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Covid Journals: Year of the Rat Redux

By Mara Sirbu

During the Fall 2020 Semester, The Oppy will be publishing submissions from members of the Stern community about how the Covid-19 Pandemic has impacted their experience in and out of the program. If you wish to write about your own experience, please e-mail us at oppy@stern.nyu.edu. 

The following entry comes from Langone student Mara Sirbu.

On January 23, 2020 the editor-in-chief of the Oppy (the one and only, Deirdre Keane) reached out to ask me if I’d be willing to write an article about my experience living through the Hong Kong protests – and later followed up with a bonus ask to write about my experience living through the beginnings of Covid-19 in Asia.  For ease, I’ll elect to take on the second ask for today and, while clearly this is a very belated response, I’m ready to share my Covid-19 experience from one of the first places to experience the pandemic. 

Hold up… 

Before I jump into the gory details, a little bit of context: I’m writing from Hong Kong where I’ve been living and working for nearly two years. In Hong Kong, I transferred into a new role in supply chain management. I visited many factories that produce consumer electronics and saw firsthand how products move around the world. The first year was filled with work and travel – travel, of course, being a huge draw to moving here as it’s ridiculously easy to get just about anywhere in Asia from Hong Kong. 

On the Stern side – the plan was to continue my half-completed Langone program by participating in a smattering of DBis (shout out China 2019 and Australia 2020), attending an exchange program with HKUST in Hong Kong, and flying to NYC for intensives and summer courses. My plan has been two-thirds on target with an unexpected silver lining. As we’re all too aware, Stern has gone online so I’ve been able to take synchronous classes with my fellow classmates, albeit 13 hours “ahead”. Taking a Corporate Finance midterm at midnight on Halloween is a small price to pay for this flexibility. 

But this is a Covid-19 journal, right?, so let’s get to that part of the story… let’s rewind the clock to what feels like a decade ago a.k.a. the beginning of this marathon of a year. 

It was all good just a week ago

Mid-January. Usually pretty bleak – dirty snow, peak J-term intensive, and post-holiday blues. But this year, the year of the rat, began with an auspicious start. I just wrapped up DBi Sydney with a cohort of amazing Sternies with whom I’d enjoyed some serious studying of the Australian wine industry. While the DBi was incredible, in retrospect, quite a few students came down with a mysterious illness that took them out of commission for days at a time. We chalked it up to “studying” too hard, but one does wonder if this was a sign of what was to come. 樂

Immediately after my DBi, I traveled home to change luggage and go straight to Thailand for a work trip (rough life, I know). At this point in the timeline – approximately January 21st – Wuhan had just gone into lockdown and other Chinese cities were following suit. I tried to stock up on masks at the Hong Kong airport on my way to Bangkok, but the lines were bonkers and budgeting extra time at the airport has never been one of my strengths. I thought I’d try my luck in Thailand but quickly found supplies there were also running low. I went from 7-11 to 7-11 (7-11 is *a thing* in Asia) trying to find masks, to no avail. I did, however, find a kind woman who was willing to negotiate with a local pharmacy to sell me two boxes of masks at the standard going rate (already inflated, but not the 10x farang mark up). I clutched these masks like gold as I knew back in Hong Kong the next shipments were uncertain, and I genuinely appreciated the random act of kindness from a total stranger. 

It’s a small world, after all

Again, I headed home to Hong Kong to do laundry and pick up my husband and a friend from home who was visiting. Our next stop was Tokyo to spend the Chinese New Year holiday… in Japan (at this point, I know this sounds pretty ridiculous and obnoxious, bopping from one country to another, but it is (was?) a real draw of living in Asia’s hub). In TYO, we noticed an increased use of masks as the days went on, but our guard was still relatively low as Covid felt like it was contained within Greater China. Then in a smoky Izakaya restaurant, I got a real lesson in globalization. A gentleman, who had clearly been enjoying a few Asahis, started chatting us up. After we exchanged pleasantries he explained how he also worked in supply chain for consumer electronics. He casually mentioned that he had just left Wuhan 9 days earlier before the government shut the borders. “Oh,” I thought to myself, “what are the odds that I’d be sitting next to someone in Tokyo who had just been in Wuhan?” Not that small it turns out. 

The next night, we made our way back to Hong Kong and could tell things were escalating. Now, every single person on our flight was wearing a mask – when only a few days earlier, it was only about 10%.  Things started to become very real when our friend had to reschedule his flight home to New York because United Airlines kept canceling flights out of Hong Kong. I started to hear more from coworkers in Shanghai who spent all of Chinese New Year in lockdown – only one family member could leave the house every few days for a couple hours to get essential supplies. 

Should I stay or should I go?

Upon returning to Hong Kong there was a new crisis on my hands – toilet paper. Hong Kong apartments are even smaller (and more expensive) than those in NYC, so I never bothered to stock up; rather I operated a “just in time” inventory, for my fellow operations nerds. This model proved to be quite dangerous when the global toilet paper supply was constrained. For days at a time I canvassed the local grocery stores, stalking delivery trucks and approaching strangers I saw carrying TP. “Excuse me, umm, where did you get that?” Finally a gentleman pointed me in the right direction. I showed up to the store to find the aisles empty again; however, a very kind shop owner had stored a few packs in the back for “foreigners.” This moment reminded me of the woman in Thailand who helped me procure masks. The kindness of these strangers has continued to be a real bright point through an otherwise dark time. 

Family back in the US began to encourage my husband and I to think about coming back to the States until the Covid situation calmed down. After nine months of protests in Hong Kong and now a pandemic squarely situated in Asia, our parents were thinking it was time to get out of dodge. We decided to “ride it out” in Hong Kong and, like the rest of the world, we still didn’t realize how quickly and widely the pandemic would spread.


Here and now

Fast forward back to present day. Yesterday, (which is your today, New York) Hong Kong counted 6 new cases of COVID-19 which is on par with the daily numbers since September. Most of these cases are “imported,” meaning they are detected at the airport or another border crossing. Everyone who enters Hong Kong must quarantine for two weeks, so the likelihood of community spread remains relatively low. We wear masks, we take our temperature everywhere (even 7-11), and we do contact tracing pretty well. I feel very lucky to be in a place where the virus is under control, but I watch with horror as my friends and family live in places where the case count skyrockets. The year of the rat has dealt us some challenges, but also provided opportunities to look inward and reset. I’ve learned how to sit still, lower my carbon footprint, appreciate the beauty in my own backyard, and treasure the kindness of strangers. Please take care of yourselves and each other.

Bonus photos 

(Busy streets of Hong Kong Island  – Photo credit Mara Sirbu)

(My husband and I riding our favorite mode of transportation in Hong Kong, the outdoor escalator  – Photo credit Mara Sirbu)

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