What’s the coronavirus situation in Switzerland? A timeline

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A local newspaper stand in Geneva last Friday. “Coronavirus: what are workers’ rights?”

I have felt for a while that we are living through one of the more extraordinary and challenging events in recent history. As of this writing, Switzerland has reported 374 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 2 deaths. Life feels normal enough — but will it stay this way, or will things change rapidly in the days and weeks to come? Here I have created a little space for me to record personal updates and observations.

December 26

I leave China via a layover in Shanghai, arriving in Bangkok, with absolutely no idea what is about to transpire.

December 31

I return to Switzerland from Bangkok. At immigration, I am asked zero questions.

January 8

While browsing Weibo, a popular Chinese social networking site, I read about a new type of pneumonia that is going around in Wuhan. I barely register the news.

January 14

I book airfare for an upcoming work trip to Indonesia. By now, the coronavirus situation seems serious, but it also seems to be contained to Wuhan and its surrounding villages. I’m not worried about going to Southeast Asia.

January 23

The entire city of Wuhan is locked down. I am stunned — they’ve actually done it.

January 24

My teammates and I get together for fondue near the lake. “Have you guys heard about this new coronavirus thing?” I ask. Some have, some shake their heads. “Apparently there are two suspected cases in Lyon!” I exclaim. “That’s only two hours away by train. It could get here at any second.”

January 27

My relatives in China ask me if I can find any masks — they are completely sold out. I go to a few pharmacy stores here in Geneva, and they’re all sold out as well. I end up purchasing 20 masks for 40 francs from an online retailer.

February 8

I arrive in Indonesia for my work trip. At immigration, I am asked if I had traveled to China in the last 14 days. There are no confirmed cases in Indonesia.

February 12

I mail the masks I purchased in Switzerland to my family from a post office in Surabaya. Masks are sold out across Indonesia as well.

February 13

I begin experiencing a runny nose.

February 14

I have a fever, chills, muscle aches, a productive cough, and general exhaustion. It’s pretty clear that I have the flu. I can’t find pain medication at the pharmacy, so I just take some herbal medicine and vitamins and hope for the best.

February 15

I board a flight from Indonesia to Istanbul, wearing a mask. I tell the flight attendant and the guy sitting next to me that I am sick and would like to move to a different spot to sit by myself. They both seem taken aback. I successfully move to the very first row of the plane.

February 16

I sort of pass out at the airport in Istanbul and get checked out by a Turkish doctor and a very nervous medical crew. I am declared to be in decent health. I return to Switzerland. I am asked zero questions at immigration. I spend the next week agonizingly sick and comatose at home. I do not go to the hospital because it’s too expensive and my health insurance won’t pay for it; also, I am not having trouble breathing, so I do not feel the symptoms warrant a hospital visit. I am right. I recover after about two weeks of cough syrup and painkillers.

February 17

My work bans all travel to China and Singapore.

February 22

The coronavirus outbreak is multiplying in Italy; 76 confirmed cases, and the first death.

February 24

I cancel a hotel room I had booked in Naples and scrap plans to go there for a weekend trip in late March.

February 25

The first coronavirus case is confirmed in Switzerland.

February 27

The first case is confirmed in Geneva — a 28-year-old who had recently returned from Milan. I jokingly ask my coworker if it’s a guy we work with. (It’s not.) There are suddenly hand sanitizers everywhere at work.

At French class, my teacher passes out a flyer advising us that the school will stay open for now, though we could move to online classes if the situation gets worse.

I go to the grocery store and buy a little more pasta and rice than usual. Hand sanitizer is completely sold out everywhere, but luckily I’d snagged one a few days ago.

February 28

The Swiss Federal Council announces that all events with more than 1,000 attendees are canceled. I depart for London, traveling through Paris, for a weekend trip that I’d booked months ago. All seems normal.

March 1

I return to Switzerland from London. At immigration, I am asked zero questions.

March 2

HR emails all staff to let us know that a colleague who recently returned from Milan has a mild fever and is being tested. Their teammates are asked to work from home until the test results come out.

