BRATTLEBORO—Around the world, as of this week, almost 5.5 million people have now died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
Each population has had its own experiences because of how governments have decided to handle both the social and economic consequences of a global pandemic.
Within the countries on the European continent, as across the world, governments have each handled the pandemic differently. For example, in France and Italy, one must have a COVID-19 pass system that proves vaccination status to enter public events or restaurants. Belgium’s government asks for status of, but does not mandate vaccination, while in Austria vaccination is mandatory for all.
We know what our own experience is like here in Vermont, but what is it like to live in other countries during this global health crisis?
• Population — 11.56 million
• Confirmed Cases — 2,231,686
• Deaths — 28,459
• Percentage of population vaccinated — 76.72%
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“Covid shook my world,” says Frederik Van der Linden, 37, a Belgium native again living in Antwerp. “I had been working in Indonesia and returned to Belgium in March of 2020 because I wanted to be home to take care of my family and friends if they became ill.”
“Belgium was hard hit with COVID-19, and we are now in our fifth wave of infections,” he continued. “Many of the deaths in the beginning were of the elderly and weaker people, those who had cancer, for example.”
“Twenty-eight thousand deaths in a population of only 11 million people is humongous,” Van der Linden reported.
“This was the generation that fought for us and for our freedom, and this generation has never been commemorated decently, which I’m not so happy about,” he observed. “We have not stopped to memorialize them, as Joe Biden did in a speech in the U.S. recently, and I hope my government will do this in the future.”
On a societal level, Van der Linden reports that people are “a bit more negative than we used to be,” a comment made by almost all who spoke with me.
By March of 2021, Belgians were promised more freedom after long lockdowns because of the arrival of the vaccine, but the rollout was lengthy because of shortages — something that occurred throughout the European Union. Now in their fifth wave of COVID-19 with the Omicron variant, some businesses have had to close once again.
“No one in my family or circle of friends has had Covid,” says Van der Linden. “I’ve been able to continue to go to work, and I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones.”
The United Kingdom
• Population — 67.22 million
• Confirmed cases — 14,422,067
• Deaths — 150,537
• Percentage of population vaccinated — 71.27%
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In the northwestern town of Salwick in England, Alex Jameela Webster works as a teacher in a small school serving children with behavioral needs who are considered a vulnerable population. She is also the mother of a 7-year-old attending public school.
“We had one major outbreak at my school at the end of the last academic year where nearly all staff and quite a number of pupils had Covid,” she said.
“This year we have run as normal within the school but have limited people coming in and we test daily,” Webster added.
In the U.K., all adults are entitled to free vaccination, and most have taken that opportunity. Those with whom Webster works who haven’t been vaccinated are required to test daily.
In her son’s school, classes work in “bubbles” to limit exposure. Children in primary school do not have to test as regularly unless they are in contact with someone with Covid.
There, the vaccine is available only to students 12 years and older. Masks are not required in schools, and no masking is required in public or for those younger than 11, “but most people do [mask] in public and enclosed spaces,” she says.
Webster disclosed, “There are a lot more cases now because of Omicron, but people are getting less ill.”
• Population — 102.3 million
• Confirmed cases — 391,945
• Deaths — 21,938
• Percentage of population vaccinated — 22.74%
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While the case numbers and deaths appear to be lower in many African nations, it is acknowledged that the actual statistics might be significantly higher due to governmental tracking of COVID-19.
Samir Kamel, 39, who lives in Cairo, Egypt, started his tour business, Over Egypt Tours, in 2013, serving mostly Americans on holiday. As Egypt went into lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, he lost everything, as the world shut down.
“I was very sad and worried as I am the provider for my family,” Kamel said. “I was concerned that I would have to change my career, but once the world opened up again, I very slowly started to make a comeback.”
“And now, thank God, business is good again,” he continued. “The tourists are back again.”
Kamel reports that the people he knows are getting vaccinated — but that is a very small percentage of his country.
“Some people are still scared to get vaccinated,” he said, “but lots of people are wearing masks, and that helps.”
