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Letters home to Northern Ireland: how we’re coping with coronavirus

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Trevor Peoples with daughter Georgia and son Shea

Trevor Peoples with daughter Georgia and son Shea

Trevor Peoples with daughter Georgia and son Shea

Covid-19 is now making a huge difference to the way we live in Northern Ireland, but what has been the impact upon people from here living abroad? Those who have moved overseas tell Leona O’Neill about surviving lockdowns and cancelled trips to see loved ones back home.

Switzerland

Louise Harra

Lurgan-born Louise Harra is a professor of physics at ETH-Zurich and director of the Physical Meteorological Observatory in Davos (PMOD) in Switzerland, where they build instruments for spacecraft and for ground measurements.

Louise, who lives in Davos with husband Daniel, says: “In Switzerland as a whole there are over 2,000 confirmed cases and 13 people have died. Within Davos itself there are two cases that have been confirmed.

“Of course, there is fear in the community at the moment, like everywhere in the world now.

“Davos has a number of research institutes, but is best known as a ski resort and for the World Economic Forum. The ski resorts are closed, shops closed except for food outlets, and hotels are closing down. We moved all our teaching to online, and the university is now closed. In my own institute most staff are home-officing. We stopped travelling with work a few weeks ago.

“In my family we have cancelled travel plans. We planned to visit family in Northern Ireland and England in the next few weeks. We are not using public transport, and social events are all cancelled. We’re following the guidelines and trying to plan for the future.

“The communication from our government has been very good. Attendance at public events stopped weeks ago. All schools are closed now. Whether or not this was a fast-enough response isn’t clear yet.”

Louise says that her preparations are from week to week.

“There is a lot we can do through home office, but keeping people motivated in the longer term may be difficult with little social contact,” she says.

“We are trying new technologies to keep in contact for work and social aspects. We are lucky in that much of our work can be carried out through remote meetings and at home. In many workplaces this isn’t the case.”

United States

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Cathal Breslin

Cathal Breslin

Cathal Breslin

There are over 4,000 cases in the United States. Derry man Cathal Breslin lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his American-born wife Sabrina and their children Drostan and Cian. He flew back home from Ireland on Thursday as President Trump’s travel ban was announced.

“Getting back to America was really chaotic because we flew right after the Trump European ban was announced,” he says.

“So, Dublin Airport was full of Americans in panic mode trying to leave as soon as possible.

“Some people had paid over $10,000 to suddenly leave on the same day, and you know when that starts to happen, your main concern is that the airline might kick you off the flight to make more profits.

“When we arrived back schools were all completely closed, people are scrambling to find items in empty stores, and it’s just a very tense environment.

“There is no toilet paper anywhere and no cleaning supplies of any kind. There are long queues outside grocery stores and they have finally limited the numbers of certain things that people can buy.

“I have been put under a self-quarantine by my workplace Arizona State University, because the CDC say that anyone who has been to UK or Ireland must now also avoid any public place.”

Australia

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Dee Quigley with daughter Caoirse

Dee Quigley with daughter Caoirse

Dee Quigley with daughter Caoirse

There are just over 300 cases in Australia. Derry-born father-of-two Dee Quigley lives in Mandurah, near Perth, with his daughter Caoirse (15). He is a case manager at Out Of Home Care.

“There are more cases every day,” he says. “It looks like it is definitely in the community now. We had information given into our office that a colleague may have had contact with someone who had secondary contact at the airport.

“There are virus tents set up at all hospitals and schools are set to close soon. The St Patrick’s Day parade was cancelled. I personally told my daughter to make her way home from her studies today ahead of any education department decision.

The government here has been very proactive in taking advice from the leading experts in their fields and positioning itself the best it can

“Panic-buying has certainly become an issue here. I can sense that people are very afraid and wary of what’s to come. The government has announced two stimulus packages to support the economy. Anyone who is entitled to it, for example low-income families and people who are recipients of support from the government, will receive $750 dollars. Businesses will receive other incentives to support them.”

Dee says that the precautions he and his family have taken include self-isolation, no social interactions, focusing on hand hygiene and trying to keep an eye on the news for any advice.

He says the Australian Government have been working hard on the issue as have scientists and researchers who have said they may be close to “a cure”.

“The government here has been very proactive in taking advice from the leading experts in their fields and positioning itself the best it can,” he says. “They are worried, I’m sure — they have families and relatives also.”

Of recent news that scientists in his country had made a breakthrough in the search for a vaccine, Dee says: “It honestly doesn’t surprise me that a potential cure is near in Australia. Some of the world’s greatest minds live here, they recently developed a cure for hepatitis C, which is now freely available to anyone who suffered from it.”

Austria

Neil Walsh

There are over 1,000 cases in Austria. Glengormley-born Neil Walsh is a UN diplomat and lives with his wife and four children in Vienna.

“The coronavirus situation is developing at pace,” he says. “We’re on home lockdown and are not allowed to leave the house unless it’s to buy food or seek medical treatment. We’re trying to get into a routine with us and the kids, keep some sort of education going and continue to work in and around that.

