Coronavirus Diaries: Everyday Life in Six Other Countries

What life is like this week in the Netherlands, Liberia, Costa Rica, Afghanistan, Ireland, and New Zealand.

Two hands holding up a mask that says "Coronavirus Diaries" over a world map
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nicola Nuttall on Unsplash.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

These snapshots of life in six countries are based on interviews conducted and edited for clarity by Joshua Keating and Dan Kois.

OLGA MECKING, a writer who lives near the Hague, Netherlands. Interviewed Wednesday, March 18.

Today we have 2,000 cases, and that’s confirmed. They’re only testing the most vulnerable populations, and only one person per family. Two days ago it was maybe 1,100, yesterday 1,400. Now it’s 2,000.

The approach the Netherlands is taking has been a little bit different to Spain or France or Italy. There everything is closed, but here they are saying, we can’t close everything down because that would affect the economy badly, but we can’t pretend the virus doesn’t exist. So it’s sort of a middle road. Schools are closed, day cares are closed, swimming pools are closed. But public transport is still running, and people are still going to work. Even my local hairdresser was still open today. They have this idea that if enough people get it, there will be herd immunity. It’s a very weird in-between place.

Pharmacies have started rationing hand sanitizer. They’re stockpiling toilet paper everywhere. I was born in Poland in ’82, so as an Eastern European, that’s like, ah, we’re not doing that again. Very triggering! I always hope we won’t have to go to the supermarket, but with a family of five, you have to go quite a bit. I’m not comfortable buying too much at the same time, to leave some for other people. So I might take two packets of eggs, but not 50 or something. The specialty stores, like the Polish grocery, they still are well stocked in everything, including toilet paper.

Gatherings of more than 100 people are canceled. King’s Day is canceled. I expect everyone will still wear orange that day. Eurovision is canceled. Eurovision was supposed to be in Rotterdam this year because last year they won for some reason—I don’t have any explanation for that. People were criticizing the government for not closing schools, but then they did. Mark Rutte, the prime minister, gave a televised speech, and he was much praised for that. There seems to be a lot of trust in the government and the health care system. The Dutch are a very pragmatic nation, so lots of things are very much business as usual.

ABIGAIL UREY lives in Monrovia, Liberia. Interviewed Wednesday, March 18.

We had our first case confirmed this week. There was a government official coming from Switzerland. We still don’t know why he was there. There were “protocols” in place at the airport to quarantine people coming from countries with more than 200 cases. But somehow, he was able to bribe his way through that process and not get quarantined. It shows how, in a system like this, when people abuse their power, it can be dangerous. The second case is his housekeeper.

Because we have such a recent history with Ebola, people are really aware of the implications of something like this. But there are some big differences. In that case, everything shut down in Liberia, but people could depend on their family abroad. A lot of people from abroad send money to their relatives here. But now, people in the U.S. are not working or as active economically, so that’s going to affect the degree to which people are able to quarantine here.

After the first cases were announced, we had long lines at the gas station and the grocery store. The people who could afford it all went to stock up on supplies. Social distancing is very difficult in urban, poor areas, but some people are trying to do that, and those who can afford it are staying home.

I don’t think people are keeping their distance as much as they should be. During Ebola, it only became very real when people started to see ambulances carrying sick people or dead bodies. Now people are only hearing the news, so they’re being a little bit cautious, but it’s taking a few days for people to come to terms with it.

DAN ALDRICH, “retired with my beautiful French wife” in Estrada, Costa Rica. Interviewed Thursday, March 19.

Around here it’s far from business as usual. Bars and restaurants slowly are closing because of health concerns for employees and trying to keep it from spreading. To my knowledge, there are no cases in Sámara, the town down the road. I think it’s like 69 cases in the country as of yesterday. Most of those are up in the central valley, San José. And there’s one or two in Nicoya, which is 30 miles away.

Because it’s a tourist town, and with the beach and everything, it’s very, very noticeable. For example, the hardware store has a sink and a hand-washing station out front. Some of the restaurants were spraying people’s hands as they went by. There are some visitors, but all of the people we know that have hotels are either closing on their own decision or closing because the Europeans are canceling reservations. The schools are closed—they closed a week ago. We went into Palí [the local supermarket] to buy rice and beans and things, and it was pretty much depleted. In Sámara it was all mostly gone. In our little village they had some, but much less than they usually do. And the toilet paper is gone. I just find that hilarious.

I do feel isolated. I stayed in the house all day yesterday. We did not enter our little village, Estrada. We shut down our baking business. Now I’m just working on the house, reading, watching movies in the evening. We like to play cards. Rummy or ace-deuce. Based on our experience with the hospitals here, I feel confident in them—they have really taken care of us in the past. It’s a national health care system. Everybody who’s a resident is covered.

It’s definitely quieter. There are a few people on the beach, but nothing like it used to be.

