Sitting in my 8:15 morning class on March 10, I remember my Czech friend, Oleg, mentioning that the government was toying with the idea of closing schools and universities in response to newly detected coronavirus cases in the Czech Republic. A week prior, I was sitting in my classes as usual, trying to predict how Prague might be impacted by COVID-19. Overwhelming doubt echoed among my peers about the virus’s implications on our lives, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t mimic their language.
American study abroad students, like myself, were still making plans for and going on weekend trips around Europe, especially looking forward to festivals and parades in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in a few short weeks. I had just booked a trip to Amsterdam for the last weekend of March, and I was brimming with anticipation for my planned trip to the shores of Santorini, Greece in early April.
I was finally getting to know my favorite spots in Prague, melding with the ebb and flow of the city. While I followed a few Czech outlets on social media, I found it difficult to figure out where I could receive the most timely information about the state of the nation that was also in the English language. I was not keeping up with any Czech governmental updates, so I was completely ignorant of any meetings, press releases or announcements if they did not make their way into my few Czech media sources in English.
“Did you know that the Czech Prime Minister is thinking of cancelling schools because of coronavirus?” Oleg asked as I sat down in front of him.
I didn’t think much of it, although this was the first time I had heard anyone mention the possibility of shutting down schools. From the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I was consistently doubtful of it having any impact on my life. Reflecting on these feelings now feels incredibly naive, although I do not think I am alone in this. As with many unfortunate tragedies, inconveniences and life-altering events, you never think it will happen to you until it does.
About an hour into my lecture, Oleg turned to me and quietly passed me his phone with the latest highlights from the Czech government’s meeting that morning.
On the morning of March 10, the Czech Ministry of Health announced that universities and schools would close in-person meetings until further notice. These measures came along with a limitation on public gatherings over 100 people in an attempt to try and mitigate the spread of coronavirus within the country. With a total of 40 coronavirus cases at the time, the Czech government chose to implement these policies out of a need to promote action from the very beginning of the pandemic’s presence, according to Health Minister Adam Vojtech. Two individuals who tested positive for the virus were linked to northern Italy, which was the most effected European region at the time.
I found myself excitedly thinking about continuing the semester online and the opportunity to attend my classes from new cafes instead of in the classroom. I was disappointed that I would not be meeting with my professors in person moving forward, but having the freedom to work from any location was appealing to me. Since the university had cancelled classes altogether for the remainder of the week, I used the next couple of days to visit some different cafes and restaurants I had wanted to visit during my stay in Prague.
Besides the shifting class schedule, life in Prague was feeling fine in all other senses. The trams were still running continuously, and I could visit the grocery stores without a problem. I went to bed on the night of March 12 at a reasonable time, only to be awakened at about 3am to the sound of my roommates shakily speaking on their phones while frantically moving throughout the apartment.
President Trump addressed the United States through an evening program on March 12 to announce new nationwide policies in an attempt to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus within the country. Addressing the outbreak as a “foreign virus,” Trump said that the US would implement a strict ban on travel into the country from more than two dozen different European countries that had identified domestic cases of COVID-19. These statements came following much criticism against the President for not taking the virus seriously.
Addressing viewers throughout the US from a seat inside the Oval Office, President Trump elaborated on his new policy as a suspension of “all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days.” The ban, which would go into effect on March 13 at 11:59pm EST, specifically affected countries in the Schengen zone such as Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain and, among others, the Czech Republic.
I immediately felt sickness in my stomach and began sweating as I caught fragments of my roommates’ phone calls outside my bedroom. As I stared at the light of my phone screen in the darkness of the night, I read headlines confirming what I was hearing through the cracks of my door; I did not want to believe what was happening.
Did I really have to flee the Czech Republic within the next 48 hours or be locked out of my home country for an indefinite amount of time? I certainly did not know. While I did not want to leave the beautiful streets of Prague, being denied the option to return home in case of emergency did not sit well with me.
I closed my eyes so I would not have to deal with the uncertainty, and somehow, I drifted back to sleep.
By the time I woke, two of my four roommates had already stuffed what belongings they could into their suitcases and hastily made their way back home to the US. They were already halfway across the Atlantic, leaving behind only shower shoes and produce here in Prague. In an attempt to understand what Trump’s travel ban actually meant, I started reading various forms of US media to clarify the details of the policy.
