Before you judge our decision to stay in Malaysia and not ‘repatriate’ ourselves, scroll to the bottom to read our motivations for riding out the pandemic in Penang/George Town. If coronavirus statistics trigger your anxiety, this journal might not be for you. Also, I wrote this, so not everything here reflects Jonas’ views.
My sources for Malaysia come from the trilingual news website Malaysia Kini, which has an excellent COVID-19 tracker which adds new functionality almost twice a week, and our elevator. My world stats come from the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, which unfortunately keeps butchering country names. The Dutch stats come from the ESRI COVID-19 Hub. The watercolor maps come from maps.stamen.com.
Days since the start of the Movement Control Order (MCO): 76
Diary + Developments
Background: The Slow Encroachment
First of all: we want to do the right thing.
Jonas and I have been in Asia since the 31st of October, 2019—well before this shit went down. Our travel dates have been as followed:
- Shanghai, China: 31st of October till the 5th of November 2019. The virus probably didn’t exist yet in humans.
- Chiang Mai, Thailand: 5th of November 2019 till 3rd of January 2020. The first cases appear in China, likely as early as November 17th (this is backdated). Nobody in my circle knew it existed back then.
- Myanmar (Mandalay to Kawthaung, overland): 3rd till 31st of January 2020. Here we first learned about the coronavirus. One travel Facebook group starts a thread and shares the link to the Johns Hopkins University dashboard which I’ve started monitoring. A few countries like North Korea and Turkmenistan are the first to close their borders and cancel visas. The first confirmed case outside of China appeared in Thailand on the 13th of January, ten days after we’d left Thailand.
- Southern Thailand (Ranong to Hat Yai, overland): 31st of January till the 27th of February 2020. On the 27th of February, we hitchhiked from Thailand to Malaysia. The virus is becoming a big topic in travel groups. I’m mostly keeping an eye on the cases in Malaysia and Singapore, which seemed ‘under control’. What we didn’t know at that time, is that the week-long religious event named ‘Tabligh’ that led to the largest infection cluster in Malaysia started on the day we entered Malaysia.
- Peninsular Malaysia (Kota Bharu to George Town/Penang, overland): 27th of February till the start of this diary. At the time of entering Malaysia, we were unaware of the political crisis that was happening.
On Friday the 6th of March, we made our last hitchhiking day when we hitchhiked to Penang. The virus was a big topic during each of our three rides, but people were generally unworried. On the 11th of March, the WHO retitled COVID-19 from an outbreak/epidemic to pandemic. Things started to look very grim.
Since arriving in Penang, I’ve joined more local Facebook groups and got some information from a Malaysian Facebook friend who knows more. I follow the Malaysian updates on this news website.
Our canceled plans were to leave Malaysia overland to Singapore in April. We’d stay for one week in Singapore and then fly to Darwin in Australia for a two-week stay. From Australia, we’d take the flight to Dili in Timor-Leste, where we’d stay for a long time including over independence day. The plans beyond Timor-Leste were very vague, but we spoke of going to Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Brunei—not per se in that order.
Why Aren’t You Repatriating Yourselves?
- We don’t have a home or a permanent address. This apartment in Penang is more ‘home’ than any place in the Netherlands or Germany. Wherever we’d go, we’d probably have to get an Airbnb and quarantine for 14 days upon arrival there. Honestly, that would just be a giant waste of everyone’s time, money, and safety.
- If I was in the Netherlands, I’d hope to visit my grandmothers on a biweekly basis. They’re in their eighties and I would never forgive myself if I infected them. Jonas’ grandmother in Germany is also at risk.
- Malaysia has been a nice country so far with immensely friendly people in these trying times. Despite Europe being the epicenter of the epidemic in March, nobody has given us the stink eye or suspected us. Penang itself is a very diverse city where we’ve felt welcome.
- We’re afraid that if we’d take our governments upon their repatriation offer, we’d be split up and sent back to Germany AND the Netherlands instead of just one country. Perhaps that’s irrational, but since we have no address and aren’t contractually glued to one another, you never know what our governments would do to us.
- By traveling, we’re much more likely to catch and spread the virus, endangering good people all the way from Malaysia to Europe and anywhere in-between.
What Are Your Greatest Fears?
- Catching the virus, being asymptomatic, and passing it on to a vulnerable person.
- Catching the virus, having severe symptoms, suffering, requiring hospitalization, and adding to the pressure on Malaysia’s health systems.
- I don’t want to give the Malaysian government any ideas, but it would be disastrous if they forced all foreigners who don’t have a residency out of the country.
- I’m afraid if we can’t somehow extend our tourist visas here under these extraordinary circumstances. The normal rules are that we can stay in Malaysia for 90 days until late May, without the possibility of extension. We don’t want to overstay our legal welcome here. We’d also love to avoid going into an immigration office since that seems like a high-risk place to catch the virus.
- We rely heavily on food delivery services such as Foodpanda, Folo, and Grab. Our apartment (like many apartments) doesn’t have a proper kitchen to do our own cooking. If food delivery services had to stop, we’d be quite fucked.
- A very drastic escalation of measures, such as getting sealed into our homes completely.
- An additional disaster, such as an earthquake hitting Penang or the region and taking out electricity and water.
- The internet collapsing.