It was November or probably even December of 2019. I was randomly flipping through Instagram stories, as always responding to weird life events. Then, out of nowhere, I see my friend from Shanghai wearing a mask, a big one actually. My brain got confused so I decided to ask why in the world would you do that? To be completely honest, I stopped watching the news a few years ago and had totally lost the connection with all of the bad things that happen in this crazy society. To give you an idea, I missed a volcano eruption that happened 20 km from my villa in Changu. My mom was the one who delivered the info, how awesome is that?
Now, back to the mask story where my brain stopped responding. I know that in Asia wearing masks is a typical ritual to avoid pollution and dust. I didn't get used to it even during the Ho Chi Minh trucks situation in D2. I'm also from Eastern Europe where the only people who wear masks are dentists who genuinely scare me to death. Thus, after a 20-second chat, I started Googling about this corona thing, the last thing I want to read on a gorgeous Malaysian island where the alcohol is cheaper than water. So, after processing all of this dazzling headlines, I took a few deep breaths and just let it go.
The New Accessory
I didn't really pay attention to the global state of affairs until it started to spread out to other countries. Even after it did, I didn't believe it could go that viral that fast. I knew it's real but I still didn't understand the implications. I was naive that such a thing will go away, turned out it didn't. Weeks passed, and I was living with one of my best friends in an amazing apartment with a cute, yet amusing Vietnamese girl. In reality, we didn't notice any major changes in people's behavior due to a very low number of cases. Everyone was doing just fine.
The last stop before heading home was Bangkok, one of my favorite places to hang. I was boarding from Vietnamese airport and was quite surprised by the number of people covering their faces. 40% is a fairly high ratio for January 2020. I even called my parents at the airport to show this madness. It was weird and awkward back then, it's not now. Moral pressure caused me to wear a mask for 3-4 hours in total. It was intense. It was hard to breathe and my ears were hurting. As soon as I passed the passport control in Bangkok, I put down this new accessory. I just wanted to breathe fully and normally, and that's what I did.
Apparently, I needed to go to the city and having not much cash in my pocket I decided to take a bus. It wasn't that full until I saw dozens of people walk in my direction. I'm not really sure but chances are I was screaming "f**k". I took the mask from my pocket and put it right where it belongs, on my face. After we crossed two tolls that make the whole taxi trip expensive, I got out immediately and ordered Grab. It was a relief to be rushing 80km/h without any clothing attached to the front-end part of your body. It felt great.
The same night I was meeting a few of my Thai friends. As soon as I got into my hotel, I left the bag, took a shower, and went straight to the Khaosan Road. At that point, I totally forgot that the mask is my new friend now, so I didn't even take it with me. That night was all about fun, not worry.
When I reached that street, I was pleasantly surprised - it was even busier than during my previous encounter in September. Fun fact, the only people who were wearing masks at that time were tourists, the locals didn’t really care or weren’t properly informed. Despite that, Thailand became the first country to beat this thing (June 2020).
Several gin buckets later I got back to the hotel and passed out. Over the next few days, I was trying to get the most out of this place responsibly. I did understand there are tons of Chinese people in Bangkok. Knowing that I skipped the celebration of Chinese New Year (with flashy dragons and stuff), something I wanted to do for a few years now.
The day after that I rented a motorbike to drive the entire Bangkok, plus I wanted to make a Sak Yant (sacred tattoo) in Wat Bang Phra, 1.5 hours from city. I didn’t get the tattoo though, simply because I went to the wrong place, and the monks asked me to pay 5000 Baht lol. It didn’t feel right, so I passed. Maybe I just wasn’t ready for it at that point in life, who knows?
On top of all that, I decided to meet one of my friends who works in Bolt now. He had a grand tour across all of the best Thai islands, and of course Bangkok. Now, if there is one stupid decision you can make during the beginning of COVID, this would be it. We went to Ratchada Night Market, the top spot for Chinese tourists. I mean it’s packed with countless groups of 20. I’ve no idea why I did that because I was the one who suggested it in the first place. The good thing was that we didn't find anything interesting there and went to the nearby mall.
After a week of staying in BKK, I had to go back to Ukraine. My passport had 0 blank pages, which is a huge problem because I travel a lot. Long story short, I got stuck at home for a while. Apparently, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I spent quite some time with my parents and my little sis. It was fun.
Surprisingly for my warm body, the flight was quite cold. It was the end of January in the end. What I also didn’t expect is the lack of preparation from the European side. I was flying through Stockholm and Copenhagen, but I saw 0 people wearing masks. I was shocked and terrified simultaneously. I knew already that such behavior will lead to nothing good. Well, that’s what happened gradually for most of the big European countries. The lack of understanding the basic math from the governments was always blowing my mind but this time it was the biggest fail of all. Exponential is not linear guys, it compounds slowly but once it hits a certain threshold, there’s no way back. I’ve heard stories where 1 person who came back from Italy spread the virus across 4 villages. They were all sick. Crazy, right? Not really if you understand how the elderly people behave and kiss each other (you’ve heard it right, kiss each other).
Anyways, not really sure what my brain was thinking at that moment but I invited all of my friends over to my birthday party. It was 1 day after I came back from BKK, not 14 days as was suggested by countries with a larger number of cases. I’m not sure if I held any guilt or similar emotions at that point but I kind of do now. Thankfully, nobody got sick, I hope so at least. I guess, it was hard to grasp the full picture of where we’re heading back then.
I intentionally mentioned all of these stories simply to give you an idea of how our little decisions shape the collective outcome. I doubt I’m the only one who has made similar actions during the short window of January till April, there are millions of us. Nobody really expected this thing to be that big, that’s about it. Unfortunately, the governments played a major role in this too, so we can basically blame everybody but it won’t get back all of the people who have suffered from virus.
Understanding the Human Behavior
A week has passed but no-one introduced some clear rules for our people. I was almost the only one wearing the mask during the entire February. I remember ice-skating in March. Meanwhile, the government was evacuating Ukrainians from China, the US, and multiple European countries where the largest outbreaks began. One of the most important things to understand about Ukraine is that 7-9 million of us are working abroad seasonally (considering the total of 42 million). Therefore, during two months period, we had no strict measures, no masks, no sanitizers, and temperature screening in the public places, no tests, and thousands of new people coming from affected countries. No wonder, it got that bad.
The only smart move that was made beforehand is the shut down of public transportation, malls, gyms, and all entertainment facilities in the middle of March. When that happened, I realized that I’ll be at home for a while, and there’s nothing I can do about that. The first two weeks I lived with my parents, and then somewhere around April, I moved to another place. I was mainly on self-isolation till July, expect of the weekends where I was out of city, and my late supermarket walks. I knew I was doing the right thing staying alone. It minimized the risk of catching a virus and bringing it home. Plus, I can concentrate easier on my work and whatever else I was doing during that time. Cheers to that.
To Be Continued
I think this is just the first post among a series I’m about to publish. This is an event that happens once in a lifetime, so it would be great to remember living through this 20 years from now.