Recalling the Beginning of Covid-19 and Work-from-Home

Recently, we had a discussion at work (in our daily virtual team “fika”) where we reflected on just how many weeks we had been working from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been quite a few; I last saw the office in week 11, and week 19 is beginning… so I am looking at eight weeks personally. Just how did it all begin? I thought it useful to go back and try to remember how we got to this point. In hindsight, I never thought it would be this huge.

2020 started really well. I went to Ireland to train some Intel colleagues in Simics in late January, and the rest of the year looked really exciting with a fair amount of travel planned. There was talk about the novel coronavirus that had been observed in China, but it all seemed very far away. It sounded like things were under control and that China would manage to contain it – just like with Sars. Maybe a few people would come from China with the infection, but they were few and could be isolated.

Even so, already in January, cases started to be reported outside of China. In Sweden, the first case was reported on January 31. It did not seem like much to be concerned about. Some countries started to talk about travel restrictions and some form of screening, but it did not seem particularly serious.

February

It was a bit surprising when companies started to pull out from the Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2020 show, and it was a bit of an earthquake when it was cancelled on February 12 (with less than two weeks to go before it opened). The Embedded World conference did take place in the last week of February, but I heard from people who were there that it was rather empty with quite a few companies not showing up at all.

In the last week of February (week 9), I went to Israel to do another Simics training. By this time, travel to and from China was almost completely shut down. Israel talked about putting all visitors in two-week quarantines – but it had not been put in place for real, and it all seemed like a bit of an overreaction. Tourism was definitely down in Israel, since tours from the US had started to cancel, and Israel was barring travel from quite a few countries just to be safe. Life was still pretty normal, people were out and about, everyone was in the office, and I had no problems at all getting into and out of Israel. I flew back home via Vienna in a sold-out aircraft. A few people wore face masks, but most were rather unconcerned.

Week 9 brought the first death reported in the US (on February 29). The week before, the first death had happened in Italy (February 22). Interestingly, in hindsight it seems that at this time in late February, Austria was really one of the key hot-spots for Covid-19 in Europe along with Italy. Italy was being talked about as possibly having a problem, but Austria seemed to be fairly “clean”.  There were no lockdowns or anything.

I was planning a business trip to the US for the second week of March (week 11). In week 9, I could not imagine that there would be any problem. Sure, a few countries were starting to impose restrictions, but there were almost no cases in either Sweden or the US. There appeared to be no cause for concern, at least as long as I did not change planes in a more heavily affected country.

First week of March

During the first week of March, things started to happen rapidly. Working with more urgency than the authorities in most countries, the company put rules in place that dictated that any employees who visited countries or regions with known widespread Covid-19 infections had to self-quarantine for two weeks before coming back to the office. On Monday, my trip to the US for the coming week still sounded like a good idea – neither Sweden nor the US had very many cases, and there was no talk about cancelling anything (yet…).

Over in the US, a Simics training we had planned was cancelled due to local concerns over the virus. Better safe than sorry, but wasn’t that being maybe a bit too nervous? I talked to a colleague in Germany who had been to Italy the week before, and was now at home in self-quarantine. All of this seemed far away and not really a cause for concern up here in Sweden.

On Tuesday that week, Google cancelled the physical part of their yearly Google I/O event on March 3, (it was planned for May 12-14). Later in March, they cancelled the whole thing. Writing this blog in early May, this seems like a very good call and good estimation of the risks involved. At the time, it seemed a bit pessimistic.

We had some visitors from the Netherlands in the office that week, and we felt it was a bit lucky that we planned the trip for this week, as it seemed clear that restrictions on movement might come at some point in the future. We also had some visitors come in to visit us from a university. Intel regulations required that we ask them if they had been to China or in known contact with anyone sick in Covid-19 in the past two weeks – which was not the case. We had a talk in front of the whole team as well as a lunch with a large group. In Stockholm, life was completely normal.

In the middle of the week, Intel put Germany and Italy (and a few other places) on the quarantine list. This suddenly meant that some colleagues from India were no longer able to go to the US since they would have passed through Frankfurt. Annoying, but as late as Thursday I felt pretty confident that I would be in the US the next week – and that going to the US was a good and perfectly reasonable idea.