March 3

The test is negative. An all-staff email announces that we will now be implementing lunch shifts: people sitting in certain areas will only be allowed to get food from the cafeteria from 11:30 to 12:30, and people in other areas will be allotted the 12:30 to 1:30 window. There is a cacophony of confusion and amazement as an entire open-plan office reads the email at the same time.

March 5

At the main gate at work, a new sign warns that we are now a “handshake-free workplace”.

March 8

My work finally puts its foot down: we are now mandating work from home for all Geneva staff for the next two weeks. Events that my team is planning in Southeast Asia are canceled or postponed.

March 10

Italy closes its borders. Sort of. Switzerland is now up to 497 reported cases.

March 11

I see on the news that Italians are now queueing in front of supermarkets with one meter of distance between each shopper. I go to the supermarket and stock up on two weeks’ worth of non-perishable food (pasta, frozen vegetables, rice). I feel like people are giving me funny looks because I also got a pack of toilet paper — I almost want to explain to them that I am completely out at home and actually need this! I’m not panic-shopping! (Or am I?) There are now 652 cases in Switzerland. I order a box of 50 masks from eBay, just in case I’ll end up needing them for going out.

March 12

I wake up to the news that the U.S. has put in travel restrictions — any non-citizens who have been in the Schengen Area in the last 14 days are now not permitted to board flights headed to the U.S. There are now more than 800 cases in Switzerland. I pull the plug and cancel a social event I had planned for 20 people this weekend, sadly.

At French class tonight, we are informed that someone from the school has tested positive for the coronavirus. (1. Hope they’re okay. 2. You couldn’t have told us over an email?!) We receive the following handout. I am calm, but probably because I’m doing that old trick where I mentally numb myself to avoid thinking about something distressing.

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March 13

Switzerland closes all schools and bans gatherings of more than 100 people. I receive a text from my French school: it is closed effective next Monday.

March 14

To date, I’ve received special coronavirus-related emails from:

  • My property management company
  • My mortgage lender
  • The US Embassy in Bern
  • My old improv school in DC
  • Both of my banks in the US
  • Amtrak
  • Tripadvisor
  • The food charity my old roommate works for

Looks like shit’s getting serious over in the States, too.

March 15

I go out for a quick walk by the lake to catch some fresh air, keeping a distance of at least 1m from every person I encounter and speaking to no one. I see a ton of (mostly young) people out and about–many congregating in groups and having lunch together! It’s supremely frustrating that many aren’t taking this seriously.

At 9pm, there is an applause “flashmob” outside my window: people are clapping from their balconies and clanging pots and pans together for the medical workers and others providing service to those in need. Here’s a video someone posted in a new Facebook group set up to connect healthy volunteers with those who need grocery deliveries in Geneva.

March 16

The Swiss Federal Council announces more stringent lockdown measures: with the exception of supermarkets and pharmacies and a few others, all restaurants and stores are to be shut down. Borders with Austria, France and Germany are also closing. I haven’t been to the grocery store in … 4 days, but it feels like a lot longer. I’m seeing online that shelves are wiped out and nonperishables in short supply. I still have some food at home so may not go out for another few days, by which time I’m hoping things will have calmed down more.

March 17

My employer extends mandatory work-from-home measures to mid-April. Over 2,700 cases in Switzerland at this point.

March 19

Over 3,200 cases reported in Switzerland. I venture outside for the first time in four days to pick up some more groceries. There is no line to enter the supermarket, thankfully, but there is one for the pharmacy across the street. There was also a line outside a shop that sells rotisserie chicken to go.

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I’ve noticed that social distancing measures seem to be working slightly better. Most people on the streets are by themselves, and about 2 or 3 out of 10 people are wearing masks.

March 20

Over 4,900 cases. The Swiss Federal Council holds another press conference, but we are not in total lockdown yet: gatherings of 5 or more people will be fined, but so far no restrictions on movement domestically, I believe.

