarantine. There have been ups and downs, but the living situation isn’t too unpleasant.
I expected that the worst thing would be bathing outside in the paddling pool, but it really isn’t too bad. I’d almost say it’s comparable to being in a very shallow hot tub; it feels cold before and after, but whilst inside, you’re covering your body with warm water, which actually feels very refreshing.
I’ve taken the opportunity to dial in on my diet and get back to calorie counting. My parents gave me a small stock of food - enough to last two weeks with calorie restriction - and occasionally give me a few extra items, a cooked meal, or a spare vegetable.
I took stock of everything I was given, noting realistic portion sizes, calories, carbs, fats, and protein. From there I was able to work out how many days I had at different caloric restrictions, as well as how many grams of each macronutrient I could expect to get per day before my food runs out.
My protein allowance was looking a little low, so I’ve ordered 5kg of protein powder from Amazon to help me boost that. I also ordered scales so that I can ascertain my weight. Neither have arrived yet.
I’d say that there are two things unpleasant about living in the cabin in these circumstances. One has mostly already been rectified, and I’m hoping that once I’ve been isolated for longer I can ease up the other too:
The first is the climate. The insulation in the cabin isn’t great, meaning the temperature inside mostly reflects the temperature outside. Even with a 2500W oil heater running round the clock, it can get very cold. Particularly in the mornings. We’ve resolved this by purchasing a space heater that I can use sparingly if it’s too cold; I’ve used it twice so far, for ten minutes each, and I have to say it does the trick.
Unfortunately the cold (and perhaps the dehumidifier that I accidentally left running for several days in a row) has led to my hands becoming dry and cracked, perhaps as a symptom of my eczema (though I’ve never had it on my hands before). I suspect that the very cold water that I use to wash my hands (and dishes) isn’t helping. I’ve taken to sleeping with medicated cream on my hands, covered with gloves to stop it spreading everywhere.
The second unpleasant thing is having to go indoors to use the bathroom. I don’t want to be a burden to my father by constantly interrupting him to let me inside, nor do I want to go inside any more frequently than I have to for risk of contaminating the inside of the house. I’ve occasionally become ‘toilet shy’ because I know that - at least on some level - he knows that I’m in there. It’s just not a great situation for anyone, honestly. I’ve been drinking less liquids just to have to go to the bathroom less. I’m hoping that in a week or two - once we have counted out the quarantine clock - that I will be able to come and go to the bathroom as I please.
This post took a surprising amount of time to write.
There are a lot of things that I chose not to write here; things I was thinking about, concerns I have had; or fears for the present and future. Little has been said about my physical or mental well-being during this period.
It was difficult discerning which threads of thought were interesting, important, or unique. At this time, everyone has a lockdown story. My generation will tell their grandkids about this, no doubt about it. What unique perspectives do I have?
It was very stressful being in a far off part of the world during a crisis like this. Living in a hotel means that you’re surrounded by strangers, and you can’t know if they are being safe or not. For example, in early February there was a Chinese guest staying in the hotel who had a persistent cough. It was very concerning to me and a few others, and when I asked him about it, he told me that he had a condition and it was nothing to worry about. Paranoia was rife. I realised later that even my hotel’s ventilation system was probably a risk, as the air might be pushed between different floors of the building.
Now that I’m home, the crisis feels very distant. The little cul-de-sac where I live looks the same as always. Quiet. The only people I come in contact with are my parents, but I still see the neighbours gardening from time to time. Just like always.
It almost feels like sleepy Arley is immune, like the Coronavirus won’t come to this place.
It’s easy to see why many young people in my country might flaunt the lockdown rules, or take advantage of their ‘daily exercise’ to chat with their neighbours.
The irony is that I’m sure there are people exercising for the first time, just as an excuse to go outside; meanwhile, I’d love to do my regular runs, but am not doing for fear that I might be contagious to others.
No, it’s better for everyone to stay indoors, but I’m sure you’ve heard enough about that by now.
I like to imagine I’m in some far off place, like an arctic research station, or a cabin in the Siberian wilderness. In those places, it’s normal to rarely venture outside, and to only be able to get new supplies a few times a month. The spring cold, and the wind against the cabin roof certainly adds to the illusion. It’s comforting to me.
I don’t know what state the world will be in when this is over. Many people are worried about what the world will be like afterwards. Will their normal lives resume, or will things change forever? That question weighs heavy on me too. I have no idea what comes next.
I hope that everyone who reads this during this crisis is safe, keeping fit, and eating well.