Pandemic Shock? Entering A Covid World After 18 Months Without It

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Entering A Covid World After 18 Months

Entering A Covid World After 18 Months Without It

So, entering the pandemic and back to my new home in West London (Notting Hill – you know the film!) and how I ended up here…

First Part: of my Escape from Paradise 

COVID-19, The Pandemic, and Tonga

Firstly, a word on COVID-19 and the pandemic.

Tonga remained entirely COVID-19 free since the start of the pandemic. It had not recorded one single case the entire 18 months I was there and therefore life was entirely normal. Like it was before the pandemic. We had gone through one lockdown at the start in March, and after that there was no mask wearing. No social distancing. No more lockdowns.

Just basically life before the pandemic.

So I had never experienced fully what life in a world with coronavirus was like… I’d experienced it a lot on the outside looking in. It had certainly affected my life, too. And the lives of my loved ones. But the physical aspects of wearing a mask, things being closed down etc… I hadn’t had any of it.

Just a few weeks after I left, the COVID-free paradise of Tonga confirmed its first-ever case of coronavirus. The country has now gone through another one-week lockdown and has confirmed there are no further cases than the one initial case. The case came in through a passenger from New Zealand who has since been quarantined.

Tonga has a strict 0 case policy, so as soon as this first positive came through, everyone rushed to get vaccinated and prepare for a very strict lockdown.

You can find out what Tonga was first like in lockdown when I first arrived!

Hello London

Despite not having slept properly for days, I was still pretty high on adrenaline when I got back to London.

What really, really annoyed and amused me when I arrived in Heathrow? I just walked straight through the airport and out the other side.

Not being permitted to board that first flight really affected me emotionally. It took a lot of mental and physical energy to attempt to leave Tonga – just to be told I had to go back because I wouldn’t be allowed to enter the UK? I couldn’t believe it. Even more so when I flew into Heathrow, and from the moment I stepped out of the plane to stepping out of the airport – it took about 20 minutes in total, including passport control. No one took my temperature. People weren’t wearing masks. And no one cared where I had come from (or where I was going to).

It was bizarre.

I got to a friend’s place where I stayed for a couple of weeks to do my own quarantine and get back on track mentally before heading back to my hometown of Liverpool.

RELATED: 11 Things You Shouldn’t Do While Visiting The United Kingdom

Entering A Covid World After 18 Months

Home?

A lot of this gets me thinking about home. And how, for me at least, it has never been a place. For some people, I don’t doubt that it is. For most, in fact, home is usually a 4-walled one-roofed building probably with loved ones inside.

As for me… Home has usually always been a feeling. And I don’t find home in London. In the UK. I hadn’t lived in the UK for the past few years and I never intended on coming back. So when everyone kept asking me how it was to be back ‘home’ I wasn’t really sure what to reply with – because the last place I felt like I was at home was my home back in Beijing.

And I still haven’t managed to get back there.

Was it All A Dream?

A lot of people ask me how it was when I got back? How long it took me to adjust back to life in the UK? Well, honestly, I slipped back into life in the UK like I had never left. Like I’d never lived on an island in the middle of the ocean. Life in the UK felt so normal from the second I stepped off the plane that I almost questioned whether I had just dreamt up the last 1.5 years.

Did it really all happen?

Nothing much changes in the UK. And after all, I grew up here. So nothing really shocks me. The shops have the same names, the buses are still red, the train I used to get to college 10 years ago is still at the same time and stops off at the same places, the streets are still cobbled and covered in chewing gum and chavs still wear tracksuits, hang out in big groups, and look intimidating.

Maybe it was all just a dream.

(But my tan lines remind me otherwise).

Of course, there are certainly some precious memories that I will always treasure from Tonga that remind me it wasn’t all just a dream. (Even when the tan lines inevitably fade away…)

Do I Regret Leaving My Tonga Home, Pandemic-Free Paradise?

No. No for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I have no regrets. Sounds cheesy, but I really live by this. Everything happens for a reason and every decision that is made leads onto the next thing. Even if it might not seem like something positive at first, it will eventually lead to something there.

