Coronavirus Missives from Costa Rica, Mexico, Macau and Lao

Linh Dinh • April 2, 2020 • Hanoi’s airport on February 28th, 2020

When I left Hanoi on February 28th, its streets were still choked with traffic, most restaurants and cafes were packed, and there were only a few minor signs of the pandemic threat. There were more facemasks, especially on waiters and shopkeepers. At some dumpy pho joint, I spotted a sign requesting customers to not smoke, “to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” and at a pharmacy, soapberry incense sticks were for sale, “To Fumigate Corona Virus.” Some long-distance bus companies would not accept Chinese passengers.

A month later, all of Vietnam’s streets are empty, for even without any coronavirus death, the nation has also gone on lockdown. By preventing a mostly poor population from making a living, the government risks provoking widespread anger or social unrest, but it must do this because it believes it has no choice. Indecision will result in mass deaths. Since Vietnam is already a totalitarian state, it doesn’t need pretexts to introduce draconian measures. Adding to its crippling economic cost, Vietnam is also blocking foreigners from entering.

Every state is being tested by this global crisis. Turkmenistan is responding by not using the word “coronavirus” and even arresting people for wearing facemasks. It has no infection, it insists, so there’s no problem. The calamity in adjacent Iran has simply not spilled over.

Some think this crisis has been planned by the US government to cull useless eaters and to transfer wealth from terrified chumps to the 1%, and there won’t be any meaningful resistance, since starving citizens, locked inside, will only beg their criminal government to save them. You can’t organize if you can’t come within six feet of your neighbors, and if you do it online, they’ll come and getcha! Beaten down, they’ll line up to receive their food ration.

On February 28th, Trump said of the coronavirus, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” A lot has already disappeared, just not the virus. The breath of this is unprecedented, and step by staggering step, we’ll learn about its fearful depth. Your entire way of life may have disappeared.

Let’s hear how some folks are doing, and what do they make of all this.

Jim, a 73-year-old American living in the mountains of Costa Rica

What was it Yogi Berra said, something about it being hard to make predictions especially about the future? Nevertheless, I plunge in ( after having dawdled enough to have the benefit of having read the first five essays by other ex-pats)

The majority opinion seemed to be that Covid 19 was a fraud, perhaps just another flu except with a killer public relations team. So good, now I can be the rebel, the outsider, the freethinker, and say I actually accept the health authorities’ statements and, at 73, I take this “boomer-remover” of a virus seriously. I don’t think the 800 a day dead in Italy were crisis actors. Basically I decided to trust China, which took Covid 19 VERY seriously, despite not having a BIG PHARMA lurking in the wings to make gazillions off of a new vaccine.

I was in Ecuador when this started in January and February. On Feb. 25 I decided that it was serious and I had better get back to my fairly remote small farm in Costa Rica. On March 4 I paid the steep fee to change the return flight date. On March 12 I flew from Ecuador to Costa Rica. On March 11 the W.H.O. declared the virus to be a pandemic. Also on March 11 Costa Rica announced that everyone in Costa Rica gets treated for free, regardless of whether you have insurance or are in the country illegally. On March 15 Costa Rica ordered all bars, night clubs and casinos closed. On March 16 Costa Rica declared a State of Emergency including the closure of all National Parks and the suspension of cruise ships docking in Limon.

All international flights were stopped as of March 16. So I made it back with 3 or 4 days to spare. Close call. There are many travelers trapped in countries with no flights and with land borders closed. Costa Rica announced recently that anyone leaving the country (by land) will lose their migratory status. It’s mostly aimed at Nicaraguan guest laborers, if they leave, they can’t return. This is to discourage lots of Nicaraguans from going home for Holy Week, (where they could pick up the virus and bring it back with them) but it also applies to the rest of us foreigners.

Funny thing is that I have stuck it out at this lonely mountain farm for years, always with some thought to wanting to have a survival place in the event of societal collapse. But I got bored waiting for the apocalypse and was looking for a place with more social life. Now I thank my lucky stars I have this place to ride it out and that I made it back.

I wrote a friend in the U.S. about Costa Rica deciding that everyone gets treated for free. He replied that it must be strange living in a country with a functioning health care system.

