Midterm-break was over, and several students who traveled to their families and friends would be returning to campus. I somehow had a foreboding sense that an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus was inevitable. Before this outbreak, I recall panicking about this virus because of the initial uncertainty of how it was contracted. I had cemented that idea in my mind that the worst thing that can happen is to contract this virus and give my mother something to worry about. I was determined to not be infected with this virus. The teacher in me decided that one sure way to protect myself was to educate myself. I started doing some research and I became inundated with data. Unfortunately, the information gathered from my research did very little to equip me and maintain my sanity. As a matter of fact, it fed my anxiety.
On the evening of March 11th, 2020, I was leaving a drama production when my Trinidadian friend who accompanied me looked down at her phone and said: “ Gyal…it look like it have one here.” I knew exactly what “have one here” meant. I slowly took a deep breath in and out. I knew I was getting ready for battle. The following morning, I decided to stock up on some groceries and other cleaning supplies. The plan was to shop for at least a month to reduce my interaction with other people. On that morning, the supermarket was the busiest I had ever seen. Long lines, busybodies, anxious faces, and empty aisles. The supermarket was out of hand soap, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and wet wipes. My instincts kicked in and I settled for bleach, tissue paper, disinfectant, and antibacterial dishwashing liquid. Without warning, my breath quickened, my vision tunneled, my heart raced and my palms became sweaty. It had suddenly dawned on me I am an international student in a cold strange land who would be facing this pandemic alone, without the comfort and support of my home island and my family.
I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths and pleasant thoughts of my niece came to mind. Thoughts of her comforted me. I was also comforted in knowing that I had previously started practicing frequent hand washing and significantly reduced how often I would touch my face, long before we had a confirmed case in New Brunswick. Five days after the confirmation of the first presumptive case, panic consumed me when a string of emails from my university skyrocketed my anxiety. An attachment from the Public Health Services confirmed: “There are presumptive cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in your university community”. Approximately forty minutes later I got another email informing me that “Students are required to move out of residences as soon as possible but no later than 5 p.m. on Wednesday, March 18th, 2020.”
Consumed by panic, worry, and anxiety, I initially thought that I am now homeless. I read the email again and the university indicated that international students are allowed to stay on campus. I could finally breathe a sigh of relief. My roommates moved out by Wednesday morning and I was alone in the apartment. I loved being alone until my anxiety led me to a massive cleaning of the entire apartment when I recalled, that both my roommate spent a weekend in Toronto before the outbreak.
At this moment, I wanted more than anything to just go back to St. Lucia. But how? Get to an airport? Travel through Toronto? Which had over 180 cases? Layover in Toronto? At a hotel? What if I make a mistake or I contract the virus while traveling back home? Then I must depend on our failing health system to take care of me? What if I infect my family? My bedridden grandmother? What kind of person would I be if I place my country at risk? … (You have just been previewed to an intense episode of overthinking and anxiety). Ultimately, I decided to stay on campus. My university immediately put things in place to support the school community. All our classes were transitioned to a virtual classroom in a week. Library services were available online. Doctor’s appointments were done over the phone. Free online counseling services were available for all students. In addition, all students who were somehow affected by the pandemic was eligible for up to CAD 1000.00 from the University. The Canadian government also provided various categories of financial support for students who were employed in Canada and are unable to work as a result of the pandemic.
I felt betrayed by the fact that everyone in St. Lucia was encouraging me to stay in Canada. They did not yet understand that this pandemic is traumatic and my desire to be home is purely for my psychological well being. I thought about this virus wreaking havoc on my island. I envisioned St. Lucia’s tourism economy in the ruins, our health care service in complete shambles, our lack of technology as an imperative part of our basic services, and most importantly the lack of consideration and understanding of the psychological damage this pandemic would have on the population. Worrying about my home country and the country I currently lived in was a next level of anxiety I was not prepared for. The trauma caused by this pandemic has truly brought out the bad and the ugly in everyone. But it has also brought out some good.
Even though I yearned to be with my St. Lucian community, I was able to experience love and support from the small community of people I met in New Brunswick. I was blessed to have people who regularly checked up on me whether it was for a grocery run, emotional support, prayer, outdoor exercise, and an occasional glass of wine. My professors and dean were extremely accommodating and offered to help me with practically anything. I knew God had strategically placed these people in my life to get me through this challenging time. I have reached my lowest point of anxiety and my highest point of joy! I have decided that this pandemic will not break my spirit, but it will strengthen it. I am coping by gradually shifting my perspective of this time of isolation as a gift from God to myself as I reflect on the person I am and the person I would like to be. It is extremely challenging to actively fight off negative thoughts and bring myself to a place of peace and acceptance that this pandemic is beyond me. The only thing I can control is myself. And that I will do.
I will be graduating in December and I cannot wait to return to my island to buy a coconut by the market and eat the sweet jelly right after. I cannot wait to feel the scorching sun on my back in the city of Castries to highlight my melanin skin. I cannot wait to hear some sweet Soca music bursting through the air while soaking my feet in the deep blue sea. I cannot wait to smell the sulphur on my late-night drives to the Sulphur city for a hot mineral bath. I cannot wait to stand in humility at our majestic Pitons and marvel at God’s work. I cannot wait to taste my mother’s bouillon cooked on a coal pot in our yard. And most importantly I cannot wait to share with my students everything I have learned about surviving a pandemic in a foreign land.