Yesterday I said to Marianne, “Listen: You can’t hear cars or anything.” Everything’s slowed down—in a place that’s pretty slow to start with.

KAMAL ANDIWAL is a development coordinator at the Afghan Ministry of Finance, living in Kabul, Afghanistan. Interviewed Wednesday, March 18.

The first positive case was registered on the 24th of February. The majority of Afghans have been in denial of it even though there’s an obvious threat from our neighboring country, Iran. Thousands of immigrants are entering into Afghanistan over the border with Iran, and there are absolutely no quarantine facilities or equipment to test these people. As the number of positive cases has increased, this denial is starting to crumble. Thankfully there are no cases yet in Kabul, but our health system is very vulnerable. There’s absolutely no preparation at all.

The fear is spreading, but just among those who are following the news and are aware of it. A lot of people in rural areas are still in denial and do not take the necessary protections.

The government has imposed some measures, such as closing schools and universities until further notice. All the public baths and gyms and swimming pools have been closed down. On Friday it’s the new solar year here, and all the public celebrations have been canceled. The mosques are still open. It’s a sensitive issue for the government, but if the cases increase, they may have to make a decision on that.

There’s been an economic impact as well. We import most of our food from Pakistan, and since the border has been closed, the food prices have doubled or in some cases tripled.

I’m taking my own precautions. My mom is 65, and my father is 75, so they are more prone to this. I sent them out of Kabul to my province, where it’s easier to quarantine. I quit going to the gym yesterday. Afghan people like to hug or kiss on the cheek while greeting. I don’t do that now, and I actually posted a sign on my desk telling people not to shake hands with me. It’s a cultural issue, but people are slowly starting to realize the danger.

EDDIE LEE, a bassist and music producer who lives in Sligo, Ireland. Interviewed Thursday, March 19.

People are still out and about walking. All the pubs are closed, so all the pursuits are outdoor pursuits or in your own house. Most people are sticking to this pretty well. All my work is gone. I have nothing in the book until Christmas. There’s gigs in the book, but I know they’re all canceled.

We’re just announcing today that we’re calling off the Sligo Jazz Festival this summer.

It just wasn’t worth it. Our Taoiseach [prime minister] addressed the nation the other night. I’m no great fan of his, but I have to say he was quite statesmanlike. He was realistic. He was saying this could go well into the summer in terms of things being canceled. We’re better off just not running it this year and coming back next year, stronger and hopefully wiser. It’s amazing how much it brings priorities to your mind and makes you realize what are the important things in life.

There was an amazing St. Patrick’s Day here. Really would warm the cockles of your heart. Nobody was allowed to hang out, so everyone stayed in their houses and a load of musicians here put up a festival on Facebook Live. So each half-hour was a different musician playing in their home. It was a fabulous day, and there was beautiful reaction to it.

With the lack of a St. Patrick’s Day parade, Strandhill Village [a small town outside Sligo] decided to do a cavalcade in their cars. So they did a drive around the town beeping horns and blasting music out of the cars. It was hilarious: One of our band, No Crows, she was out in front of the house playing a banjo on the side of the road. So, I said, that’s the perfect social distancing tool: a banjo!

KIRSTY FLANNAGAN, who works at a government agency in Wellington, New Zealand. Interviewed Thursday, March 19.

Our kids are at school today. They have a work-from-home day tomorrow to test out remote school. I’m not convinced that my 13-year-old will get anything done. Most schools aren’t closed, and it’s up to each individual school. There’s one school that’s closed in Dunedin as they do deep cleaning—because one person there has COVID. They plan to open it up again in two or three days. My daughter does have one friend whose parents aren’t allowing her to go to school. All the kids’ sport is canceled. There were tears in my household as there’s no sport till May. That just happened a few days ago. My daughter’s school trip to Vietnam has been canceled as well.

I took a bus home two days ago, and it was just as normal. I was at a café this morning, and it was very quiet, so the streets are a little bit quieter than usual. There doesn’t seem to be toilet paper hoarding. Toilet paper is manufactured in New Zealand, so we don’t have a problem with supply chain. You can’t get hand sanitizer or face masks.

So far we’re trying to follow the example of the countries where containment has worked. If you look at Singapore and South Korea, I think they haven’t closed their schools. The response is: Anyone coming into the country must self-isolate for 14 days. Everyone with symptoms, stay home. Everyone with a confirmed case, trace the contacts. They haven’t had to do those more draconian options. There are 20 cases so far. It’s all associated with overseas travel; there’s no community transmission we know of so far. I put my trust in the health advice from the Ministry of Health. Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general*, is doing a daily news conference. He’s a public health expert, so I feel very confident in him. I do worry that he needs a day off. It seems to be only a matter of weeks until we join the rest of the world.

Correction, March 20, 2020: This piece originally misidentified Ashley Bloomfield as the minister of health in New Zealand. He is the director-general of the ministry.