In Ecuador the Waorani indigenous people are moving deeper into the Amazon to stay clear of this new White Man’s disease. Can you imagine that there are still people so free and brave that they jump in their dugout canoes and head deep into the Amazon with only their knowledge and skills and courage to survive?

Both countries are behind the eight ball. Ecuador, with oil prices so low and with existing contracts needing to be fulfilled, is losing money on all the oil it pumps right now. Costa Rica is dependent on tourism and there is none, of course, with no flights in or out. I would like to take advantage of this break in tourism to go to the ocean, which is usually too expensive or crowded for my tastes, but I fear I would be asking for police trouble. I read today that they reprimanded a champion surfer for surfing and ordered her back into her home. Really? How is a lone surfer going to spread it?

I went to the bank once two weeks ago and once last week. They have tightened up procedures considerably. Now they only let in a half dozen people at a time and immediately escort you to the bathroom and watch you wash your hands. And the chairs are much further apart than the week before.

Before this crisis life was lonely here but I could go out to the local bar a few times a week for my minimal requirements for human contact. Now the bars are closed and so far I have not wanted to risk going to visit anyone. What if they got sick after my visit? They would blame me.

I had planned to finally open up my farm to volunteers from Help-X or Workaway so as to have some human contact, but can’t do that now because there are no flights, hence, no travelers, and also would not be safe to bring unknown people who might be asymptomatic carriers into my house.

Maybe after this (if there is an “after”) people will insist on ending the practice of solitary confinement in prisons, having had some direct experience with a very gentle form of it. To be honest, I am suffering from depression and substance abuse from this Home Alone pandemic situation (only beer, I am a wimp at substance abuse)

I am concerned that the 2 trillion dollar giveaway, mostly to the usual suspects, will result in serious inflation. On the other hand, if the dollar collapses maybe it will spell the beginning of the end for Uncle Sam’s boot on everyone’s neck around the world. On the other hand, maybe the Powers That Be will decide that to distract folks from the problems what is needed is a good old war. Like with China. After all , they invaded us with their China Virus first, it’s only self -defense to strike back , right?

Addendum: I finally went out (looking for beer) and saw that a Costa Rican friend’s gate was open, so I drove in to say hello to her and her new gringo expat boyfriend. She was not in but he and I talked and drank a beer.

He told me he thought the Chinese had made this coronavirus thing happen on purpose. He told me I could look it up on Wikipedia, that the President of China had made a bundle on the stock market because he knew that stocks were going to be hit hard from the shutdown due to Coronavirus.

The ending of my article was kind of a worse case scenario drawn out of the ether, I thought. War with China. TV watchers swallowing anti-China propaganda in the lead up to war. But it’s true I am afraid… Altogether now, let’s hate Goldman… or is it Russia… or is it China? Whatever! Let’s just hate someone. Self-reflection is not a strong point in the U.S. of A.

At the last hostel I stayed at in Ecuador there was only one other guest most of the time. A charmingly daffy Canadian woman tourist. While cooking in the communal kitchen, we talked a lot. When she didn’t talk to me, she talked out loud to herself. Her cellphone was Huawei and she apologized profusely for having a Chinese phone and explained how she hated China for this reason and that. I told her that tho some of what she said was true, they had lifted millions out of poverty. She said she did not know that. I said that it’s the U.S. trying to take over the whole world, and Russia and China are just playing defense.

Alejandro C., a 53-year-old business owner, living in Mexico City

I do think the US is self-destructing in a way. They continue to wage wars all over the world, when they should be focusing resources in taking care of things at home. They continue to pass legislation which may help concentrate even more wealth among the already obscenely rich. Crumbs for the people, and billions to poorly managed corporations without oversight. Just look at Boeing for starters. The neoliberal system is broken. In my view, the US has two basic choices: republic or empire. It cannot be both. From what I’ve read, I have never seen such horrible leadership in the US, and I do not mean Trump in particular. The disaster has been brewing for decades. The avarice of the global corporations is coming back to bite them. They saw as a good idea at the time to outsource their manufacturing to China, and now they depend on China for many basic products, like antibiotics, which are not “profitable.” And now they blame China for a mess of their own making. I do not think the Chinese are blameless, but the main responsibility lies, in my view, in the US. I read somewhere (is it true?), that some weapons systems require components made in China. Can you imagine a war with China, with the US military placing orders for these components? Things are beyond ridiculous.

