Scientists in the World

The pandemic abroad: how expats are living the COVID-19 pandemic

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About one and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is ever changing and still a challenge. Parents juggle childcare, home schooling and work. Elderly people living alone may not have close contact with their keens for a while. Essential workers - doctors, paramedics, firefighters, supermarket workers, cops, delivery workers - still get out there every day to do their jobs, putting themselves and their families at risk of infection. Everyone is facing strenuous situations, both physical and psychological. Yet, there is a particular group of people that has been having a hard time to deal with isolation, loneliness and distance from their families: expats. Here is my experience and the ones of two other scientists living abroad.

Margaryta from Ukraine, living in Germany
“The pandemic hit the world globally in the same way and people were suffering everywhere. Unfortunately, my home country is less privileged and doesn't have a very good healthcare system. This fact added a lot of worries about my family.” Interaction with family and friends have substantially changed for Margaryta. “It is now clear that the vaccination campaign will take a while and travel restrictions will remain for another year if not longer. Due to these restrictions I missed the anniversary birthday parties of 2 of my best friends, which was unimaginable in 2019. Zoom parties allowed for at least some virtual interaction.”

However, she also recognises some positive changes that have been brought by the pandemic. Especially at work, where efficiency has taken a new meaning now that in-person meetings are not allowed or difficult to organise. “Finally people learned that not every discussion item requires a round meeting with 5-6 people. [Before] It was always impossible to schedule [meetings between several people], mostly pointless to attend and [the discussion] had to be finalized with an email. Nowadays you schedule an online call for 20 minutes and start writing that email. Efficiency! Not to mention the convenience of attending a business meeting in your PJ pants.” The pandemic gave Margaryta also more time to write and finalise her doctoral thesis, which she has just submitted. “Remote work allowed me to focus on writing, at the hours that I find comfortable. Sparing daily trips to the lab added an additional couple of hours to the day.” Like any employee who had to switch to working from home rather than going to the office, Margaryta carved a space for herself at home, organising her own “home office” which now allows her to work efficiently while enjoying the homey comforts. “Getting out of the house in the middle of the day for a 30 min stroll, eating your home-cooked lunch, spending time with your partner (or imaginary cat) [Margaryta is an introvert too] is quite eye-opening.”

“I feel really lucky and grateful that I didn't have to worry about my job or paying bills. But I guess the echo of the pandemic will be there for another decade or so. It's hard to predict when and if the economy will recover. On the other hand, a lot of brilliant scientists were very vocal during this time. This gives me hope that some people will start believing in science, instead of some conspiracy theories from Facebook.”

My experience (Chiara from Italy, living in Germany)
When the pandemic hit Europe, I lived in a paradox. I was terrorised by the news from Italy: the virus was raging and killing entire villages, the government had enforced a very strict lockdown and the army was removing corpses of COVID-19 victims with no last goodbye permitted. I was very scared for my parents, who have comorbidities and live alone. Nevertheless, I was also happy with the lockdown in Germany. I would tell my colleagues “I am having the time of my life!” because of that feeling of freedom from not being forced into social life (introverts don’t like it as much as others!). Still, my parents were out of my reach and I could not help them, and we had a case of COVID-19 in the family. I had to give up on reading news from Italy to avoid anxiety and I started having daily calls with my parents.

Staying engaged and trying to share correct information made me feel like I was actively working against misinformation & the virus - doing something to positively influence the community. It is an illusion of having control on something, but it helps getting through it. Thus, I have been trying to sensibilise and educate acquaintances on the seriousness of the situation or the necessity of certain measures amongst others. I also participated in and tried to recruit participants for a longitudinal study on mental health during the pandemic. I also joined the project of an Italian photographer about Italian expats' lives during the pandemic.

Technological tools such as Zoom or MS Team revolutionized only my way of working, not my way of interacting with my family which is split between Italy, Germany and the US. Luckily I don’t work in the lab any longer, so I haven’t had to deal with work shifts and experimental delays. I feel lucky that this pandemic arrived after I finished my PhD. Notwithstanding, you grow tired of sitting all day at a corner of your flat to work, and then move to other areas of the same flat to relax. I started to workout regularly, I took back running and also started practicing yoga. Physical exercise and walks outdoors have helped me to reduce the levels of stress and anxiety better than anything else. One year into the pandemic, everyone was still racing to get back to a “normal” life, as it used to be before it started. But COVID-19 is still here and is not giving signs of retreat. I have striven instead to find a new balance and to adapt to the new situation. Adaptation is that evolutionary process that makes species develop traits that will make them better suited for the environment they live in. I think this is what has made me go through it till now, more than anything else.

Laia from Spain, living in the UK
Laia left her hometown Barcelona 4 years ago, to live for one year in Germany and then move to London. “I am not used to travelling home more than twice a year, for Christmas and in Summer, so my annual trips home have not changed due to the pandemic. Living with my partner also helps to overcome living far from home. However, when I plan trips back home I need to think of the days I'll have to quarantine and hence it makes it more difficult to travel. Working in a lab also makes it more difficult to plan ahead trips and quarantine.”
Laia had an easier experience with the lockdown in the UK, which has been relatively milder than in continental Europe. “In the UK we had 3 lockdowns. The first one (March-June 2020) was perfectly fine. I was working from home, I learned how to bake, I read more books and I started doing yoga. I was seeing an end to it, at that point. However, the pandemic did not end and we had two more lockdowns, in November 2020 and December 2020-April 2021. Although I can go to the lab, it has been more difficult for me since there is nothing else to do but work. So I had a "normal" life, without it being normal at all.” This situation of “normality within abnormality” has influenced Laia, as well as her motivation, just as it has influenced thousands of other scientists finding themselves to work in shifts to avoid overcrowding in the lab. However, investing time in herself and trying to stick to a regular routine is helping Laia. “With nothing else to do, I would stay in the lab forever. However, I try to arrive at the lab and leave it everyday at the same time, so that I keep a routine and I can invest time in myself.”

We are now in Spring 2021 and vaccinations in Europe are continuing, giving hope to all of us. Laia is now fully vaccinated, and so are many of her colleagues. This has made the lab a safer place to be at, it is easing her life and will hopefully make it easier to plan her trips back home. Margaryta has also received her COVID-19 vaccine, although some complications occurred, she’s still happy to get the shot and feel safer. Margaryta is also advocating for getting the shot among her social circle.
Now, my parents have received their vaccines and I am less worried about them. However, I am still waiting and hoping that soon I will be able to get a spot for a shot. This would make traveling back home to see my parents and other relatives easier and safer. Unfortunately there are in fact some family members who still don’t feel safe about getting a COVID-19 vaccine.


Written by Chiara Galante; Edited by Gabrielle Sant. Featured Image: NGC/Design.

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