The World Health Organization (WHO) situation report, classfied COVID-19 as pandemic on March 11. There were 118,319 confirmed cases and 4,292 deaths globally.
My mother's phone call had awoken me from sleep. It was 3 a.m. in the United Kingdom.
I had a 9 a.m. class in a few hours and was upset at how early the call was. She asked, “Did you hear what Trump said?”.
She explained President Trump was suspending travel from Europe beginning on March 13 at midnight. In a frantic tone, she said I needed to pack my belongings. Shortly after, the UCA office of study abroad had sent an email to all spring exchange students terminating trips.
Ticket prices grew exponentially and airlines had a 10-hour phone queue to rebook flights. My parents were able to purchase a $3000 flight for me to return to Arkansas. My original non-refundable return ticket for late May was useless. It was $900.
With less than 24 hours, I disassembled my dorm room, turned in final assignments and said goodbye to once in a lifetime friends. As I left the small town of Ormskirk, U.K. at 2 a.m. on March 12, I felt anxious about the return journey to the U.S.
I had only slept for 2 hours and was operating in an exhaustive state. I conversed briefly with my taxi driver about her pregnancy and gave her a hug goodbye. Once arriving at the airport I learned that my 7 a.m. flight had been delayed. I was scheduled to depart Manchester at noon.
While waiting for flight check-in to open I perused through news articles about the COVID-19 pandemic and ways to protect myself. I did not wear a mask at the time nor did I have hand sanitizer with me. I felt unequipped.
When I made it to my terminal gate there was no one there, but as time passed airport staff began to clean seats, rope off areas and assemble a partition to check temperatures behind. I had an ill-feeling that I was going to be stuck in Manchester if my temperature was checked.
I had recently come back from the Netherlands the prior week. I intermingled with people from various countries such as Italy, which was a coronavirus hotspot at the time.
Airport staff did not take my temperature but of those who were recently in Ireland. All seats on the plane were filled. There was no social distancing. I sat next to a doctor who was from Mexico. She was at a research conference in Austria and left early because of Trump’s announcement.
Eight hours later, I landed at the Philadelphia International Airport. Going through customs was relatively easy. However, Philadelphia's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was overwhelmed. Bags were not checked, and agents were cursing at travelers. It was a travelers' nightmare.
My next connection was to the Chicago O’Hare International Airport and rumors of the mayhem there had begun to circulate. I called my parents and asked them to change my flight. I was now headed to Charlotte, North Carolina. When I arrived in North Carolina, I felt a dramatic shift in energy. People had calmness. It was like the news of a pandemic had not made it to them. It was strange.
I departed North Carolina on March 13 at 10:30 p.m. It was a 2-hour flight that had about 20 people occupying the plane. No one sat next to me. At 11:30 p.m., I made it to Arkansas and began my 14-day quarantine the following day.
It is unknown whether or not I was an asymptomatic carrier of coronavirus at the time. There are numerous instances where I could have infected others. Trump’s message on that Wednesday night caused a mass panic for travelers in Europe who had close connections to the U.S. Hindsight is 20/20 however the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve times have passed.
It is now July 9. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 132,056 deaths and 3,047,671 cases of coronavirus in the U.S. thus far. This pandemic is not going to disappear instantaneously. It is a community effort and every person is accountable for their actions.
Do I feel invincible with mandatory mask ordinances and hand sanitizer in my back pocket now? No, not really but it’s a start to navigating the new normal. Therefore, I deeply urge every person to continue to social distance and think about what impact you may have on society.