How a virus changed our lives

The coronavirus crisis is a test of the EU’s cohesiveness and credibility.

Maurizio Massari

Italian ambassador to the EU

On January the 24th 2020, the first case of a person infected with the Coronavirus was confirmed in Bordeaux. This was the first confirmed case of COVID-19 within the European Union.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease, caused by the newly discovered coronavirus. Most people that become infected will experience the virus as a mild respiratory disease. However, the elderly and people with a history of illnesses such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, might suffer severely and even pass away.

The virus, which has turned into a pandemic, originated in Wuhan, in the central Hubei province, in China (Aljazeera). The virus was at first thought to be a recurrence of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). This was ruled out on January 5th by Chinese officials.

At that time, I was still living in Paris, working in the sales department of a marketing start-up. My biggest worry back then amounted to what I would do after work. Not whether I would be able to do anything at all.

I am European. I was born in Germany and grew up in Spain. I study in the Netherlands and did my last internship in Paris, France. This is possible because all the previously mentioned countries are member countries of the European Union. Thanks to the abolition of border controls within the EU, people are able to travel freely throughout most of the European continent. Making it possible to live, study, work and retire in any country within the European Union. This is manifested in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Article 45 of said Charter is titled: Freedom of movement and of residence.

Every citizen of the Union has the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States.

Article 45

Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union

On the 19th of January I returned home to Spain. On said day the first cases of COVID-19 in China, outside of Wuhan, were confirmed (Sina). With 3 confirmed deaths, the coronavirus was a present, vivid threat within China. But at home, in Spain, that seemed a faraway issue. A problem that was not ours, as we were not affected.

On the 31st of January I began packing my bags, as I was to spend the next 5 months in Bangkok, Thailand. At that point many countries had confirmed their first coronavirus cases, including Spain. Thailand had reached 16 confirmed cases at this point. Somehow, the risk still seemed minor, the possibilities of actually getting infected seemed ridiculously small.

As a safety measure I decided to stock up on face masks and disinfectant before my journey – just to be safe. At all pharmacies in my hometown, in the South of Spain, I was told that face masks as well as hand sanitizers were sold out – everywhere. This seemed strange to me as no one in Spain was wearing a mask at the time. I figured people were merely overreacting, panicking. The worldwide shortage of face masks was not predictable, for me, at that point.

Upon my arrival in Bangkok, I realized that people seemed to be taking the situation far more serious there. Almost everyone at the airport was wearing face masks. There were temperature checks at all exits and disinfectants made available in every corner. 

But then, when I left the airport, the coronavirus suddenly seemed to be no issue at all. I did continue to see many people wearing face masks, but I was told, that this was due to the bad air quality, not due to the virus.

 

 

Picture taken by me, at a small market in Pak Kret, Nonthaburi, showing people wearing face masks.

Now, 8 weeks later, everything has changed.

8 weeks ago, I was meeting all my fellow students. I was settling in. I was planning the upcoming trips and making new friends.

7 weeks ago, I went on my first weekend trip, to Phuket. The first weekend of many to come – or so we thought.

6 weeks ago, I did my first trip to an island. Along with 15 other students I travelled to Koh Larn. A small island, popular amongst Thai nationals. We stayed at a small hostel and a new friend of mine and me spent the evening with some locals. Back then we were so sure we would be able to go back there at some point.

5 weeks ago, my friends and me decided to stay in Bangkok on the weekend, instead of travelling. As we thought we had plenty of weeks left and did not want to spend all the money just yet. Little did we know.

4 weeks ago, we travelled to Pattaya with a group of friends. As the city is close to Koh Larn, we managed to visit our friends at the hostel during a day trip. We said goodbye with the words: See you next time. I suppose it is safe to say that that next time is in the very far future, if at all.

3 weeks ago, we took a flight from Bangkok to Surat Thani and then from there travelled by bus and ferry to Koh Samui. The upcoming week was our week off, thus we travelled as much as we possibly could. We visited Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and the Khao Sok National Park.

2 weeks ago, we still got to enjoy the beautiful landscapes Thailand has to offer and the friendships that we had formed. Originally, we also wanted to attend the full moon party, which was cancelled because of the coronavirus though. The situation was serious. To us it still seemed much worse in Europe and elsewhere though. It is not that bad here in Thailand, we kept saying. We were sure it was best for us to stay in Thailand. That should not be a problem – we were so sure of it.

1 week ago, countries suddenly started announcing that they would close their borders. The situation seemed to have dramatically escalated in Europe. Many of my fellow students booked their flights home as soon as they could. My parents called me, panicking, begging me to come home as soon as possible. While all I wanted was to stay as long as I potentially could, I did understand their worries.

When it came to booking flights home, I suddenly faced a problem though: my home country did not want to take me back. As I am only a resident of Spain and not a national, not officially anyways, I was being refused entry. I called the embassy and was told that unless I have my official documentation with me, I will not be allowed to board the plane.

As I packed for half a year of travel and fun, and some studying, I only took the most important document, the one I would definitely need, with me, my passport. But my passport is German, not Spanish. I would apparently at least need my NIE (Numero de identification de extranjeros) to enter Spain. A document which I did not take with me.

Today, I am sitting in my uncle’s guest room in Hamburg, Germany, as I was unable to travel back home. It is now my 5th day in quarantine and I still cannot fathom how I got here. From sitting at the beach with my new friends, talking about god and the world, drinking cocktails, I went to being isolated behind a wall of plastic sheets, 2479km away from my parents.

I always appreciated having been born in Germany and growing up in Spain. I have always been grateful for having been born in the European Union. For having the ability and possibility to cross borders without any difficulties, to move between countries without restrictions. To be a global citizen. To be protected by the laws set by the European Union.

I did a bit of research, to confirm to myself, that I, as a citizen of the European Union have various rights. Rights that I know are a privilege, but nonetheless, my literal rights. The European Social Charter contains an article that I felt should apply to me. Article 19 of the European Social Charter is titled: The right of migrant workers and their families to protection and assistance. While I have the right to a Spanish passport, I never applied for one. I never applied to be considered Spanish, thus I am a migrant. And my parents are migrant workers.

Article 19 includes two paragraphs that I would like to point out: Paragraph 2, which refers to the adaptation of appropriate measures that a country / party ought to take within their jurisdiction to facilitate aspects such as the reception of workers and their families. And paragraph 6, which refers to the facilitation of the reunion of the family of a migrant worker.

So, I ask myself: Why am I not home then? Why am I not at home, in Spain, with my parents and my sister?

According to the European Union’s website one of the goals of the EU is to offer freedom, security and justice without internal borders and to enhance economic, social and territorial cohesion and solidarity among EU countries.

And now I am stuck in a country within the Union I was always so grateful for. Is there a line we are willing to draw in regard to our unity? Our freedom? Our sense of community? Are we really as European as we claim to be? Are we not all one then? One Union?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *