Postcards from a pandemic: Expat tales from COVID hot spots
Five months since the global pandemic was called, life with COVID-19 remains unpredictable.
For many Australians, coming home hasn't been an option. They've ridden out the crisis in some of the hardest hit cities in the world.
Like us, after the first peaks passed, they continue on in a whiplash cycle of restrict, relax, restart as infection numbers flare up and second waves loom
We asked them about life under lockdown and adapting to the 'new normal'.
STEFANO MANFREDI: BRESCIA
Watching Aussies brawl over loo rolls during lockdown in Italy remains one of the more bizarre moments of the pandemic for Italian Australian chef Stefano Manfredi.
"Look, the toilet paper thing, nobody in the world can understand," laughs Manfredi from Italy. "What in the world happened?"
Four days after Manfredi arrived in Milan for work in March, Italy enacted what was the most radical national lockdown outside China.
He made it to Brescia to take refuge with friends and didn't step outside again for two months.
"Italy was the first country outside China to really get hit so it was unknown what was going on. It was incredibly fast," he said.
Brescia is about 30km from Bergamo in Lombardy, the country's worst hit region. Hospitals were overwhelmed and the army was deployed as authorities struggled to process the dead.
"For two months, there were ambulances, the sirens of ambulances, night and day continually because Brescia was almost as bad as Bergamo," he said.
"You couldn't have funerals, there were army trucks of caskets going past because the morgues were all full here, so they were taking them south," he said.
More than 35,000 Italians have died so far. On the worst day, March 27, the virus claimed 969 lives in 24 hours.
"Everyone knows someone who died," said Manfredi, who was born in a small town not far from Rezzato, the suburb in Brescia he was staying in.
Fortunate to be locked down with friends who own a pizzeria, Manfredi got through quarantine cooking, baking sourdough and writing a Detective novel.
When restrictions began to ease in May, it was spring and on his first day outside, red poppies - the flower of remembrance - had bloomed. It was surreal.
Today, cases in Italy are limited to the hundreds most days, masks and social distancing are mandatory and a cautious optimism exists even as new outbreaks flare up.
But Manfredi says Italians are wary of a second wave when the weather cools and have been "frightened into compliance" by their huge casualties.
"I don't know if it's visible from outside the country because it's seen as a basket case of COVID. But being in it, yes there has been tragedy but now that the number of people infected and the death rate is going down … seeing how Italians have coped has been fantastic," he said.
"Everybody that I see on the street has their mask either on or around their neck, so when they approach people they lift it up. Everybody has a spare mask around their wrist.
"For a second wave … when it does come, they're prepared."
Manfredi has no immediate plans to return to Sydney. Limited flights and mandatory $3000 hotel quarantine can wait. Instead, he's taking advantage of a rare thing - an Italy without tourists - visiting the quiet canals of Venice and empty piazzas of Sicily as summer blooms.
"I'm very fortunate. Having put up with months of isolation, it's almost like a reward to see Italy without tourists and be able to travel easily. It's a nice silver lining."
ADRIAN CUNNINGHAM: NEW YORK/BARCELONA
"The ironic thing about lockdown in New York," says musician Adrian Cunningham, "is that it was so un-New York."
Holed up in a Harlem apartment, Sydney-born Cunningham watched the life drain out of the city he loved when COVID-19 hit.
"What makes New York, what gives it its spirit from my point of view is the culture and the night life. New York shut down really lost its essence for me, it lost the spirit of why I was even there."
One of Australia's top jazz exports, Cunningham's decade-long dream existence in the city ended when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced stay-at-home orders on March 20.
With his girlfriend on the other side of the world in Barcelona, and unable to work other than online recordings and tutoring, for three months it felt like groundhog day as the nightmarish death toll unfolded on the news.
"Everything was closed," he said. "The city itself was a ghost town. Places like Soho, Tribeca, they were just empty, a lot of the rich people just got the hell out of Manhattan."
Subways, clean for once thanks to the pandemic, were bereft of New Yorkers now fearful of enclosed spaces: "Homeless people were kind of living on them too because it was like, 'This is great, I've got my compartment to myself finally."
Three of Cunningham's close friends caught the virus and were knocked around pretty bad.
One of his student's mothers, an ER nurse, warned him: "You do not want to get this, this thing is horrific."
New York's 19.5 million residents endured nearly 12 weeks of lockdown.
"Everything I loved about New York disappeared for me. I couldn't even see my friends," he said. "My closest buddy, I think we met twice in a park to have some beers at six feet so I think that was the most socialising I did. It was surreal."
On June 15, he flew to Barcelona as it emerged from a strict lockdown.
"To be in Barcelona with the sunshine, it still had restrictions, you had to wear masks, but all the shops were opened, it was really nice," he said. "It felt like I'd escaped prison."
Just seven weeks after bringing its first wave under control, Spain is once again in a critical situation with the worst infection rate in Western Europe.