Hearing that colleagues who are expats in countries with less developed health infrastructure are being evacuated or asked to leave. There is a mass scramble for flights and many US citizens are stranded abroad. The State Department has issued a level 4 ‘do not travel’ advisory for the entire freaking planet.

I remember today that I was supposed to go to Naples this weekend, once upon a time ago. Thinking about how hard hotels in Italy and other countries have been hit by mass cancellations. Hoping that we can find our way back to normal soon.

The masks that I ordered on the 11th finally arrived today.

March 25

It’s Wednesday night. I haven’t gone outside since Sunday. I’m starting to sense a bit of a social stigma around going outside in general, even if you’re by yourself and not talking to anyone. I have a ton of calls and virtual meetings and text chats with colleagues to fill my days, at least.

There are more than 10,000 cases in Switzerland, but I hear that some Swiss hospitals are taking in French patients from across the border, which means they’re not at capacity yet.

Today my employer decided to give us a week off in April — not extra vacation time, but rather mandatory days off that we need to deduct from our vacation balance. I’m just thankful that we’re not on furlough.

March 26

I go to the supermarket for the first time in a week. There have been a few changes: there is now a ‘one in, one out’ sign posted to the door, though no one is actually there to monitor customer flow. They have removed shopping baskets, so most people are now just carrying their own reusable bags around the store. Toilet paper is in stock. One interesting thing — there’s a shortage in Italian-made products. I ended up buying tomato sauce made in Zurich, and olive oil made in Germany (?!).

March 29

Today I take my recycling out to a nearby park. The aluminum section is absolutely overflowing, and people are just leaving their cans in paper bags on the ground. It’s possible that sanitation workers are pretty overwhelmed right now.

I take a short walk around the neighborhood for some fresh air and come upon a guy in a second-floor balcony using a hook and rope to get his bag of groceries from a delivery truck. The delivery guys are also clearly amused by the situation and ask to take a picture of him. The customer obliges, posing with a thumbs up.

I’ve been hearing an increase in ambulances this weekend. I also feel… I don’t know, sentimental? Homesick. I feel homesick for New York City, which makes zero sense because I’ve never lived there. I turned down a job there a while ago, and though I still believe I made the right call, I miss all that comes with a busy, bustling city. The diner food. The cafes. Broadway. Improv shows. Central Park. Fifth Avenue. Museums. All of the neon lights and small businesses that carved out a space for themselves in the big city. The feeling that no matter what I look like, I belong there.

I miss travelling, as privileged and petty as that sounds. I’m sad that I can no longer pop over the border to Lyon for a day of shopping and good food. I miss the human interactions, chatting with my coworkers. My coffeemaker broke this weekend, and I can’t take it to the shop to get it fixed because it’s closed indefinitely. I don’t know when it’ll be safe to see my family again. Every trip out to the supermarket now feels like a whole fucking thing, plagued by anxious planning: if I leave now, will there be a line to get in? Will there be too many people? What do I need to buy to last me another week? Is it safe to touch the vegetables?

I read an article that says we are — in a way — grieving the loss of security and normalcy. I think it’s spot on.

I have now been at home for three weeks. Maybe I am starting to get a little batty.

March 30

Today I start week 4 of working from home.

I am reluctantly but nevertheless coming to terms with the fact that I probably did contract the coronavirus when I was in Indonesia. I read another article today about a symptom that is increasingly being recognized: the loss of taste and smell.

For a whole week, when I thought I had the flu, I couldn’t taste anything. My favorite foods were like cardboard. I texted my parents, complaining about it. I also had conjunctivitis, bloodshot patches in both eyes. I never had shortness of breath, but for a while there, I couldn’t even drink from a straw without breaking into coughs.

I began wearing a mask the day after I started experiencing in a runny nose in Jakarta. I wore a mask talking to people in Bali and on both legs of my flight home. But was it enough? How many people did I come into contact with? Could I have infected anyone?

Fuck.

April 1

Today I had my first mini-nervous breakdown since this whole thing started. After answering a few work emails, I just sat at my kitchen table and sobbed for an hour.

