Snapshots of pandemic life, part 2

Jim Hildebrand ’06

Jim teaches at an international school in Saudi Arabia.

How has the pandemic impacted your work?

In March [of 2020] we went to online learning for what we hoped would be a few weeks, or at the longest until spring break. The teachers still came into school, but all kids were banned from coming onto campus. I think it was about a month in when no one was allowed to go to work at all and the whole country locked down. We did all of our lessons and meetings via Google Meets for the remainder of the school year, which wasn’t always fun with three children at home and terrible internet connection.

Jim Hildebrand and his family in Saudi Arabia

We started the 2020–21 school year with all lessons online, but teachers being allowed to work from school. Just before Christmas students were allowed back in school for either 2.5 hours in the morning or the afternoon so that no more than half of the students are ever in the building together, and it is only for four days a week. We have just last week [mid-March] gone to a full five-day week of students at school, but still only for 2.5 hours a day.

What has school looked like for your own kids over the past year?

My wife has become a full-time homeschool teacher.

How has your neighborhood or city changed?

A lot of expats from our community have left and not returned. It has been the whole family or in some cases just the wife and children not returning.

What customs or celebrations have been practiced differently because of COVID?

We celebrated birthdays and our anniversary all in lockdown or with curfew. During Ramadan, the country had a curfew in effect to limit the amount of people and families meeting up.

At its strictest, what measures did Saudi Arabia institute? 

At its strictest we were in complete lockdown. We were allowed to go out for medical appointments, or one adult was allowed to go for groceries providing they had booked an appointment online. We were only allowed to the local stores on our compound. There were thermal cameras and/or temperatures being taken at the door as well. We weren’t allowed out to walk our dog, and the kids weren’t allowed out the front door. Luckily we bought a small pool for the backyard before the lockdown. All of our parks and recreation areas have been closed for a year. They have only recently opened the parks for the children. We have had to wear masks from the very beginning and are still monitored by the police. We are fined for not sticking to the rules.

Jim and his daughter enjoy movie night in the backyard in Saudi Arabia.

Now there is a government app that tracks our location and shows if we have left the country, been in contact with someone with COVID, tested with no COVID, or been vaccinated. We are now allowed to socialize with up to 20 people. Our children have had very minimal social interaction this year.

Are you satisfied with the measures that have been put in place?

I think the country has done a good job of slowing the spread of the virus, but it has been tough and at times felt too harsh, but that is how they’ve kept the daily numbers so low. I think most people are ready for the restrictions to be over. We are now allowed to meet others in small groups, which has helped with some levels of sanity.

What do you look forward to about post-pandemic life?

Being able to travel more freely. With the dietary restrictions here we have missed our trips across the bridge to get food and beverages that are missed from home. We are also looking forward to being able to come back to the US and visit family again.

Ann (Ulrich) ’73 and John Walker ’73

Ann and John are teachers in Santiago, Chile, where John also founded the home-based Forest Refuge Music Studio.

Below, Ann reflects on pandemic life in Chile.

Our careers as international educators have taken us to Central America, the Caribbean, and now South America.

Arriving in Chile in 1989, our work has included teaching in three international schools—Colegio Nido de Aguilas, Santiago College, and the Grange. John has founded a music studio in our home, Forest Refuge Music Studio, which has been the springboard for his teaching, composition, and recording.

John and Ann Walker at their home in Santiago, Chile

The months of January and February 2020 began like many others—music students coming up the lane for classes, my own students, enjoying reading and writing. We hosted a church gathering in our garden, uniting friends from all over the world, for a farewell get-together. John attended weekly rehearsals at our church, Santiago Community Church, in preparation for joint musical offerings. An overriding sense of productivity and contribution, creativity and community service was present. It was a time of maximum busyness yet paralleled with great satisfaction. I was so thankful!

Tutoring, students, friends, plus activities we loved filled our days in the Chilean summer months.

Like others in the world, we had heard the rumors, watched the news. China seemed so far away. How could an infection halfway around the world possibly spread? In what way could it even affect our lives in faraway Chile?

