An Unexpected Year
Just a heads up, this post is on the longer side...
I never imagined heading home 7 months into my journey. Regardless of the ups and downs and times of self-doubt, I knew that quitting wasn’t an option for me. I don’t think any of us where prepared for what 2020 would bring, but as a Watson Fellow, I think I was especially naïve to the possibility that something so catastrophic could take place. Of all the possible scenarios that I dreamt up before leaving, good and bad alike, a global pandemic that would force me home prematurely was definitely not one of them.
When the Watson Foundation sent us the initial email, before the coronavirus was announced as a global pandemic (2/29/20), I was slightly alarmed by just how fast the virus was spreading in hot spots around the world–especially in my home country. I saw the final mention of returning to your home country if necessary, but I was in South Africa and felt safe, so going home felt like a worse option than staying where I was. At the time, South Africa had 2 confirmed cases of the virus from individuals who had visited Europe on vacation. I was anxiously awaiting my girlfriend’s arrival to Johannesburg on March 6th, so going home was definitely the least of my concerns. I shared the news with my mom, explained the viral spread in South Africa and shrugged off the email.
Early in the morning on March 13th (SA time), the Watson Foundation sent out a second email two weeks after their first, more informative and relaxed email. This email, on the other hand, sent me into a world of panic. They gave us the power to choose whether to stay or go, but we had 48 hours to notify them of our decision. With South Africa at about 24 confirmed cases at the time, the entire country had less confirmed cases than my home state (Michigan-25), and the simple answer was to just stay put. But the pressure to make a decision weighed on me. While I knew that I could revoke my decision to stay at any time, I felt like going home would be a failure, and even considering the idea felt wrong. I also saw how things were progressing in the US and felt so guilty for being away while all of my family and friends had to deal with the panic and consequences of the spread–I had immunocompromised friends who feared for their lives, friends who had to deal with the possibility of not graduating, friends and family who scrambled to find food as shelves at grocery stores were being cleared out, and my Nana who I worried a lot about in the wake of the spread. I spent over an hour playing devil’s advocate with Bri’. Every time she’d give me a reason for staying, I’d find a reason to leave, and when she would agree with me, I’d think of a convincing argument to stay. It went on like that for hours–even after Bri’ had gone to sleep I stayed up going back and forth in my own head.
After I got the email I tried calling my parents, but using WhatsApp with them always results in missed phone calls. I immediately reached out to the Watson Fellows that I had been in contact with throughout the year (Maurice: a Black fellow I met a few weeks prior in Jozi, David: another Black fellow who was going to be in Jozi that Sunday, Arish: another fellow who was in Jozi that I never did get to meet, and Natalie: the other fellow from my school who I’d consulted with and often turned to throughout the year) to get their opinions on the matter, especially considering that 2 other fellows were in South Africa at the time. While the email scared all of us a bit, most people–besides Maurice who was stuck in the UK–had decided that despite our anxieties and the uncertainty of it all, we felt safer where we were, or where we were headed.
Quickly that narrative changed for me as I closely monitored the spread and any coronavirus updates in South Africa. Over night South Africa’s confirmed cases had jumped by 14, with 10 alone in my area. The next morning the confirmed cases had jumped AGAIN by 13 with another 10 in my area, and the trajectory of the virus became alarming. Now it’s one thing to be in the midst of a national emergency in the comfort and familiarity of your home when you’re surrounded by family and close to friends, but it’s completely different to be thousands of miles away and in a foreign country when $h*t hits the fan. Imagine scrambling for necessities, stocking up on food, and fighting over toilet paper when you barely know where the grocery store is! With the heavily skewed distribution of wealth in Gauteng (Johannesburg and it’s surrounding suburbs), I just imagined how chaotic things would get if the country called a state of emergency-and it felt like that announcement could be coming any day.
While I was frantically checking for updates on the State of the virus in South Africa, I saw that the President had convened an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss strategies for ramping up their defenses against the spread of the virus (Sunday, 3/16/20). All day Sunday I refreshed and refreshed hoping to get updates and hear from the President. I couldn’t even sleep the night before because I was so anxious to know what he was going to announce. After consulting with Natalie–who landed in Jordan shortly before they announced a ban on all incoming and outgoing air traffic, and saw plane tickets home rapidly rise by THOUSANDS, even as she was trying to book her own– I preemptively purchased a ticket home while they were still around $650. Just hours later, I was so thankful that I did. Later that evening, the President addressed the public with the safety measures that he and his cabinet had decided on. The first measure was a ban on all non-nationals traveling from hot spot areas (including the US), and the immediate rescindment of all foreign visas from those countries. They also extended school closings until after Easter break, and banned/cancelled large public gatherings as other countries had been doing before them. Ticket prices were now at least twice what I paid.
At that moment, I knew that the best decision for me was to go home. While I had spoken to my mom earlier in the day and told her about the ticket that I purchased, and our conversation essentially meant I was coming home, I was still hopeful that things could still be safe for me in South Africa and that I might not have to leave. But after the announcement, where they also announced the confirmation of another 10 cases (a total of 23 cases in one day), I knew that the right decision was to go home. My flight was scheduled for the following night, so I started packing up my things, and it hit me that I was really going home–something that I hadn’t planned on thinking about for another 4 months. Then I started to think about whether I’d ever get to go back out into the world before my Watson Year ends. I've tried to be positive and stay hopeful that things will die down in a couple of months and that I’ll get to spend a couple more months abroad, but part of me doubts that it will be possible.
I wrote the previous portions of this post during my 15 hour flight back tot he US, and after being home for 2 days, I'm still doubtful that things will get better soon enough for me to finish out my year. Being back home for the next 4 months with little to nothing to do, while also being house-ridden, is the polar opposite of how I've been living for the past 7 months. I lived how I wanted to–I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Now, being confined to my house for who knows how long...I've been feeling antsy. So, I've tried to find things to keep myself busy, and even rethought my project to fit within the context of being home and unable to work face-to-face. I've reached out to a couple of my old Davidson biology professors to learn more about how they plan to teach their classes and labs online. I also plan on reaching out to other professors and educators in my area who teach a variety of STEM subjects. I've offered up free tutoring and homework help for biology and math, hoping that I can be of assistance to even some of the many students who will be learning online for the first time. So, if you or someone you know needs biology or math help, or is an educator who has had to redesign their STEM class to fit an online teaching method, please reach out to me! I'd love to help, or learn about what the transition looks like!
I'm still figuring out what it means to be a Watson Fellow who has been deprived of a full Watson year, but I'm taking things day by day and slowly, but surely readjusting.