“It doesn’t apply to you,” my mother, who had viewed the President’s address live back in the US, assured me. “US citizens can still get in.” Part of me still did not believe her; I needed to see the guarantee with my own eyes.
With some digging I finally found an outlet that explained the conditions of the policy further, confirming that US citizens could return back home with a health screening upon arrival. I was in the clear, and I was ready to hold down the fort in Prague even as my remaining roommates booked their flights to leave and many friends did the same. I figured that a relative sense of normalcy would exist long enough for me to make it to Greece for spring break in early April. Again, this naivety is embarrassing to admit, but I feel that many were completely blindsided by the implications of COVID-19.
Moving forward, on Friday, March 13, there was a race against the clock to still make it to the last-minute destinations of my friends whose visits in Prague would end in 36 hours or less. I did not yet realize that these last stops would serve as my own last stops, as well.
I was making conversation with the cashier at a vegan doughnut shop in Vinohrady when a sinking feeling in my stomach – which would last and continue to build within me for at least three days – hit me once again. Her mother worked for the US embassy in Prague, and she heard us discussing the details of our study abroad experience and the logistics of my friends’ flights out Vaclav Havel Airport.
The Czech Government increased State of Emergency restrictions within the country, enforcing a nationwide quarantine beginning at midnight on March 16. Under the conditions of the quarantine, individuals in the Czech Republic were required only to travel for necessary and essential reasons. All Czech nationals would be banned from leaving the country during the course of the State of Emergency, and foreign nationals in Czech Republic would be allowed to leave the country but denied re-entry. The Ministry of the Interior declared that all foreign nationals outside of Czech Republic would be denied entry to the country throughout the course of the State of Emergency.
As of March 14, the Ministry of Health had detected 214 positive cases of the coronavirus within the country. Meanwhile, in Italy, the total number of cases was recorded at 21,157 with 1,411 total deaths from the coronavirus outbreak.
As a foreign national holding a long-term student visa within the Czech Republic, it felt as though my citizenship status in the country was in limbo. I was met with a similar sensation of fear and genuine confusion as when I heard of the US travel restrictions, although it was even more difficult to grasp what these measures actually meant for me, personally.
“I think I need to leave,” I barely uttered in a phone call to my parents. It was all I could force out of my mouth as the reality of my situation finally hit me. It was time for me to go home.
I had to balance my feelings of intense disappointment with stress and a sense of urgency. As much as I wanted to lay in bed until my flight on Sunday morning, I wanted to soak in every last drop of Prague’s charming beauty that I could. (Admittedly, I still spent a number of hours in bed to cope with the emotions I was feeling.)
In a matter of four days, the entire course of my four-month experience in Prague came to an end. Every aspect that was “supposed” to happen during my study abroad experience did not happen. After re-booking two cancelled flights, I stepped onto a plane on Sunday, March 15 and concluded my time abroad.
The coronavirus pandemic is the first major and impactful event that many US citizens in my generation have witnessed. Living through the uncertainty of the pandemic has revealed to many what matters most in life and how what you think you know can change in an instant. The beginning of 2020 has been a physically and emotionally tolling year for people across the globe, yet what has proven as a consistently a powerful force is the adaptability of humankind.
My time in Prague feels much like a dream to me now as the surreal memories glisten at the back of my mind.
I chose to craft my writing with inspiration from Martha Gellhorn’s style of writing in “The Third Winter.” Gellhorn wrote about the conditions of Spain during the Spanish Civil War by depicting the reality of life in Barcelona first instead of directly stating what was going on. “The Third Winter” was a piece I especially enjoyed in this class because Gellhorn so flawlessly conveyed the subject matter through micro- and macro- depictions of Spanish living during the war. While I was inspired by this style, I know that what I wrote cannot compare to what Gellhorn accomplished in her piece. Nonetheless, I still tried to capture the chaos and uncertainty of my last week in Prague, paralleled with the policies that were being put into place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the US and Czech Republic.
Where I struggled with capturing the essence of Gellhorn’s style was in not directly stating what was happening. I had a hard time seamlessly moving between my personal interactions and the information revealed in news releases. I ended up stating exactly what was happening a lot more than I had intended. Gellhorn’s writing style in “The Third Winter” flowed together easily, and each section played off of the others to enhance the reader’s understanding of her subject matter. It was my hope to accomplish a similar effect with my style in this piece.
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