I was an exchange student this year at UNC – my entire family lives in Poland, however my university is in the UK while my long term partner is from New Zealand. I feel extremely privileged to have traveled so widely and have friends and family all around the world – however this also means I have in recent months heard and seen how the pandemic affects literally everyone I know in all corners of the world. In early February, I was aware of the fears and problems of my friends in China, many of who were unable to return to their universities abroad due to covid-19.
Poland closed borders and made flights unavailable very early on – the case count was around 100 when that happened. Many of my Polish friends abroad hurried home. I was still attending classes at UNC then and knew I would not be able to return home with my partner (who was with me at UNC) – as a same-sex couple we wouldn’t be allowed in even if we had a marriage certificate. I could return home by myself but charter flights to Poland were only going from NYC, a place I didn’t want to go to as the coronavirus was spreading so quickly there. And who knows how long we would be apart if we decided to fly to different places?
My little brother, who still lives in Poland, last year contracted the H1N1 flu virus: he was in a coma for 3 weeks and on a respirator for almost 2 months. Even before cover-19 came to Europe, my family was very worried because we all knew that if my brother contracted the virus he would likely die. When I was still in the US 1.5 week ago, my brother called me in the early morning telling me that he had a fever, nausea and difficulty breathing. We were cried on the phone together, my 18 year old brother telling me that he accepted his death and to promise him I will always remember him. I couldn’t come home to see him, I couldn’t say goodbye, hug him or kiss him. When he was in a coma one exactly one year ago, the doctors told my mother his son would die. She didn’t tell anyone. She raised me and my brother almost by herself, my father wasn’t present for a lot of the time – we are her entire world. When she called friends who are doctors and nurses, people that took care of my brother last year, no one wanted to come check on him – everyone was afraid of contracting the virus.
Two days later, my brother completely recovered. His fever was gone and he even went for a walk. I don’t even think he had the coronavirus – perhaps it was just a stomach flu.
My partner and I decided to fly back to New Zealand last weekend. Though they also closed borders, I was allowed in as a de-facto partner of a New Zealand citizen. I knew we couldn’t stay in the US, we have only been living there for a few months and with UNC closed and our student visas expiring in June, there was no option but to leave while we still could.
My family and friends are in Europe and I don’t know when I will be able to see them in person. I feel safe here in New Zealand, a small country that has been able to learn from the mistakes of Europe and I am hopeful that the virus will be contained here. Everyone is quarantined since Wednesday and the country is committed to running as many tests as possible, prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Blomfield responding quickly to the outbreak and informing New Zealanders clearly of what to do to prevent the spread.
I feel lucky to be able to quarantine with my loved one, with a family that welcomed us with open arms. I know that this time of isolation is especially difficult for kids that live with abusive and unaccepting parents. I’m also thinking about young LGBTQ+ people in Poland, where the issue of the so-called “LGBT-free zones” established in Polish towns was making international news days before the covid-19 outbreak in Europe.