March 15. The world as we knew it changed: immediate lockdown, quarantine, stay-at-home directives. A once vibrant, busy, noisy city STOPPED, came to a total standstill.

Since March 15, 2020, our pandemic reality in Chile has been one of slow and careful observation and carefully monitored transition. At first, one needed a police permit that allowed a two-hour interval to do needed errands—food, pharmacy, basic tasks. Gradually, over months and months, more freedoms were available.

As I write today, March 12, 2021, one year later, our neighborhood has once more come alive with the sounds of activity—schools opening, construction beginning, neighbors gathering, children laughing and playing, even lawn mowers running.

For the longest time, the world as we knew it was silent, without motion.

Being housebound

Since John and I taught privately in our home, we were able to continue with classes via Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and other technological support systems. Weekly rehearsals for musicians were suspended. The church doors closed.

Our interaction with others—be it through church, classes, or conversation—all entered into a digital, online mode. Student visits accompanied by parents and siblings ceased.

We give thanks for the help of friends who offered to pick up supplies for us. Since they were younger, they generously offered to use their own permitted “window of time” granted by the local police to get groceries for us while doing their own shopping.

We never left our house, for months and months and months.

When I reflect upon this experience, I find it hard to believe that I have been literally housebound since March 15, 2020. There have been very few exceptions. We order groceries online and either have them delivered or go to the store for an automatic pickup in our car. Our local fruit and vegetable supplier delivers the orders that I have called in. Our life that once involved face-to-face encounters with people transformed to technology-based interactions. We no longer use cash—payments are made by bank transfers or with the use of debit cards.

Because of my age and at this point of my professional life, I have had a different experience than most. Being housebound has had significantly more benefits than disadvantages.

First, life is different. We rarely drive our car. Our interaction with others is by Facebook, Facetime, Skype, Zoom. Thanks to advances in technology we SEE our friends, family, and students on our phones and computer screens. There are fewer factors “screaming for our attention” or dominating our time and daily schedule.

For me, personally, I became aware of what was within my realm of control. I could not volunteer in hospitals nor care for the ill nor sit bedside with the dying. Instead, I could pray. My spiritual disciplines with time for reading, prayer, and meditation became the cornerstone of my day.

Time for conversation, reflection, gratitude was available in ways never before experienced to such a degree. I had uninterrupted time to focus on reading, my own creative writing, and an ongoing interaction, thanks to technology, with friends and family around the world.

Another blessing was the actual time I had with family. Our adult children were able to spend extended time with us after a nine-month interval and travel between regions was again permitted and curfews lifted. Joshua and Julia were able to work remotely, on their own computers, even from their old bedrooms(!), long abandoned when they left for university studies. The blessing of this time with my adult children has been unparalleled. As a friend remarked recently, “ I got another chance.”

With the intensity of days and fewer outside obligations, I have been able to focus on the most essential things—time for spiritual connections, interactions with loved ones, more time in my own home. I have watched and experienced the change of seasons firsthand. I take the time to rise with the dawn, watch the sunsets. I admire the shadows and ever-changing hues of the mountains, notice the plants, garden produce, and flowers in my own backyard. I have been given the gift of time.

John sent this photo of a Lutheran church in ValparaĂ­so, Chile, that he attends when on the Chilean coast.

I have time to pray. I have the opportunity to be generous to those in need who knock on my door. I share homemade goods, a bag full of nonperishables. I am able to provide meals for the people who have been part of our lives in the nearby village of Lo Barnechea.

Because Chile took this health threat seriously from the very start, I am thankful for the lives saved—due to restrictions for gatherings, ordinances enforcing mask wearing. Heavy fines are given for those who choose to not wear masks nor follow rules. In this country, there has been a systematic transition of gradual reopening. These conditions are carefully monitored subject to change whenever a health need rises. In fact, weekend curfews have now been reinstated due to the spike in active cases.

I feel that this pandemic has been a significant wake-up call with a daily time for reflection in my own life. This mandated pause of daily life has evolved into a new reality. The busy, frenetically paced, and stressful life of demands we once experienced is now but a memory as we continue to live within the confines and restrictions due to the pandemic.

