Sheltering in a Different Place: My Perspective from Pakistan


By Eiman Navaid, Staff Writer

Our trip to Pakistan for the next family wedding had been confirmed in December. News of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, was only just starting to appear in the press as merely a rare and unusual disease that had only a couple of cases. It seemed as if it was nothing of worry to those outside of China.

Near the middle of February, my mother made the decision to leave for Pakistan earlier than intended to take care of her ailing mother. Still, no travel restrictions, health advisories, or notices of any kind had been issued in relation to COVID-19. At the airport, she mentioned, there were no health screenings. The only measure of ‘prevention’ was when the check-in attendant asked her if she had visited China in the last couple of weeks.

Fast forward to Wednesday, March 11, one day before our trip. The outbreak had escalated drastically. The World Health Organization classified it as a pandemic. Travel restrictions had been set in stone. Elementary, middle, and high schools were closing one by one, and colleges and universities sent students packing to leave their dorms, advising them to arrange housing situations as they did not plan to come back into session after spring break.

At around midnight, as my father, sister, and I were completing some last-minute packing, we received a call from my mother. Keeping up with the exponential increase of the virus highly publicized all over the news, she frantically questioned if it was better for us to cancel our trip and remain at home. We’d spoken over the phone on this topic a couple of times before as well, but it was the other way around. My sisters and I were having doubts about traveling, and my mother was reassuring us that as long as we followed the guidelines of consistently disinfecting and keeping to ourselves, along with receiving any necessary medical pre-requisite, we would be okay.

We debated for a while that night, going over the pros and cons of moving forward with our original travel plan. Here’s why we eventually decided to go:

  1. We hadn’t seen our mother in almost one month and felt it would be appropriate to be with her as she took care of her sick mother.
  2. Our original plan was to visit for our cousin’s wedding, who would be the last in her immediate family to get married as her younger brother had passed away last year, and we had not visited since. It would be a little insensitive to cancel with an understanding of their situation.
  3. The data in the entire country of Pakistan was significantly less than the data in the state of Illinois. We weren’t traveling to a high-risk country. In fact, at the time of our travel, the country of Pakistan had a total of 21 confirmed cases, while the state of Illinois had a total of 32 confirmed cases. (As of right now, they each have 5,496 and 20,852 confirmed cases respectively.)
  4. Our schools were most likely going to switch to ‘e-learning’ anyway, so we wouldn’t be missing much.
  5. And lastly, we were only traveling for two weeks (or at least, that’s how long we thought we were traveling for).

The first thing we noticed was that O’hare was empty. No lines to be dropped off, no lines to check-in, and no lines for security. There was hand sanitizer everywhere. Everyone was wearing a mask and gloves. The gloves, I understood. The mask, I did not, as I had read everywhere and was told by my doctor that masks were only effective for those who were sick. (It’s quite interesting how things have escalated now.) In the plane, the flight attendants were also keeping their distance and wore masks and gloves. At our layover in Qatar, the airport was also empty. We were greeted with complete silence. And once again, everyone was wearing a mask. When we got to Pakistan, however, things were a little bit different. The airport was slightly more crowded than I had anticipated. Yet again, however, everyone was wearing a mask. This was also the first time we went through any coronavirus protective measures. On the flight, we were given health evaluation cards, which we had to fill out and present to the medical staff at the airport. There, we also went through a thermal screening. I was really surprised that the first time in our travel journey, there was any direct measure of prevention of the coronavirus was after our arrival.

At our layover in Qatar, we received yet another call from my mother, this time informing us that all of the wedding/banquet halls had been shut down for two weeks, meaning the wedding venue was now up in the air. The rest of my family and I sat there, thinking, if only they had decided this a day before: we would have canceled our plans.

Nevertheless, we were now in Karachi, away from our home. We made sure to keep our distance at the airport, and our family brought us a bunch of disinfecting and sanitizing supplies to use right away. After arriving, my mother and I did go out around three times for some last-minute wedding errands, making sure to follow the guidelines for public places (to reiterate, this was before the official stay-at-home orders had been issued). The wedding was moved to a small, family gathering inside the house, and the valima, or what Americans would call ‘wedding #2’ was canceled– this really upset me because I loved my outfit. The day after the wedding, the country was officially placed under lockdown, and my family was more than thankful that they were able to fit in a memorable wedding the day before.

I constantly kept up with the news in America as I sat in my grandma’s house with my cousins who lived there. I watched as the cases, and the death toll drastically grew day by day. My family and I debated as we received notifications about immediately leaving the country one week after we arrived. We decided against it, as my grandmother was still sick and my parents wanted to spend more time with their parents. It was no surprise to us when our flight for March 31st was canceled, as Pakistan had issued a cancellation in all international arrivals. Our trip had been extended until the 7th of April.

