Dispatches from the corners of a pandemic: part two

Yonghui Chen makes canvas at the Gangde Dong Feng Canvas Factory in Hunan Province, China in Nov. 2020. Photo by Mohan Ge/BU News Service

BU News Service reporters from seven different countries on five different continents spotlight the state of affairs in their backyards in the midst of a raging pandemic. This is part two of the series.

Deja vu

By Claudia Chiappa
CORNO GIOVINE, Italy — This small northern Italian town of 1,200 inhabitants is back in the red zone.

On Nov. 13, Italy recorded 40,902 new coronavirus cases, an all-time record for a country ravaged by the pandemic’s first wave. The soaring numbers led Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to tighten restrictions.

Just six miles from Codogno, the epicenter of February’s COVID-19 outbreak, Corno Giovine’s new high-risk designation bars movement between towns and closes all restaurants and bars.

It also carries an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu. 

“We are going back to how things used to be, and it’s scary,” said Lorena Oltolini, a convenience store owner.

When the country entered the first lockdown, Oltolini was deemed an essential worker, allowing her business to stay open. She said the decision was necessary, yet frightening. 

“Back then, the scariest part were the sirens of the ambulance and the church bells ringing for each death,” Oltolini said. “Every person coming in [the store] made you wonder “are they okay?” Then one day later you hear that they are positive and you wonder if you’ll be okay.”

Oltolini’s grandson, Gabriele, started first grade in September. While schools remain open the possibility of a return to remote learning remains real. 

“He is still very shy and hesitant now, very careful with cleaning and everything,” said his mother, Alice. “Our kids showed a strength which is more impressive than that of many adults. We should learn from them.”

Anna Benvenuti, a nurse at the Ospedale Civico, Codogno’s hospital, is resigned to a return to the battle. 

“I am starting to make peace with the idea I’ll have to do it again,” she said. My spirit is different, however. Now I feel more ready.” 

Back to normal but the scars of the undoing remain

By Mohan Ge
CHANGDE, China — The early days of COVID-19 tested Huilin Ge.

When the virus hit the country full force in January, Ge led efforts to control the spread in her district of Changde, a city of 5.7 million in northwest Hunan province known for Furongwang cigarettes.

 “We needed to interview all workers who came home from other cities and write daily reports.” Ge said. 

When the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Wuhan, Changde officials issued a third level warning – the highest – before travel to and from Wuhan was shut down. 

 “There was a short panic in our city, people stayed at home for over two months,” said Rui Xu, a reporter for the Changde Daily. “They only went to grocery stores with masks on.”

Authorities isolated 82 Covid patients in the Changde Second People Hospital. Since Jan. 24. All survived.

With offices and factories closed, the government encouraged people to start street-stall businesses, selling trinkets, household goods and street food, to make quick money. The streets are now busy, with younger people buying and selling. 

Life in Changde began to return to normal in May. Most public areas opened; masks are only required at movie cinemas. Regular testing is still being conducted. The Changde Daily reported there have been no new infections since March 6.

However, some businesses are still suffering. 

Zhang Jiajie National Park, which appears in a scene from the movie Avatar, remains closed to group tours and foreign visitors. The park, a one-hour drive from Changde, was one of the biggest source of tourism revenue in Hunan province. 

Zhang Bin, whose Go Travel Tourism Company relied on Zhang Jiajia tourism, had to shut down in January and pay his employee’s basic salary.

“This is the first time I feel like I lost my job,” Zhang Bin said. “COVID makes my life so tough.”

In this part of town, we’ve always been socially distant

By Hannah Green
BLANDFORD, Mass.— Social distancing was a way of life for western Massachusetts residents long before the global pandemic. 

“We live in a town where there’s no gas station, the only store is the Country Store, and there are no traffic signals,” said Sheila Green, 64, a retired second-grade teacher. “The problem is not COVID-19 cases or social distancing. People live far apart.” 

Since retiring two years ago, Green spends her days hiking, cooking, and working in the yard, activities that now can be categorized as social distancing.

“People don’t need to wear masks when they’re outside,” Green said. “I don’t wear masks on my walk around the neighborhood, but I don’t see anybody else walking around.”

According to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Blandford had a population of 1,200 residents in 2010, or 24 people per square mile—the 17th lowest population density in the state. Town data in 2018 placed the population at 1,177.

According to the commonwealth’s community-level data, Blandford has recorded 15 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. 

Massachusetts had 158,576 cases on Nov. 1, more total cases than 29 other states.

In neighboring Montgomery, with a population of 870 and eight reported cases, Christine Soderquist, 74, had a social distancing lifestyle well before the pandemic.

“I have never been one to go out a lot for dinner or get-togethers. I’m kind of a stay-at-home person to begin with,” Soderquist said. “My life hasn’t changed that much, except for wearing a mask and washing hands a lot.”

Soderquist credited pre-quarantine hobbies with keeping her spirits up. 

“I’ve made two quilts, I’ve been cleaning up the house,” she said. “I think people who have a lot of hobbies or things to do at home haven’t been as negatively affected as other people.” 

Green offered a piece of advice to all the city folk living in the Boston area.

