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Former Cookeville resident shares COVID-19 experience in Asia

March 24, 2020 BY BEN WHEELER - reporter for the Herald-Citizen newspaper in Putnam County

A former Cookeville resident has spent the last two months without a home. Tyler Dowland has been teaching abroad for the past six years. He works as a first grade teacher in Beijing. But a planned holiday turned into two months of waiting out the COVID-19 protocols before he can return home. "Everything started when I was in Thailand on Chinese New Year vacation, I didn’t read anything about it there, but then I went to Bali and things started blowing up," Dowland said. "At first I saw Chinese people posting critical things online. It was pretty crazy. No one knew if we were going back to work or anything, and now I haven’t been back for two months, and I’m in Cambodia. "Now it’s apparently opening up a bit more, but it has been basically deserted for a while." Stuck outside of China and teaching his students online, Dowland said teachers have felt the pressure of returning to China in fear that the country will close its border completely and they might lose their jobs. Dowland didn't plan for a long vacation in Cambodia, so he's been buying his clothing through vendors there. "People were really (mad) when they found out the government silenced the whistleblower but stuff was so busy at the time, censors didn’t take it off WeChat," Dowland said. "It just hasn’t been as big a threat in southeast Asia and on islands, I’ve felt pretty protected but seeing things start to shut down here in Phnom Penh has made me worried." WeChat is a Chinese social media and online payment company. Traditionally, it's heavily censored by the Chinese government. "There are some things shut down here, though most life is normal, but they’ve had lower tourist numbers and everywhere is sanitizer. A lot of people in Cambodia are hurting, like the cart drivers and the vendors on the street are being squeezed." Dowland didn’t realize the gravity of the COVID-19 situation until he started reading articles from western media. "In a way, it was kind of like the pandemic itself: I heard like one small thing, then two small things and then boom my phone was blowing up with it," Dowland said. "I messaged my sister in January and said to prepare because China was being locked down, and I knew what would happen since thousands of people had already been traveling for a long time." It was when he got sick that Dowland decided to buy a ticket to return to Beijing. His illness wasn't COVID-19, but food poisoning. Even so, Dowland said he would rather be in a hospital in Beijing than in Cambodia where he knows no one. If Dowland passes his medical test in Zhengzhou, he will be able to return to Beijing. He says he has heard that the test for Covid-19 takes roughly four hours to produce results, where in the U.S. those result wait times may vary. In the Putnam County Health Department drive through assessment center, those results can take up to four or five days to return. Dowland expects to be back in Beijing as of this publishing, should he pass the health test, and go through a mandatory 14-day quarantine before life returns to a form of normalcy, but the journey has taken a toll financially. "Fifty percent of my brain wishes I had just extended my visa and would stay in Cambodia but I have to get back for my dog," Dowland said. "I’m going to be broke. I have to pay rent and pay for my dog being in dog school for two and a half months, but it’ll be nice to be home." "It’s made me thankful to the people of southeast Asia, made me hopeful to a degree because I see the expat community being super helpful towards each other in China. Personally, I guess it’s pretty unnerving as well to know there could always be a second wave while I’m here."

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