Mexico is dealing with the crisis in a more relaxed way. The government has been heavily criticized for not taking more severe measures. But one thing that is important to understand is that over half the population (if not more) does not only live paycheck to paycheck, many live day to day. Ordering these people to stay at home is complicated, as they need to eat. Things have slowed down a lot. Many restaurants and shops are closed. Many companies have sent their employees to work from home. Stores have modified their opening and closing times. Non essential government functions are shut down. Schools are closed and children from private schools are working from home using modern technology, but I do not know how public schools are handling this.

There is an analyst called Gerald Celente who criticizes world leaders for the measures they are taking, arguing that the damage from shutting down the economy will be worse than the damage from the virus. Others argue the other way, that it is better to shut down now in order to have an economy down the road. I personally feel that too much panic has been created. I am disgusted by news like this:

https://www.paulcraigroberts.org coronavirus-profiteers-are-worse-than-war-profiteers

By the way, Dr. Roberts is one my favorite authors in Unz, as are you! And from what I’ve read, Macron and their ilk are total assholes, and deserve to be put on trial in The Hague.

My life has not been affected too much so far. I run a small scaffolding rental business, and things are not great, but it moves along. Several families depend on me, and I am doing what I can to maintain jobs and pay salaries. We have taken social distancing and other measures, but we continue to work. My children live with their mother, and she quarantined them, so I have not been able to visit them, but I do keep constant phone contact. I am now avoiding social gatherings, and pretty much go from home to work and back. Physical contact is very important to Mexicans. We love to hug and kiss, so social distancing is something to get used to. I do worry about how things will turn out down the road. The slowdown is global. We have a saying: “If the US gets a cold, we get pneumonia.” This is important, because I feel the world will need to change, the global system needs to be reconfigured. All countries need to become as self-sufficient as possible, but without isolating. Global trade should continue, but the interests of countries should be placed before the interest of corporations. This will be a challenge, as politicians and captains of industry seem to belong to the same mafia.

I am more worried about the effect on the economy than the disease itself. From what I’ve gathered, the risk lies mostly with the elderly and people with previous medical conditions, and weak immune systems. So maybe the wrong approach has been taken, with the Korean model a better solution.

How long will the crisis last? I have no idea. I certainly hope it ends quickly. Will there be permanent effects? I also don’t know, but I do hope so. This is a wakeup call to restrict the power of global corporations. An opportunity to expose the massive corruption in the financial system. I am personally in favor of mixed economies.

I try to be an optimist, and hope that my city/country will be better off in the mid-term. But things will probably get worse before they get better.

Kevin Maher, a 49-year-old American university lecturer, living in Macau, China

Chinese New Year. The year of the Rat. Pestilence. Plague. I was in Manila when my wife texted me, “Buy N95 masks and bring them home. There is a bad virus going around Macau.” I bought one for each member of my family, four in total. I thought I did a great job. “Oh, and wear one on the plane.”

From my seat, I took a picture of a man with a black mask. Not just any black mask, but one with red lips and a hanging tongue where the mouth would be. I posted it on social media, and my friend responded, “Do they think its SARS or something?” I re-examined the photo and saw an aisle of mask-wearing passengers. That was January 25th, 2020.

When I walked through my front door, I was told to remove my clothes and take a shower. I complied. That began my Chinese New Year holiday locked up in the house. Schools and businesses were closed. Additionally, Chinese New Year festivities were canceled, and those cute mice we’d see all over the city would remain unseen. Meanwhile, the Wuhan cases were now the Macau cases, and the city was searching for approximately 500 Wuhan visitors, locating their hotels, and removing them.

Then the ferries were suspended, and flights coming from China were canceled. It appeared that both Macau and Hong Kong were bracing to be inundated with coronavirus. “Honey, you need to quit your casino job,” I told my wife. “Take the kids to your family’s house in the Philippines. I’ll send you money. Stay there until the kids’ school start up again.” I wrote her resignation letter that night.