On the 4th of April, the government extended the travel ban for yet another week, so our next flight out was on the 14th of April. And once again, on the 12th of April, the government of Pakistan extended their travel ban for another week. Our next flight out is unconfirmed. What was supposed to be a fun and short two-week wedding trip had turned into a month of quarantine in another country. It was extremely frustrating to be hit with the sudden extensions on our trip.

We received many notifications of charter flights flying U.S citizens back to America. When we first heard, we jumped at the opportunity to make sure we wouldn’t be stuck for long, but then, when we found out the full details, we decided against going:

  1. Charter flights were packed with up to 300, high-risk individuals. There was no practice of social distancing.
  2. They were expensive, and we had already paid for tickets to go back.
  3. They were only available by request to certain citizens.
  4. There was only one outbound flight to Washington, D.C. From there, travelers had to find their own means of transportation to their home state.

Overall, we decided it would be okay for us to stay for a little bit longer. We had many privileges, our biggest one being our own place to stay with our family. There were no shortages of any kind in Pakistan. When we ran out of toilet paper, we simply went and got more. Our cousin provided the entire family with masks, and my aunt was able to supply all of us with large bottles of hand sanitizer. Soaps, disinfectants, and groceries were still intact, like always. That was one of the biggest differences that I had noticed. Even right before we left for Pakistan, I was unable to find any kind of cleaning or household supplies at Target.

The people in Pakistan were not panicked like those in America were before the pandemic had even unfolded. Essential items were intact, places weren’t overcrowded, and people were simply following the rules they were told. The government was taking quick and immediate action whenever they saw a spike, which included sealing neighborhoods, closing down stores, and managing the streets.

While being quarantined with our cousins has its benefits, there are still many struggles we face while stuck in Pakistan:

  1. Remote learning is a disaster. With a 10-hour time difference and a faulty internet connection, Zoom calls were impossible to join. I had to keep up with the difference in deadlines and the lack of access to many necessary learning tools. I didn’t bring anything but my laptop and my math folder because, obviously, I did not expect this would happen.
  2. While our grandma’s house is our home, it’s still not our home. There are many things we are unable to do here during quarantine that we could have been able to in Chicago: cooking/baking experiments, spring cleaning, re-decorating, household family activities, etc. Here in Pakistan, we just play a bunch of different card and board games or watch TV or mess around with the little kids.
  3. The weather. I know it’s not a logical and justified struggle, but the weather in Pakistan is unbearable. It’s simply dry heat. Houses here do not have central cooling systems (they don’t need heaters because it’s never cold). They only have air conditioners for the bedrooms in the house. This results in a lack of exposure to fresh air, which is extremely necessary during quarantine. Meanwhile, Chicago is having great weather days right now.
  4. Not being able to see our entire family, which is the main reason we came in the first place. While we do see the baby cousins that live in our grandma’s house, we aren’t able to really see the cousins our age who live in their own houses with their families.

Despite our struggles, we still have many privileges while being stuck:

  1. Access to any essential goods. Once again, those in Pakistan are not panicked, so there was no impulse or stocking up.
  2. The ability to be quarantined with more family makes the experience a lot less boring.
  3. The understanding of my teachers when it came to assignments, Zoom calls, and other online assignments. Many of my teachers understood my situation and exempt me from multiple assignments and live classes. Meanwhile, on Twitter, I was seeing a lot of high school and college students expressing their frustration over how their teachers didn’t bother to care or understand their situations during the pandemic and simply expected them to attend class online and meet all of their deadlines regardless.
  4. Being in a low-risk country. We are stuck in Pakistan, not Europe, which was a blessing on its own.

Something important that struck me throughout my trip so far was my family’s constant desire to know how America was doing. They would ask every day, ‘how are things there?’ My answer was expected to be along the lines of ‘it’s getting better every day,’ or ‘it’s not as bad as it is here.’ I witnesses their faces twist in confusion as I explained the severity of the outbreak in the United States. And then I understood, when my cousin explained it to me, that they expected the situation to be under control because it’s America. I think that’s explained enough.

Going off of that topic, it is really interesting to me that America was unable to get a handle on COVID-19 and has allowed it to spread drastically, despite being the so-called ‘most powerful country in the world.’ It amazes me to see myself stuck in a ‘third-world country,’ yet it has complete control over the virus.

I’ve written a lot of lists in this article, but this may be the most important one of all. Here’s everything I have learned from experiencing the coronavirus outbreak in another country:

  1. The future is heavily uncertain. Things can change in an instant, and one can never be prepared for everything.
  2. While things may seem upside down for one, there are people out there who have it worse and would do anything to have their life.
  3. Those in my family who were so intrigued by the American lifestyle have seen how it can turn against someone immediately during a time of crisis when it should do the opposite and help them out.
  4. Be grateful and cherish the small moments.