Reunited with his partner, and playing outdoor gigs, Cunningham is adapting to a "cautious life as normal" where spiking infections mean rules change by the day.
"The weird thing about Spain is the laws didn't make sense to me. You couldn't be on the street without a mask, you couldn't be in a store without a mask … but you can go into a bar and it's packed and that's okay.
"I think everyone's a little confused here!"
JASON DUNDAS, LOS ANGELES
When Los Angeles shut down on March 15, it brought the cleanest air the city had seen in decades. It also brought rain.
"It was weird because it hardly ever rains in LA and on that day it rained, and it rained for the next week," said LA-based TV host Jason Dundas.
"There was this weird, eerie feeling that it was going to be the end of the world. There was nobody on the street, and seeing places like Hollywood Boulevard, the Chinese Theatre, El Capitan without any people was just surreal."
Dundas, who runs a production company in Hollywood, frantically pivoted his team to remote work. Demand for video surged as people turned to devices during lockdown, and his business is thriving in a town where most of the entertainment industry has ground to halt.
Close to a million people are now unemployed in LA and homelessness has skyrocketed. On Dundas' block near Sunset Blvd, the homeless tent city has grown tenfold.
"A lot of people in this city are transient, they're in this city essentially trying to win the lotto and get a gig and now they're waiting, waiting for what? They don't know.
In a town full of aspiring actors an artists already unemployed, it's a tough road ahead.
"They can't meet anybody, there's no hope on the horizon, it's quite lonely. For those people, and some of my friends are like that, it's incredibly hard."
On top of the economic hit, COVID-19 has been heavily politicised in the US. Conflicting news reports and debates over masks and lockdowns are far more volatile than Australia.
"I live in a building with 20 floors and there's signs and policies in place in my building that say you can't enter without a mask," he said.
"Certain residents still don't wear masks and people get very angry.
"I've seen some arguments on the street among people who wear it and who don't wear it … it's an interesting thing but most people in California do wear them."
Late last month, after a record surge of 11,800 COVID cases in 24 hours, California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered closures of gyms, malls and indoor businesses in LA.
When we spoke to Dundas, he was bracing for things to get worse.
"I don't have a crystal ball, I have no idea what's going to happen. I could sound like an idiot in two months but in this present moment, I'm grateful that I'm healthy, my family's healthy and I've got a lot of work on … It's life as usual."
NICOLE TRIAN, PARIS
Nicole Trian was in the FRANCE 24 newsroom in Paris the night WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Her reaction was, "What took them so long?"
Italy was already shut down, and infections in her adopted city were surging.
By March 17, France ordered its citizens indoors for what would drag into two months.
From her tiny apartment in the 9th arrondissement, Trian watched the capital change overnight.
In high-density Paris where socialising outdoors is a cultural pastime, telling Parisians to stay indoors was like cutting off the lifeblood of the city, journalist Trian said.
"When you consider that cafes, restaurants and bars didn't even close during WWII when Paris was under Nazi occupation, then you get a sense of just how much this virus has ruptured the very fabric of Parisian life."
Few people had time to prepare. Shelves were stripped of essentials (except toilet paper) and you needed the skills of a hostage negotiator to get groceries delivered to your door.
"There were scenes of pandemonium at Paris's train stations, the platforms teeming with Parisians - no social distancing - fleeing to their country retreats to escape the lockdown."
Then the city went silent. Traffic stopped, birds returned and Paris's typically grey skies turned a cerulean blue.
"You could see stars in the night-time because pollution levels had plummeted," she said.
At work, however, it was a daily death watch as case numbers soared. Hospitals were so overrun, high-speed trains and army helicopters were enlisted to transport patients to ICU beds in neighbouring countries, notably Germany.
"What really hit me was when I was working and wire images were dropping from Spain and Italy where makeshift morgues had been created," she said.
"That was really difficult to see, being so close to Spain and Italy and seeing how close our numbers were to those two countries. I remember wondering are we going to reach that point and where is the end in all this."
At 7pm every night, Parisians opened their windows to clap and sing for medical workers. Neighbours had brief conversations over windows and balconies to break the isolation.
By the time restrictions began easing in early May, there was both elation and anxiety. Initially, few people wore masks although spiking cases have meant mask-wearing is now mandatory in indoor public spaces and busy indoor areas.
Trian says the city's quiet right now as residents have fled for summer vacations. Many testing labs have closed for the holidays.
But new infections in France nearly doubled in recent weeks, with more expected as holiday-makers return. Experts fears of a second wave in Autumn.
Trian says the pandemic is going to be a long game, although its hard not to have some optimism given the huge global effort to find a vaccine.
"But when it happens and how things will look on the other side of this pandemic is too difficult to fathom."
Originally published as Postcards from a pandemic: Expat tales from COVID hot spots