Secondly, because I didn’t really have much choice. I felt I had done everything in Tonga I could do. I felt I had to get back to reality – my reality – at some point, at least. As someone in my mid-twenties (although I think I’m classed as late-twenties now) I can’t just sit back and relax and let things happen around me. I needed to keep going forwards, and whilst I felt like I had been doing that (at a somewhat slow pace) in Tonga, I didn’t feel like there was anywhere left for me to go.

I’d completed by goal and achievement of setting up the Tonga Marathon and also running 100km around the island. And more importantly I’d started and indeed completed my entire Master’s degree. All online. All from Tonga. Including writing an entire thesis without any access to a physical library. Honestly, I didn’t think that would ever be possible.

So I had nowhere else to move forwards to. I couldn’t get a full-time job in Tonga and so my only place to go to was forwards to somewhere else.

Even if I wanted to stay, I couldn’t. The life I had there was not my own. The house I stayed in was not mine, the dogs I looked after were not mine, and sooner or later I’d have to give them back – and I’d rather leave before I had to do that.

Entering A Covid World After 18 Months

Will I Ever Go Back to Tonga?

The question everyone keeps asking me!

No, I’ll never go back to the Tonga I know. Because I’ll never be going back to that life. If I ever go back, the people will be different, I won’t have my dogs, I won’t have the house. I’ll never (be able to) return to that life, and I’m completely at peace with that. Although it does certainly make me sad at times.

However, never say never. I may end up going back to Tonga in the next few years. I’d certainly like to. But it definitely won’t be the same as before.

I will never forget my time in Tonga. I was extremely lucky to have gone through what I went through. Sure, it was tough. A lot of the time it was really tough. But a lot of the time I was living in one of the most incredibly beautiful places in a life I will never get the chance to experience again.

I’ve certainly taken some life lessons from my time in Tonga. The most important of which is probably to chill out. Give yourself time. And enjoy life.

Entering A Covid World After 18 Months
Christmas Day in Tonga

What Will You Do Now?

I’m still waiting for China to open back up and for tourism to North Korea to resume. In the meantime, I’ve got lots of side gigs – such as writing these blogs and making vlogs on YouTube. Plus, I’m still studying at a university in London now too. So I’m fixed in the UK for a whole year…

Something I never thought I’d say!

And finally…

Entering A Covid World After 18 Months: What’s Life Like in a Pandemic?

Well, I’m sure you all know the answer to this way better than I do. I’ve been in the UK for almost two months now (how time flies) and everyone else has almost been through it for 2 years.

I wish I had some kind of interesting story to tell you about how it is getting used to the pandemic… How I broke down at the site of masks or all the social faux pas I committed. But honestly – and I’m sure everyone knows this now – you just get used to it.

People continue to talk to me about how difficult life with COVID must be, how difficult it is to get used to it and everything. I really thought it would be tricky at first – but actually, you just get on with it, don’t you?

Me getting used to life in a pandemic is exactly the same as everyone else. There are some things that are annoying, some things you get used to, some things that are constantly changing – but at the end of the day I’m pretty flexible and adaptable anyway. And haven’t found getting used to this life too tricky at all.

Plus, I’ve come back to the UK at a very interesting time. People here seem to have forgotten entirely about COVID and it isn’t really a big part of life anymore. People should still wear masks, but they generally don’t. No one is social distancing. And I’ve been clubbing and been to football games with thousands of people…

It’s kind of business as usual.

It’s weird to say but I think I was affected more by COVID in Tonga than I am back here in amongst it. After all, if it weren’t for COVID, I wouldn’t have been in Tonga for 18 months!

Zoe Stephens
Zoe is a freelance writer from Liverpool, UK. She spends her time traveling between China, where she is based, and North Korea, where she works as a tour guide for Koryo Tours. You can follow her journey and see her content from North Korea on Instagram (@zoediscovers) and YouTube. You can see more about her life stuck on Tonga on Instagram @tongadiaries.

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