Reality of COVID-19 in Poland on the outside and inside

“Can you be ready to go in two hours?” That one sentence was so shocking and unexpected and scary that I had to ask her to repeat it; I wasn’t sure I heard it correctly. It was one of those moments that you read about in books–when a person is experiencing complete and utter shock and is just staring blankly into space, their brain not processing what’s happening. It lasted maybe three seconds for me, but it seemed like a very, very long time. My heart was pounding, and I froze, but I knew there was only one correct answer so I kept my head cool and said: “I will be ready. Let me know when the car gets here. I am going to go and pack now.” And then I ran.

Earlier that same day, Friday, March 13th, after I had booked my flight for Saturday afternoon, my sister called me and said that Poland was shutting down its airspace and no planes would be allowed to enter Poland beginning on Saturday at midnight. Since I didn’t have a direct flight and there was a six hour time difference, there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it on time. I called the travel agent that was helping me with my plane arrangements to check. She didn’t know anything about it, which made me feel calmer, but when I got a call from her half an hour later, telling me that I needed to pack up my life and be ready to go in two hours, I knew what my sister had told me was all too true.

I ran fast, and in a few minutes, I was in my dorm, frantically packing my boxes, suitcase, and a carry-on backpack. It was against my nature to just throw everything into the boxes, not bothering to organize it in any sensible way, but I couldn’t waste any minute. While I was packing the boxes that would stay at Trinity when I was gone, my best friend and her mom were packing my suitcase and a backpack. It was one of the most stressful two hours in my life, and if it wasn’t for my friend and her mom, I probably would have missed that last plane to go home. I was filled with so many different emotions that I myself didn’t know what I was feeling: happiness that I was going to be home and see my family; stress that I was going to miss the plane; sadness that I wouldn’t be able to see all my friends from Trinity for a long time; and finally anger that my semester was cut short and all plans that I had for it cancelled.

Getting to JFK was a breeze, the drive was very smooth, and the streets were empty. On the way to the airport, my driver assured me that the plane would be half empty, which relieved some of the stress of catching the coronavirus on the plane, and possibly passing it on to someone else – my mom, dad, grandma, or even a neighbor. I will be forever grateful to that kind man at the check-in desk, who let me through with a bag that was a bit overweight.  I cannot imagine trying to repack my suitcase in the middle of the airport, with a long line of people behind me and the virus in the air. The other option, paying the excess weight fee, was not even under consideration, because I simply couldn’t afford it.

As I sat down at the gate and gazed at the crowd of people waiting to go on that same flight, I felt scared. Not for me, because I am not in a high-risk group for Covid-19, but for my family and anyone else who could contract the virus from me. I had my face mask and a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer, but was that enough against a virus that’s too small to be seen? How can we think that we can fight an invisible enemy? But deep under all those fears and anxieties that I had at that time, as weird as this may sound, I was happy. I was happy because I was going home to my family, and for me, that was the best place to be during a world pandemic.

I was one of the last people who entered Poland without having to undergo a mandatory fourteen day quarantine – the kind of quarantine during which you absolutely cannot leave your home (if you do, you pay a fine), and you have the army and the police check on you every day at random times to make sure you stay inside. However, the lack of an official quarantine order didn’t stop me from quarantining myself.  I stayed in my house for two weeks, only leaving to go to a forest for a walk with my dog. I avoided physical contact with anyone, which was especially hard for me, because I love hugs! But I got through it, but about the same time as I finished it, the government started imposing stricter measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

First, we had our airspace shut down and the borders closed. That was a big thing, because we Poles are so proud of belonging to the European Union and to the Schengen Zone. The last time we had our borders closed was when we were still under communist rule with martial law being imposed in 1981!  Second, we were banned from leaving our houses for anything but essential shopping or walking our dogs. All the parks, forests, and public areas were closed, and if you were seen in any of these places, you were fined. The ban on public spaces and parks was understandable to me, as these are the places that many people go to and hang out, and so the virus can spread easily . . . but forests?! That seemed unreasonable. It’s likely that someone in the government thought the same, because after a few days the ban on forests was lifted. Now, everyone has to wear a face mask anytime we leave the house–most people are working remotely now–and we are all encouraged to stay home. Even though most of us are aware that these measures are necessary, it doesn’t make it any easier to live like this. Whenever we go shopping, instead of people walking on the sidewalks and hanging out in little cafés and restaurants, we see empty streets. All the people that you see in the grocery store seem to be in a hurry, as if the shorter they stay in the store, the less likely they are to catch the virus. Nobody says “hello” to anybody and nobody smiles. You can’t see people’s faces, because everyone is wearing a mask. It’s quite a depressing experience.

What helps me stay sane and get through this is being able to spend some time in nature. Nature is as wonderful as it has always been and there are so many ways to experience it. Whether it’s walking along a river in a city, driving out to a forest, soaking up some sun on a balcony or just sitting in a room full of plants, these connections to nature provide us with opportunities to take a break from the virtual world and rest for a moment. For me, relaxing in nature means walking my dog in the forest and spending time in my garden. One of my favorite times of the day is evening, during a sunset. I am able to appreciate it the most after a full day spent in front of the computer and learning online. I sit down on the porch in my garden and I see the sun going down. The sky on the horizon is slowly turning orange, and there isn’t a single cloud out there. I breath in the warm fresh air, scented with the smell of blossoming apple trees, and for the moment I forget about the rest of the world and I am simply happy.

Sadly, this happiness lasts only as long as I am able to resist thinking about the reality of the world that we’re living in right now. I am aware that so many people’s lives have changed quickly and dramatically as a result of the epidemic. People’s health, financial security, homes and access to food have all been threatened, and many have been left alone with difficult problems to solve on their own. The effects of this situation are felt by everyone and will be long-lasting. One of the greatest joys of human existence, interacting with other humans, has been taken away from us by the virus. In the light of all of this, it’s so incredibly important that we take care of ourselves and help each other out. It is now, more than ever, that we must remember that nothing lasts forever, and we will eventually return to our “normal” lives, although we will likely be different because of what we’ve gone through.

About the Author: Kamila Zygadlo is a passionate athlete and traveler from Poland. She enjoys walking her dog, playing guitar, and reading in her free time; she is planning to major in Biochemistry and minor in Hispanic Studies.

Copyrighted by Kamila Zygadlo. Editorial assistance provided by Joe Barber. This work is part of the “Telling Our Covid Stories” project by the Center for Hartford Engagement and Research (CHER) at Trinity College. 

As the creator of “Reality of COVID-19 in Poland on the outside and inside”, I agree that this is my original work, and that I retain the copyright. 

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