Slow down, prioritize, focus, observe, appreciate, give thanks.

I constantly ponder: What is the most important thing/task/deed that I should do today?

Time in quiet meditation directs my day.

In June of 2020, in the cold of winter, I penned a post-pandemic wish list.

As I reread these wishes, now nine months later, I notice that I simply longed for the commonplace activities I had taken for granted for so many years.

Because of COVID-19, many simple pleasures of life have had to be postponed. Time with friends, attending church, even being in a group, and more.

The impact of this changing world, from one day to the next, has changed my own perspective about life. One should never take the ordinary for granted. I see each day with new eyes and a greater appreciation. In fact, on Monday, March 8, 2021, children were allowed to return to our neighborhood school (following the strictest of health and safety norms—masks, social distancing, and smaller classes).

From my window, I could hear the loudspeaker boom.

I listened to the voices ring in harmony singing the national anthem. I heard children’s voices. I could envision the “welcome back to school” speeches by headmasters, headmistresses, directors, and teachers. Laughter filled the air.

For me, that was the sweetest gift of all! At long last, our neighborhood was slowly coming back to life!

Josefina Bakhita Gonçalves Soares

Josefina Bakhita is a program assistant for USAID in Dili, Timor-Leste.

How has the pandemic impacted your work?

When COVID-19 was declared as a pandemic, our president immediately took action to declare a state of emergency. The borders were closed, and people who were allowed to enter had to be quarantined. We had the first imported confirmed case last year in late March, and the government immediately imposed strict rules that limit movements in the country. I was fortunate to be working in a place that could quickly adjust to the new working life, so I was working from home every other week. I switched to another job in the middle of the pandemic. Recently, we had a confirmed case locally, which quickly turned into around 200 active cases in 16 days, and the rules are even more strict than last year. The capital city, Dili, where I live, is in a sanitary fence and we can only go out for basic needs, such as grocery shopping and paying bills. My office has prepared for an outbreak like this, so it wasn’t a terrible inconvenience for us to work remotely. We’ve learned to have our meetings virtually and have developed the patience to deal with slow internet. My office also instituted alternate work schedules to allow flexibility in employees’ schedules to take care of their loved ones during this challenging time.

Josefina Bakhita Gonçalves Soares took this photo after eight hours of hiking Matebian mountain, one of the highest mountains in Timor-Leste.

What customs or celebrations have been practiced differently because of COVID?

The majority of Timorese people are Catholic, so religious celebrations are important here. Last year, the church was the first to take action by canceling Mass and religious ceremonies and traditions to prevent people from gathering in groups. It was a tough decision to make because it was almost Easter. But instead of having Mass during Easter, which usually draws thousands of people in one place, the church live-streamed the Mass so we could watch, and it felt like we were all together in prayer. We were fortunate to be able to celebrate last Christmas like we are used to, but now will have to participate in Mass virtually again for Easter this year.

At its strictest, what sorts of measures did Timor-Leste institute?

The strictest were the closing of businesses, schools, and religious or traditional rituals. The restrictions were loosened in June 2020, but they are in place again starting from early this month [March]. Movements are also more limited now. Last year, we could still walk along the beach without a mask on to enjoy the fresh air. Now, we can’t step outside the house without a mask, and the beachside is more controlled by the police.

Josefina Bakhita sent this photo of the beach in Praia dos Coqueiros, where she takes her early Sunday morning walk with her mother when strict pandemic measures aren't in place.

Are you satisfied with the measures that have been put in place?

I am satisfied with the measures but hoping that interventions are done quickly enough to minimize the impact on the most vulnerable. The private sector has been negatively impacted by political impasse, which took place before the pandemic, and that led to economic difficulties. The measures that are meant to protect public health might only exacerbate the struggles in the private sector. Also, the majority of Timorese are in the informal economy and rely on daily income. Strict measures being implemented could lead to reduction in their incomes.

What do you look forward to about post-pandemic life?

I look forward to having big gatherings with my extended family, reunions with friends, and traveling around the country.