Kamel dreams of the pandemic ending so that he will be able to visit Las Vegas someday.
“That’s going to take some time,” he said with a grin. “I am just happy that my family has remained healthy.”
• Population — 43.85 million
• Confirmed cases — 47,443
• Deaths — 3,340
• Percentage of population vaccinated — 2.88%
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In Sudan, there has been conflict, civil war, and societal unrest, with street protests and sustained civil disobedience of its people demanding a democratic government ever since a coup d’état deposed President Omar al-Bashir in April of 2019.
Mohammed — we will not use his real name, to protect his identity — lives in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and reports that most protestors are using masks in the streets.
But, he said, “most people here just go about their business as they did before.” And COVID-19 infections are common.
“During the first wave, my parents got Covid. They were very sick,” Mohammed said. “I have four sisters and three brothers, and when my parents were sick, two of my sisters went to live with other relatives.” And later on, his sister also got sick.
“It was very bad, but everyone is alright now, and I am grateful,” he continued. “They have all now recovered.”
How do people feel about the vaccine, and is it easily available in Sudan?
The Sudanese people can get their hands on two of the vaccines available in the United States — Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer — as well as the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which is not yet available in the U.S.
“Some people were relieved that we could get it, but others feel that God forbids it,” Mohammed said.
“Even some of the more educated people are thinking there is something wrong with the way it is made,” he continued, “but I think the vaccines are essential for the old people.”
Mohammed, who is in his 30s, didn’t get vaccinated, spurning his dose so that it can be made available for the elderly. He thinks other young people should follow suit.
“There are a lot of people who need it more than I do,” he said.
• Population — 25.69 million
• Confirmed cases — 972,457
• Deaths — 2,366
• Percentage of population vaccinated — 78.44%
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Gill Garth, of Sunbury, Victoria, in southeastern Australia, has made the best of a lot of lockdown time in her country which saved many lives, as was the case with its neighbor to the east, New Zealand.
The retired medical secretary in her 70s, a native of England, honeymooned in Vermont over 50 years ago.
“As the pandemic began, I remember we were caravanning near our daughter back in March of 2020 when news came that a virus was beginning to affect parts of Australia and we knew we needed to get back home,” she said.
“We didn’t see our beautiful grandchildren until that November,” she remembered wistfully.
Australia has five states and two territories that all have separate governments and, therefore, the country was split up. Some states had border closures, and Western Australia will still not let anyone cross its borders unless there are extenuating circumstances.
“Lockdowns at first were a novelty and gave us all time to breathe and relax,” Garth said. “Masks were mandated, and pubs, restaurants, and theaters were all closed. We were allowed to exercise with one other person outdoors, so I walked a lot with a friend.”
By November, Garth thought the pandemic was over. The lockdown was lifted, shops began to reopen, and she and her husband were back on the road again — this time, to South Australia, visiting relatives in Adelaide.
Then the Delta variant hit.
After returning home, Garth’s daughter and two grandchildren came to visit and ended up having to stay for several months as borders closed once again.
Lockdown has once again been lifted, and Garth is getting ready to take another driving journey to visit the foot of the Victorian Alps — all the while hoping Omicron doesn’t change her plans with yet another lockdown.
• Population — 51.78 million
• Confirmed cases — 664,391
• Deaths — 6,037
• Percentage of population vaccinated — 83.1%
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Michael Higgins, 63, originally from Colorado, has been teaching in South Korea for three years.
“We all hate wearing masks, but seeing the effectiveness on cases and deaths, they are worn here as a civic duty — a matter of Korean pride,” he said.
Testing and vaccines are widely available in South Korea, which has a rigorous contact tracing program and a Covid information and alert text messaging system.
Higgins made a trip back to the United States last summer and, upon his return to Korea, was required to do a two-week quarantine in his apartment.
There, he had to take his temperature two to three times daily, note how he was feeling, and input the data on a cell phone app every day during quarantine.
Schoolchildren and staff are required to wear masks, and students and staff are required to have their temperatures taken twice daily.