“In Austria the cases are growing and one part of the country is in 24/7 curfew. Schools, universities, kindergartens, shops with the exception of supermarkets and pharmacies, and almost everything else is shut or restricted to only cover those workers who are critical: health, law enforcement, energy, refuse, etc.

“There is fear in the community. The streets are deserted. It’s rare in Austria for government to have to intervene so strongly, and unless people start to follow the strict social distancing regime they will likely have to enforce this in the same way as other EU countries.”

It isn’t going to be easy, and I can see divorce lawyers and midwives growing their business

Neil says that his family are on lockdown.

“We’re staying inside and we’ve made sure the kids understand why this is happening and are playing their part,” he says.

“I’m on post-bowel cancer steroid treatment so am in the immunosuppressed category. This, combined with permanent lung damage caused by pulmonary embolisms, means that I really want to avoid catching this.

“Our Chancellor Sebastien Kurz is taking a robust, science-based approach and communicating it well to the public. Most people are complying.

“For work, we’ve got our business continuity plan up and running, at home we’ve got a schedule in place to try and keep some element of normality, and make the weekends seem like weekends.

“It isn’t going to be easy, and I can see divorce lawyers and midwives growing their business, but we’ve got to all play our role in #FlatteningTheCurve. This is killing people, so we all have to minimise the risks where we can and help society to continue.”

Canada

Canada has almost 400 cases. Londonderry man Trevor Peoples is an ironworker, living in Nanaimo, British Columbia, with his wife Melissa and their children Shea and Georgia.

“There are not many cases here yet,” he says. “Schools and daycares are all open at the moment. In the next province over, Alberta, all schools and daycares have been locked down.

“There is fear in the community, but everyone is trying to be sensible here as much as they can by staying home as much as possible. There are lots of elderly people here as a lot of people retire to Vancouver Island for the good climate.

“Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is supposed to be getting a bit more proactive. Local governments are dealing with everything separately but seem decent at getting information to people. Canada is so big and every province is dealing with it differently, so we don’t have all the same measures.

“At the moment we are thinking of alternative ways of making money if jobs go. We’ve been cutting firewood, growing our own vegetables and whatever it takes to keep us going. We were thinking of opening up rooms at home for rent maybe.”

Spain

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Gareth Murray, David and Nico

Gareth Murray, David and Nico

Gareth Murray, David and Nico

East Belfast man Gareth Murray lives in the small Spanish pueblo of Finestrat in the Alicante region with his wife Maria and sons David and Nico. Spain has almost 10,000 cases.

“Spain is in a declared state of emergency,” he says. “All schools, parks, restaurants and pubs are closed. Supermarkets remain open, as do other smaller outlets and businesses.

“Already the internet portal for distance learning for our son David has crashed, but his PlayStation has been put away and I have given him some French and English study to do.

People have been gathering on their balconies at 8pm and clapping in appreciation of the health service workers

“There are no reported coronavirus cases in the village, but like everywhere else, tests are only being carried out on hospital patients and by arrangement when means-tested after you call a helpline number if you are showing symptoms. Apparently the helpline number is constantly engaged.

“There does seem to be a general understanding by the population that the lockdown is for the greater good. There is unity and little opposition to the government actions. People have been gathering on their balconies at 8pm and clapping in appreciation of the health service workers.

“I have two neighbours who work in the local Villajoyosa hospital who have not been able to arrange childcare since the school closures and are unable to go to work.

“There has been televised debate on the UK measures and the general consensus is that while that may be good for the UK, Spain was already past that stage. No one is suggesting that Boris Johnson is anything other than sincere in his approach to the crisis. There has been some criticism of the EU, with one commenter asking ‘where are they?’ — wondering why there isn’t a unified EU approach to the crisis.”

Gareth say that his family are taking all the advice to help keep safe.

“As a family we are following the instructions: washing hands, keeping social contact to a minimum,” he says.

“The biggest worry concerns Maria, who works in the hospitality industry, which is already making people redundant.

“As someone who has an unconventional commute between Belfast and Spain, it looks as if I’ll be here for some time as airlines will eventually ground flights once they’re satisfied that most tourists have been repatriated.

“I read a tweet by one elected representative in Northern Ireland who suggested going for a walk to clear your head and cope with the mental stress.

“Well, I did that the other night when putting the rubbish out in the communal bins only for an armed policia to instruct me to return home quickly. Lockdown means lockdown, only leaving your home for essential things.”

Czech Republic

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Damien Taylor with his sons Martin and Lukas

Damien Taylor with his sons Martin and Lukas

Damien Taylor with his sons Martin and Lukas

Derry-born Damien Taylor is living in the Czech Republic, which has over 200 cases. The English teacher lives in Prague with his partner Hanicka and their sons Martin and Lukas.

“Czechs usually go to Italy for spring break, so we always knew we would get it bad here,” he says.

“Most people are really afraid; a friend of mine locked herself in her bathroom. The biggest fear here is avoiding the elderly.

“We have two children who are now not allowed out in this beautiful weather.

“Czech healthcare is very good, and seems to be coping. There are no food shortages, there is plenty to go around. No one is panic-buying.

“There are a few villages here which have been isolated. We seem to be about two weeks ahead of Northern Ireland. From tomorrow all people here have to wear face masks if they go out.”

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