Three days later, my family flew to the Philippines. Then the Philippines banned all flights coming from Macau, Hong Kong, and China. They arrived two days before the suspension but caught a new 14-day home-bound quarantine measure. The government checked on them twice daily to see if they were complying. “The kids are bored,” my wife texted nightly. They’d be bored here too.

Meanwhile, I had a city quarantine of my own. More measures came to pass in Macau, including mandatory masks on buses or a 600 Patacas fine (US$73). Casinos closed for 30 days by government decree. International new stories were describing the quiet, desolate gambling mecca of Macau with the lights out. I spent most of my free time teaching online or viewing social media debates on the validity of coronavirus. My American friends and family demanded to know, “Isn’t it the flu?”

April 1st, we continue to have closed schools, daily temperature checks, and further restrictions. Macau stopped the first wave of infections from Wuhan, but now it fights the second wave of ‘imported cases’ from abroad. Empty hotels are being converted to mandatory quarantine hotels for healthy Macau residents who insist on coming home. Non-locals cannot get a visa to enter. Schools continue to be taught online, and people continue to self-isolate.

The endgame appears unclear. Whatever happens, there is a strong sense of self-reflection on the individual level. All over the world, we are forced to go inward. Withdraw from everything – social connections and workplace connections. We’re forced to look deep, reflect, and re-connect with ourselves. If we do this right, individually and collectively, by next year this time, we’ll be as strong as an Ox.

In case you missed the reference, 2021 will be the Chinese Year of the Ox. So reign yourself in for the ride, hold on tight, and be strong.

Ananda, a 12-year-old boy in Luang Prabang, Lao

[Ananda is half Canadian, so is fluent in English. Besides English and Lao, Ananda also speaks Burmese, Thai and even adequate Bengali, for he has lived in Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh.]

The situation in my city is not so bad. In Lao they have 8 cases of Corona. The government said the country is under lockdown and is shutting down most stores, shops, markets, restaurants, schools, libraries, arcades and all the borders until April 19th. Only some convenience stores, supermarkets and little shops remain open.

The government also said to stay indoors and when outdoors to wear face masks. Foreigners and tourists are panicking and rushing to their foreign homes.

This crisis has changed my life a little bit. I have to stay indoors and that means I have been getting along with my sister a lot better than before and that is pretty good. I also can’t see my friends. My father is starting to home school me again. I have to be more creative at finding activities to do indoors.

I miss riding the bike the most because I can hangout with my friends and I like to see what is going on around town. We also used to ride our bikes to the game centers.

I do and don’t miss school. Yes because I like going to school to see friends and it gives me an education and no because I have to study and do homework.

What annoys me most about being locked inside is that I can’t see my friends. Friends are really important to me.

I used to get up early around six. I then made my bed, had a shower, and got ready for school. I usually didn’t have breakfast.

I walked to school; you know I usually walk everywhere. At school they have morning exercises so I did those then I headed to my class to study. We have fifteen-minute breaks every two hours.

I usually spent my lunch break visiting friends from my old school or riding the bike with my friend. After lunch break it was back to studying.

After school I walked home, had dinner, did my homework, had a shower, and in bed at 21:30.

Now it’s more lazy and relaxed. I hope I won’t lose my routine and discipline.

I get up late. I have breakfast, have a shower, and often don’t make my bed and get dressed for hours. I usually do a small amount of home schooling with my father and read.

I usually have lunch late. After lunch I usually do the same things such as: read, make things, draw, hangout with my younger sister or help my father cook.

After we have dinner my father, my sister and I watch a movie together. That is what most days are like now. We have at least 3 weeks left.

I’m more worried about the way people are going to react to this crisis.

Are they going to act crazy and start panicking or are they going to be calm and think about it? I’m worried there might be violence or theft.

I think this crisis will last a few months because if everyone stays in their homes it will slowly blow over. I think one of the permanent effects is that a lot of things will be wasted such as food and some businesses will not recover. Many people will be poorer and maybe sicker

A year from now, I think my city and country will be the same as it used to be but poorer.

Linh Dinh’s latest book is Postcards from the End of America. He maintains a regularly updated photo blog.