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Covid-19: the expat angle

by Emma Morrell

When people first started exploring the globe, they left home, never knowing when or if they would ever return. Until relatively recently, the idea of travelling home even once a year was just not something expats could do. Yet, in this age of globalisation and accessible travel, we’ve been able to move much more freely around the world.

Until now.

Now, the planet has found itself held hostage to a threat that doesn’t recognise fences, borders, governments, wealth, or status. Like a cascade of dominos, we collectively held our breath as we watched authorities around the world imposing increasingly stringent restrictions on international travel and domestic movement. Country by country, they closed shops and schools with varying levels of strictness.

For many, lockdowns of varying degrees have meant limitations on seeing friends and families. They have also meant grappling with home-schooling (nay, crisis schooling!) obligations, dealing with the consequences of panic buying, and for some, cancelled holidays.

As expats, we have been dealing with this and more. We are already used to distancing ourselves from our home countries. Missing our families, friends, and familiar cultures is something we live with every day. But the travel restrictions? This is something that has made expat Facebook groups and forums light up, as reality dawns on us and sheds light on the true consequences of living away during a crisis.

The virus has brought a level of claustrophobia that has infiltrated our day-to-day lives, and not the type that comes from being stuck inside all day (although that’s there too). This claustrophobia comes from dealing with not being able to travel and see family, and not being able to predict when the next time we see them will be.

We are faced with the reality of what getting back to our native soil in an emergency could mean, knowing that if we do, we may not be able to return our newer homes until this crisis has passed.  Some families are already separated, with one parent finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are now stranded where they are, unable to return to their loved ones. Other people are dealing with trying to repatriate, having lost their jobs in a sudden economic downturn. Uncertainty has a whole new meaning for those families.

This is, unquestionably, a problem faced by everyone in this new world of social distancing and quarantine. When domestic limitations are relaxed, we all expect the international community to take longer to open its borders and let people in. But even when it does, employers, keen to get back on their feet, may not let us take time off to travel.

While we grieve the loss of summer plans and the ability to travel home freely, we are also missing our expat tribes. Expats know only too well the value of a new friendship in a strange environment. Relationships here can be intense: rapidly forged over a cup of tea, or initiated via a simple post in a Facebook group. They can accelerate fast, driven by the transient nature of expat life, the need for local connections, and the mutual understanding of the loneliness of this lifestyle. The loss of this support network leaves us feeling bewildered and disorientated.

As the virus spread, there have been more dawning realisations, and preparing for an emergency is certainly one of them. The realities of expat life, once again, add to the complexities of an already complicated situation. Most of us in Qatar have had grab-bags since the 2017 blockade or before. At the time, it was a way of taking back control in an uncertain situation. It was a way of ensuring preparedness in an expat life that had become distinctly complacent, regardless of location.

Covid-19 has, however, taken expats all over the world by surprise. There is newfound anxiety about falling ill. Navigating a foreign healthcare system that is by no means an easy job at the best of times, is far more difficult now. Not only that, but we all face issues of guardianship and residency rights. Statistically, the chance of contracting the virus, much less succumbing to it, still remains quite low in Qatar, thanks to prompt restrictions on movement. But the consequences of having both parents in quarantine, hospital, or far worse, succumbing to the illness, are things we must all think about and prepare for.

Like millions of others, we are on a steep learning curve as we adapt to a “new normal”—though there is nothing normal about any of this. We have been forced into self-isolation, and our jobs have changed. People who once travelled constantly are now working from home. Whereas others who are used to working from home in peace and quiet, are now overwhelmed with a full house. But above all, for parents, little has been as stressful as the overnight transition to the role of our children’s teachers.

Sean Sibley, the headmaster at Doha English Speaking School, tells parents not to over-worry about their children regressing in school. He says that when all of this is over, teachers will be able to teach them and correct them from the points they had reached. He also tells us to go easy on ourselves and to avoid picking fights with our children because they don’t want to do maths or they’re resisting following a schedule. His key message to parents is as follows: “If I can leave you with one thing, it’s this: At the end of all of this, your children’s mental health will be more important than their academic skills. How they felt during this time will stay with them after the memory of what they did during those weeks is long gone. So, keep that in mind, every single day.”

On a more granular level, the uncertainty and a complete lack of control have left everyone reeling. The disruption to our routines has thrown us all off course. Suddenly, it is taking more effort and creativity for us to keep ourselves entertained, motivated, and inspired. Polly Bagley, a former Doha resident and founder of Follow Your Sunshine Coaching, understands exactly how we are all feeling and says there are three scientifically-proven actions we can put in place to feel better. They are:

  • Having a solid routine that incorporates elements of self-care, such as meditation or exercise, to lift your mood and add structure to your day;
  • Shifting your mindset to a place of gratitude by listing at least three things you’re thankful for, to focus your thoughts on abundance;
  • Practising mindfulness to help you make the very best of every moment, especially when you feel yourself slipping towards despair.

Polly recommends doing at least one thing daily purely because it brings us joy. This can include connecting with loved ones through a video call, opening a book for the first time in months, getting into a Netflix series, or taking up a new hobby. “Occupying our minds with fun is so important,” she says. She also adds: “Undertaking joyful pursuits provides us with a soothing shot of oxytocin, reduces anxiety, and even boosts our immune system. Of course, the opposite is also true, so making a concerted effort to limit your access to things that sap your joy or increase anxiety — such as the news, social media, and negative conversations — will also benefit you enormously right now.”

No one knows what the new normal will look like, much less when it will come. Covid-19 might be more complicated for expats, but, for once, there is an awful lot we share with the rest of the world. While we all face new challenges daily, we are learning lessons too.

We are seeing miracles happen all around us—from the selfless acts of health workers on the frontlines to satellite images of significant reductions in pollution. We can all only hope that life post-Covid-19 will be better because of everything we have learned. Lessons on how to slow down, how to appreciate the little things, and not taking anything for granted will, hopefully, better us for the next stages of our lives.