Every place of business has a temperature reading station and hand sanitizer available. There is also a written log or a QR code reader so that one can register one’s phone. In case a breakout occurs, past customers can then be notified and tested.
“I don’t know anyone who has had Covid,” Higgins said with a bit of amazement. “None of the children that I teach at school have had it.”
“I’ve been impressed with how Koreans have treated the pandemic from Day 1,” he observed. “They’ve always had a plan and constant vigil, which explains the low number of cases and deaths here.”
In Korea, health care, both private and public, is widely available at reasonable prices.
Higgins reported that the public health care has very low co-pays and offers vision and dental coverage, too.
“I pay the equivalent of around $40 a month,” he says. “Korea has kept me healthy.”
Higgins said that Koreans have generally been perplexed by and saddened by the U.S. response to the pandemic.
“Many told me, ‘America is supposed to be a leader, but they are suffocating under the weight of selfishness. Don’t they care that people will die when they don’t have to?’” he reported.
“These were stinging comments, but true,” Higgins said.
• Population — 1.402 billion
• Confirmed cases — 116,468
• Deaths — 4,849
• Percentage of population vaccinated — 86.78%
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With authorities nervous about the Chinese people commenting on how the government is treating the pandemic in anticipation of the Olympics next month, Keith and Kerry have asked not to use their last name.
Both British citizens in their 40s, the international teachers have been working in Beijing, China, for the past five years, and they said they don’t know anyone who has had Covid.
There is a designated hospital in Beijing to which anyone testing positive for coronavirus is taken. It doesn’t matter if they are symptomatic — they are held there for at least 14 days.
In the meantime, everyone in the positive person’s compound or block is tested immediately. Close contacts are either taken to the designated hospital or forced to remain in their respective homes, each with a camera set up outside and an alarm placed on the door.
If a case of Covid is found in a school, its doors are closed, and no one is allowed in or out until test results are returned for every single person there, from teachers and students to cleaners and gardeners.
In Beijing, a city of 21.54 million people, there are fewer than three Covid cases, all of which came from overseas travelers who brought it back with them.
“Life in general in Beijing is pretty much as it was prior to Covid at this point, with some significant differences,” said Keith.
He noted that China’s zero-tolerance policy toward Covid — with its extreme measures of testing and quarantining — has been highly effective at keeping the population healthy.
“We feel very safe because of it,” Keith said.
He and Kerry have stayed in Beijing without traveling for two years, because “you might get stranded somewhere, since shutdowns of entire cities are common,” he said.
The couple tried traveling to an island in southern China last year. When they got to the airport, their flight to Beijing had been cancelled because of one new case in their home city.
“Because of these travel issues, our schools asked the staff not to go anywhere during our recent holidays,” Keith said.
“As to the day-to-day lives, nothing much has changed,” he continued. “Daily things like going into shops, restaurants, and museums are all normal now because there simply isn’t any Covid here.”
The family has all had the Chinese version of COVID-19 vaccinations. Because of the travel restrictions and the fact that they haven’t been able to see family for over two years, they will be leaving China later this year.
The upcoming Olympic games will be held in Beijing in February. China will continue its zero Covid tolerance, and teachers are totally prepared for online learning, as they believe China will shut down a lot of Beijing to quell exposure from foreigners by instituting tighter restrictions.
As is the case in the United States, Keith and Kerry see children doing very well with the academic side of schooling.
But their main concern is for the younger children, who haven’t had an uninterrupted school year in two years. The couple says that the isolation has affected kids’ behavior, something observed by all the teachers worldwide who spoke with us.
“The social side of things, children are missing out,” Kerry said. “They need reminding about how to behave in class, how to behave with one another.”
“That is where the biggest issue will be for the future of students’ school lives,” she said.
Like Keith, she doesn’t know anyone who has had Covid while they’ve been in China.
“My Chinese friends are just astounded at the levels of Covid cases in other countries around the world,” she noted.
And they are also astounded that “generally, people won’t take, or argue against the precautions like masks and vaccinations that would keep them safe and reduce the spread of the illness,” Kerry observed.