COVID-19 Chronicles Ep 1. The Shock of the New: An Expat’s Life Is Upended by a Yet-Unknown Flu

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Ep 1

When the world started shutting down in early 2020, Marzia had only a vague idea what she and her family were facing. Her life in Beijing was about to change drastically.

Marzia: The hotel told us to pack up our bags and go back to Beijing. Once we arrived in Beijing, we found a very different city from what we left a few days before. We realized quickly. There was something serious happening.

Najib: We are talking to Ms. Marzia Mongiorgi, principal economist at the Asian Development Bank, who lived in Beijing during the beginning of the outbreak of COVID-19 in [the PRC].

Marzia: So in January 2020, I was living in Beijing with my family. I have two children and we were getting ready for the Chinese New Year vacation. We usually go to Chongli to ski. Chongli is where the 2022 Winter Olympics were held and we were looking forward to it, to see a lot of people. We don’t speak Chinese. So we were a bit detached from what was happening and we have heard about this strange flu. We didn’t anything too seriously.

To our surprise, the hotel was empty. The slopes were empty and we stayed there for 4 days. Totally ignoring what was happening in the rest of [the PRC]. But at one point, we were on the slopes and we were trying to go up again on the chair lift, when we realized that the mountain was closing down. And at that point we realized that there was probably something serious happening and that the flu or this strange flu, this virus was getting worse. And the cases were increasing in other parts of [the PRC] and that also there was a case in Chongli. A girl, I remember. The hotel told us to pack up our bags and go back to Beijing.

Once we arrived in Beijing, we found a very different city from what we left a few days before. People checking entry of people into the building. I remember very clearly the deliveries, which are a big, big business in [the PRC] were not reaching the lobby nor the apartment door, but they were left at the gate of buildings. And that was something that in years we have never seen. So we realized quickly that there was something serious happening. The office informed us that the virus was spreading that there was not enough knowledge of the virus to warn us on what to do. From outside [the PRC], families were calling us. What’s happening? This is serious. You might need to leave. What if it spreads into all [the PRC] and you are stuck there? So we had a lot of pressure from the families outside [the PRC] to leave [the PRC].

But I think that was fear talking. We tried to live our normal life. There was online work and online school for the kids and we had to get used to things we did not have anymore.

We did have a lot of support from the community, people in the building and I remember they were helping us carrying the drinking water, the big bottles. They were very nice to help us, because not speaking Chinese, we needed extra attention and extra help.

Najib: How did you get a sense of the scale of the outbreak then in Beijing? Did you feel that the outbreak was kind of like other seasonal flus or other diseases like dengue? Or did you get the feeling that this was something bigger?

Marzia: The feeling that it was something different and bigger came very quickly from calls from outside [the PRC]. Family friends. The fact that a lot of flights were cancelled. We were looking into ways to leave [the PRC]. There was absolutely no understanding or no knowledge of what was happening. Flights were either cancelled or full, so we finally did manage to get the flight.

We flew to Hong Kong, [China]. To go to Manila because my husband is from the Philippines. And also the headquarters of the Asian Development Bank is in the Philippines. The flight from Beijing to Hong Kong, [China] was full. Once we landed in Hong Kong, [China], the Philippines had just closed their borders to non-Filipinos. I was not allowed to fly on to the Philippines. And so we had to go back to Beijing. We got stuck two days in in Hong Kong, [China]. There was complete chaos in the airport. We couldn’t get our luggage for a day and but finally we managed to go back to Beijing.

Najib: Thanks a lot, Marzia. This shows the unprecedented nature of a global pandemic.

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