I asked on Facebook what you’d like to hear about and to my surprise COVID took top billing. I don’t have photos on this topic but certainly have plenty to share. I will back up in time to early November. I was getting into the groove of life here; the rainy season was wrapping up and school had settled into an ordinary and predictable routine.
Unknown to most of us the Hungarian Foreign Minister was in Cambodia attending to international relations business. As a diplomat he was not required to follow the same rules as other foreigners who enter the country. The November 3rd visit was as I imagine pretty normal, meetings, discussions and of course a reception. The minister was only in the country a day or two before he departed for Thailand. All of this would have gone unnoticed by all of us little people. On his arrival in Thailand, however, he tested positive for COVID.
This is where things got serious. The phone lines burned up among the elite and government officials of the capital city, emails sent and plans made at lightning speed. Immediately sent to quarantine were people who had come into contact with the diplomat, including Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen. Of the emails zipping around the city, one landed in my inbox saying that my student would be isolating at home because a parent had attended the reception with the foreign minister.
Diligently, I forwarded the email to my school administration to let them know. The next day concern about community transmission and outbreak mounted the school waited for instructions from the government. The leadership team reallocated staff and modified the timetables of some classes on the spot. By lunch time, the full class of the student in isolation and that students’ teachers were sent home to be in isolation for 14 days.
Our typhoid Mary of this story is the Hungarian Foreign Minister. He met with many Cambodian officials, many of them very briefly and few wore masks (despite it being more common to wear one than not). At one of the diplomatic functions was a parent from our school. This parent in turn spent about three hours with their children before they attended school. The children in this family spent one day at school. The result: the entire class and the teachers who taught them were also sent home for 14 days. Minister (tested positive) – Parent – Student – Teacher (me) in case the story was too complicated.
This clearly was a fear response. It takes a certain amount of time for the viral load in a human body to develop enough to become contagious. Regardless, the country was on high alert and I was back in isolation. This outbreak sent ripples of fear through the city and over the next few days the fear only mounted. Several days later on November 8th the government shut down school, sports and entertainment venues. This now meant everyone at work was online. Interestingly though, most were expected to work from campus, broadcasting out to homes from school. For me and the unfortunate few teachers who had been in contact with the student we remained at home running distance learning from there.
I live in a large apartment community that includes the Olympic Stadium and as such the pool and fitness centre also closed on the 8th. Not able to tolerate much more solitary time in my exceptionally beige apartment, I reserved a room at a local hotel for a few nights so I could take a swim and get some sun. The hotels in the city are ghost towns, since the borders have been closed for months, with neither guests nor staff to talk to. I could work in the room all day and then swim and sit in the sun alone for a few hours every night. It was an expense that kept me sane.
The closure lasted only 2 weeks and despite fears to the opposite the case count did not grow and infect the larger community. Contact tracing, serious vigilance of those in isolation and lots of testing made sure of that.
Free to return to work I begin to focus on getting organised for Kevin to join me. We watched as the case count in Alberta is rising steadily and worry that at the 11th hour Kevin may have to cancel his trip. Forms and money sent to get a visa, flights booked and our fingers crossed. To be clear, yes, Kevin is travelling out of the country, yes, the recommendations are not to. The quarantining and testing that will have to happen make this decision a safe one, but I will get into that a bit later.
Barely back at work a week and the staff receive an email about a positive COVID case in the community. If we had been at certain locations on the previous Saturday you won the isolation lottery and the prize was to be at home again. Yes, lucky me. I had made a rare run to the mall to get a few household items and to go to The Body Shop for a couple of things and poof! I am back in isolation again.
This time the government reaction was much larger as they could not identify patient zero and there was clearly going to be community transmission. The biggest mall in the city closed, hotels closed (both in the city and some in nearby provinces), shops were COVID positive people had been in were closed, all schools were back on distance learning.
After a few days on aloneness again it was determined that I had not been at the mall when the sick person had been and I would not be required to remain in isolation. The community spread, however, was still very real and schools would remain closed. Mass testing centres were set up, news papers published the names of shops, hotels and restaurants were COVID positive people had frequented. After days and days of new cases being reported it finally seemed that the massive efforts had indeed stemmed the tide of this community outbreak. The fear of COVID in general and the fact that this community transmission was virtually on the heels of the previous incident meant that a return to normal was much slower than before.
During this time, Alberta continued to have ever more cases. Kevin went through all the same processes as I had in August, though with a few less COVID tests than I had. He benefited from the systems now in place for travelers to have their tests expedited. He ran into the same trouble in Seoul with airline agents not understanding that his $2000 deposit slip was as good as cash, but after a few calls Kevin and the attendant were able to iron it out. Kevin landed in Phnom Penh November 25th. With the help of the staff of my school he was taken to a sanctioned quarantine hotel to begin is 14 days of living in a single hotel room.
For those of you think this sounds attractive, please know it is not. There was a guard at the end of the hall and Kevin was not able to even pace the length of the hallway to get some movement in. The hotel room was not large enough to set out a yoga mat and work out. His food was delivered and for each meal he had two choices. 2 – 500mL bottles of water were provided daily. I helped get Kevin sorted out to receive some groceries, a larger work monitor and food delivery. These little things helped, but he was still stuck in a room with no ability to go outside, workout or open a window for fresh air was incredibly trying.
Day 13 he was escorted by school staff to a local hospital for his final COVID test. As soon as the negative result was reported back to the hotel Kevin would be free to go. So he continued to wait and 14 days passed.
Out in my world work was trucking along. Most teachers were better at delivering a distance learning this round than in previous iterations. Our school is a for profit, tuition-based school. Parents had been given some discounts last year when learning went online and the comments were already being received that should distance learning continue parents might seek the same discount. So, with approval from the board on a Tuesday night we were told that our December break would start a week early (and we would return a week early). This was a hopeful effort to reduce the number of days we operated a distance learning model and with any luck our return in the new year would be live and in person. I was astounded, I could not imagine any board back home being prepared to go to that length to avoid distance learning in the hopes that in person teaching would return down the road.
Kevin’s freedom came Wednesday late in the evening. It was so amazing to be able to give him a big hug and show him a first glimpse of the city. Exhilarated to see him I skipped arranging school transportation and I met him at his hotel. A true arrival meant that we loaded up a remorque with his bags and squished ourselves around the cases for our bumpy ride through the city. We also got word that his work was going to allow him to shift his three-week holiday to match mine. We took off on our holiday three days later!
Meanwhile, in Alberta the case count had risen to crazy levels and on December 13th the province went into lockdown, essentially cancelling all gatherings for the holidays. Mom guilt hit home big time. Kevin and I were off exploring the Kingdom of Wonder and our son is alone for his first Christmas. In the end Mike coped really well. He was able to meet at a distance various family member and when the rules changed moments before Christmas day it meant that he was able to join his girlfriend’s family for the main event.
Our holiday took us from the easternmost province to the westernmost province. We saw elephants, jungle, rode a bamboo train, ate great foods and saw all kinds of buildings left from the Khmer civilisation a thousand years ago. So much more to tell you, stay tuned.