“I think if you have things to do and keep yourself occupied, you’re going to be much better off,” she said. “You’ll be too busy doing things to worry.”

Dancing the pandemic away

By Daphne Mark
FORT WORTH, Texas — Not even COVID-19 can keep Texans away from their honkytonks. 

“Dance has got it all,” said Jonathan Mark, 68, a regular at some of Fort Worth’s iconic dancehalls. “It’s a very athletic, whole body exercise. It’s not so much discipline as it is fun. It’s like a game that you always win.”

When COVID-19 closed Texas bars and dance halls a second time in May, Mark and his dance partner—his wife, Karen— went waltzing, shuffling, and swing dancing on the concrete floors of empty church meeting rooms. Still, it didn’t compare to Billy Bob’s, Rodeo Exchange and the Stagecoach Ballroom.

“Saturdays were so packed you couldn’t stir ‘em with a stick,” said Jenny Kercheval, the Rodeo Exchange’s bartender and  three-time winner of Fort Worth Weekly’s best bartender contest.

Like other Fort Worth bars, Rodeo Exchange has scrambled to meet ever-changing regulations, incorporating food service and turning bartenders into waitresses.

When Gov. Greg Abbott announced Texas counties could open bars effective Oct. 14, Mark was on the dance floor and Kercheval was behind the bar the next week. 

“There is no substitute for leather on hardwood,” Mark said, referencing the swimming pool-sized, waxed wooden dance floor. 

Before March, Rodeo was packed with regulars and tourists who came for the live music, socializing, and dancing. New regulations cut capacity in half, but there still a line outside the door.

“We are a very social place,” said Kercheval. “They come in here, they want to dance. And they like to mingle. And now they can’t go walk around, they can’t see their friends at another table.”

The reopening came as COVID-19 cases rose. Texas ranked second nationwide in coronavirus-related deaths and new cases, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Still, the bars continued to reopen and customers like Mark continued to dance.   

“So as long as it’s not crowded,” he said. “We’ll be there.”

A resurgent virus

By Natascha Tahabsem
AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan’s fluctuating COVID-19 numbers have people here debating whether the kingdom’s newly-appointed government should decree another nationwide, round-the-clock lockdown to halt what health officials are calling a “community spread.”

Jordan, hard hit by the first pandemic wave, saw numbers drop after a far-reaching lockdown was imposed on March 17, 15 days after the first case was recorded.

 After reporting a record high average of 900 cases per day, the kingdom’s Ministry of Health urged the public to continue to wear masks, social distance and keep gatherings to 20 or less people. Now with the rise in daily new cases doubling since September, reaching a total of 183,000, Jordan is facing another nationwide lockdown. 

“The last thing we want is a complete lockdown for two weeks or three weeks. We don’t want to reach this. It remains the last weapon if cases rise unbelievably high and lead to our hospitals being overwhelmed,” former Health Minister Saad Jaber said on national television last month.

Jordanian entrepreneur and pharmacist Amer Al-Mokbel said in a recent tweet that a complete lockdown should be reevaluated after a one-to-two week trial period to see if it is an effective method to stop the spread.

“Imposing… weekend lockdowns until “further notice” is simply wrong,” Al-Mokbel said.

Children’s book author Layla Audi disagreed, warning that a lockdown may soon prove necessary. Citing Jordan’s brief success in combating the virus in early March, she said she is willing to adhere to a government-imposed lockdown order.

“Life has become difficult for everyone,” Audi said. “We weren’t appreciative enough of the blessings we had [before the pandemic hit]. I think this is a lesson for all humanity, and it’s a hard one.”

The world as we know it has changed

By Deidre Shahar
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — When the pandemic first hit this suburb north of New York City, each day felt like 10 to nurse practitioner Roberta Gluckman. 

“It was so stressful because you never knew what to expect going in to work,” she said.

White Plains Physician Associates, where Glucksman works, is an ambulatory care office associated with White Plains Hospital. The facility was at the forefront in the early stages of the pandemic. The county’s first known cases grew so quickly that the hospital recruited nurses from around the county.

In April, Glucksman, a mother of three, would come home and rip her clothes off and immediately take a shower. 

“You never wanted to bring it home to your kids and I was afraid to come into the house, it’s like I was in a state of trauma,” she said.

Now, with a decrease in cases and an increase in knowledge of how to treat the virus, Glucksman said, “I feel like I can breathe again.”  

Westchester County has seen the curve of new cases flatten in recent months. While there was a slight surge with the colder weather, the number of hospitalizations has stayed low. 

The week of April 4 saw an average of 12,274 new cases per day.

“The community we work in was on board with learning how to contain the outbreak, and people immediately started doing what they needed to and cooperating with the health department to do their part in stopping the spread,” Glucksman said. 

 Although health conditions have been looking up, some still struggle with the somberness of empty streets and sidewalks. 

“The world I know has changed, and New York City is no longer the city I know and love,” said Westchester County resident Sharon Satlin. “When the city has been your life for over half a century, seeing how it is now is a very hard pill to swallow.” 

This is part two of a series. For part one, click here.

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