I think it’s okay to admit that I am, in fact, not okay.

I’m worried about my family, about their health. I’m worried that if I start having issues with my heart again, I’ll be too afraid to go to the hospital. I’m worried that I’ve fallen behind at work due to increasing stress and workload. I’m worried about job security. I don’t know how long we’ll be stuck this way, for months? For a year? How long is this supposed to go on?

I called a friend during lunch and we commiserated. I felt better.

April 2

Completed my weekly run for groceries today. I went at a busier time today (noon, as opposed to mid-morning), and there was actually a line today to get in, but it was quick. There was a store employee inside the entrance, and every time someone exited, he’d wave the next waiting customer inside. By the time I left, there was a longer line that stretched all the way to the other side of the street.

I didn’t get some of the things I wanted to buy because there were people clustering in front of those displays, but otherwise the store was well-stocked and the shoppers calm. I am hopeful that the lockdown measures are working and we are getting closer to a turning point. At the same time I feel very tired emotionally and just want to curl up in bed and take a few days off.

April 3

I receive the following message from my mobile service provider. “What the hell do you mean, you’re changing your name?” I think.

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A few hours later, this transpires:

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Today a friend asks me if I want to take a walk together next week. I am torn. Do I want to? Yes. Is it safe if we both wear masks and keep 1m apart? I don’t know. I haven’t had a real conversation with anyone in person since early March. I’m starting to lose my marbles.

I talk to another friend on the phone. We gripe about things and exchange ideas for what to binge on Netflix. (I finished Tiger King in two days and it is legitimately the most insane thing I have ever watched.) It’s the little things like that that keep me going.

Google has released a report on how mobility patterns have changed in the last month and a half. Here’s the report for Switzerland, which also includes Geneva. Visits to retail and recreation locations have gone down by 81%. Wow.

April 7

Okay, clearly this isolation and work-related stress have done a number on me. I am inching closer to certifiably insane.

Today I accidentally started a fire in my bedroom.

I had washed my pajama pants earlier today and they were still half damp from hanging dry. I went to take a quick shower before bed and decided, for some reason, that I could speed up the drying process by draping my pants over the radiator.

By the time I picked up on a burning smell from the shower, my bedroom was already hazy with smoke. I rushed back and flung the pants to the floor, where they caught on fire. I put it out using a mug of water. The pants are a goner, black and brittle. Had to toss them in the trash.

It’s now 10:54pm and my entire apartment still smells like smoke. This sounds bad, but I’m SO relieved apartments here don’t have smoke detectors. If an alarm had gone off, even if the fire department didn’t show up, some Swiss person (see: Bünzli) would have called the cops on me for disturbing the peace.

Fuuuuuck. I am in such a bad place right now.

April 8

My work is extending work from home from mid-April to early May. Clearly we’re not out of the hole. Yet.

Today the Bundesrat (Federal Council) announced that they were starting to see a slowdown in the spread of the virus. As a result, Switzerland might start loosening some of its restrictions at the end of this month. I am cautiously optimistic about this!

April 9

Today I went on my weekly grocery run… but I was not able to get groceries.

Might be because it’s the day before Good Friday, but the lines outside the supermarkets were insane. At one shop, there was a line stretching to the end of the block. At another, people were lining up across the street from the supermarket. I decided to try my luck another day.

On a more serious note, I’ve learned that some colleagues at my organization have been put on unpaid leave. This year has been just nonstop garbage.

April 10

Today is my mom’s birthday! Since my family won’t be able to come visit Europe for the foreseeable future (and because we’re all francophiles), I ordered delivery to their house from a nearby French restaurant. My parents rarely eat out and never treat themselves like this; I felt like a fairy godmother sending them artisanal coffee, a baguette, a chocolate croissant, tiramisu, and a French omelette.

It also felt good to support a small business, as well as the delivery driver who’s out there working hard in the midst of a pandemic (I gave a 25% tip).

This series is continued here.

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