Thoughts on coronavirus and how I escaped from Switzerland

They say a frog cannot feel the temperature increase in water if it happens slowly enough. I was like that frog on my research visit in Switzerland, which came to an abrupt end.

It all started as a distant echo of something seemingly irrelevant. Concentrated on my research, I did not pay too much attention to the news of a new virus spreading. I mean, we have seen these outbreaks come and go. SARS, MERS, swine flu, and even Ebola – they have been local tragedies for sure but manageable on a global scale.

I did quite a lot of travelling in December and January: conference trips to Vietnam and the USA, a weekend trip to London, to Finland and back for holidays. There were some corona cases already then: here and there. Nothing to be too concerned about, I thought. Nevertheless, I bought a small bottle of hand sanitizer from the airport, just in case – I don’t usually do that. I’m not a germophobe.

Something started to change in the first days of February. At that point, there were about 10 000 known infections globally. Swiss health officials started to track people coming from the most affected areas – mainly Wuhan at that point. Coronavirus testing started to roll. The whole country was sort of holding its breath to discover the first case in Switzerland. That finally happened on 25 February. We were joking on lunch breaks about the strange fact that we know every case of these infections on a radius of about 1000 km. Italy was already at that point on its track becoming a major epidemic area with some 300 cases. I was slightly worried about colleagues in the University of Padua where I had spent the previous winter.

I kept working. However, I did some changes in my behavior. I stopped using all public transport – already from the beginning of February. Eawag (the institution I worked at) is located on a small municipality called Dübendorf. It is less than ten kilometers from the center of Zürich even though the general atmosphere is surprisingly rural. I isolated myself there. Distance between my apartment and laboratory was quite exactly 100 meters and to the nearest grocery store some 200 meters. My daily life dwindled to necessities.

On 28 February, gatherings of more than 1000 people were banned in Switzerland. Information signs started to appear. New coronavirus, they read. You couldn’t avoid seeing them – they were all over the place. Keep your distance, wash your hands. One morning, a self-made WHO hand sanitizer dosing station had materialized at the entrance of Eawag. You were advised to use it when coming and going. In the laboratory, I was surrounded by disinfectants as well: ozone and peracetic acid. Lucky me. I kept telling that I won’t be leaving Switzerland anytime soon. Not now that my experiments run smoothly. That was my mission there anyway.

Meanwhile, new restrictions kept rolling: a government lock-down was issued on 13 March. It sounded very dramatic. In practice, places such as restaurants and bars were closed. Borders were shut. As well as universities and schools. The last time I went to a grocery store in Switzerland, people were hoarding everything like crazy (yes, including toilet paper). No one was minding the distance. I realized that I have to get out of here.

Next came the news about cancelled flights. For example, Finnair announced some 90% of all flights to be cancelled. Other companies followed. I had to change my flight plan two times amid the situation. Our university travel agency did a terrific job there under the difficult circumstances: I sent them email and a couple of hours later new tickets were issued to my inbox. At the same time, there was a domino effect of European countries closing their borders. I started to get a bit nervous about my return to Finland.

On the morning of my departure (18th of March), I took an Uber to the airport. Streets were empty even though it would have been a peak rush hour to work under normal circumstances. The Zürich airport has normally some 86 000 travelers daily. Now I could walk there alone. No one queueing to the security check. No shops open. Just one tiny takeaway coffee bar was still operating. The atmosphere was nervous and dense. Ghastly. The few other people there were protecting themselves to the best of their abilities: raincoats, scarfs, sunglasses, and of course surgical masks (where did they get those – every place had sold out already weeks ago?). I had first a flight to Frankfurt, then to Helsinki, then to Oulu. The first two flights were maybe 30–40% full, the last one had only 20 passengers. I had no trouble dodging other people.

So, here I am now, back in Finland. Currently day 9/14 of self-quarantine. Working from home. Still healthy and feeling alright. Although, you become a bit paranoid: is my condition still normal, are there some unnatural feelings in my body? It is still allowed to go out as long as you avoid other people. That’s not difficult. It appears that the streets of Oulu can actually be emptier than usual. One day walking in a forest, I saw a man there, alone, wearing a mask. I turned the other way.

Some say we are in a state of war. The humankind has suddenly a common threat. This time, however, the enemy is within. Literarily: it could be within you. Right now. Without you knowing. This war is not fought in trenches. It takes place on our home sofas. The nations who have the endurance to stay there longest will prevail. 

Last updated: 6.4.2020