On Friday, all non-business-critical travel was cancelled and we switched the US meeting to a virtual format. It did not come as a complete surprise, but it still felt like a bummer (and not a relief).

During the weekend, I signed up for the 20th anniversary celebration of the IT department at Uppsala University, planned for May 8 – it did sound like a lot of fun, and planning for May sounded completely reasonable. At that time, the virus scare ought to be over. On the other hand, on Sunday March 8, Italy imposed a lockdown on the northern part of the country. The virus was starting to have real effects in Europe.

Second week of March

On Monday, March 9, I renewed my commuter card for the next month and took the train to the office in Stockholm (turned out to be a rather bad deal since I would use it only once).

On March 10, the company quarantine rules were extended to Austria. Since I had flown via Vienna on my way back from Israel less than two weeks prior, I was now in work-from-home self-quarantine mode until the end of the week. Also on that day, less than two days after I signed up, the IT department anniversary event was cancelled. More and more governments in Europe were starting to act forcefully.

On March 11, WHO declared that Covid-19 was now officially a pandemic. That day also saw the first reported death from Covid-19 in Sweden. Swedish authorities banned public gatherings of more than 500 people (a lot less strict than other countries in Europe). More importantly, the “karensdag” was temporarily suspended to make it even easier for people who feel ill to stay home from work (since they then get paid from day 1 of sick leave instead of the usual day 2). That was a major indication that the authorities were taking this very seriously.

On March 12, the US banned all travel from the Schengen area and flights started to be cancelled all over Europe and the world in enormous numbers. I suddenly felt rather relieved that I had not flown to the US as planned… l guess that if I had flown out on March 9 as originally planned, I would probably have had to turn around and go home immediately once I reached the US. Or even worse, I would have been stuck in an airport somewhere due to conflicting rules and panicked officials.

This shelf should be full of toilet paper, but it was all sold out! Photo taken on March 13, at ICA Kvantum Gränbystaden.

On March 13, work-from-home was recommended by Intel. Toilet paper and pasta hoarding was now in full swing in Sweden.

Rounding out the week, during the weekend the Swedish foreign office advised against non-essential travel outside of Sweden (March 14). Spain introduced a society-wide lockdown from March 15.

Also during this week, the gym I used to go to was closed – one person who later tested positive for Covid-19 had been known to visit the location at some point in the week prior. As a result, they closed down, cleaned all the equipment, and put all staff who had could have been in contact with the person into two week of self-quarantine. From the perspective of early May, this level of concern due to a single case seems almost quaint.

Clearly, this was the week when Covid-19 went from “something over there” to a real concern for people through the EU. Myself, I began the week taking the train to work in Stockholm without much of a concern at all, and ended the week planning to work from home and avoid going into office for the foreseeable future.

Third week of March

At this point, things were happening quickly and Sweden went into full Covid-19 mode along with the rest of Europe. From March 16, working from home was recommended and people from the age of 70 were recommended to avoid contact with other people. The Swedish parliament reduced the number of parlamentarians present from 349 to 55 (retaining the relative strength of each party within a reasonable level of error).

Also on March 16 I decided to stop going to the gym and cancelled all planned session with my PT. The gym had reopened (with additional cleaning, and closing off every second cardio machine to provide some distance between the clients). Instead, I went out and bought myself a new pair of running shoes on March 17. Thankful that the weather was becoming warm enough to make that a viable form of exercise.

On March 17, the EU banned all travel from countries outside the union (the ban is still in effect). I personally think that the EU countries who closed their intra-European borders are behaving in a rather bad and uncooperative way. It is not like hordes of people would be moving around anyway since everyone has been told to avoid travel, and it just creates friction to the necessary continued operation of transports and supply lines across the continent.

On March 18, schools in Sweden from grade 10 were encouraged to switch to remote education instead of live teaching.

The week ended with two long-planned events going virtual (which is a lot better than just cancelling).  The ProductBeats conference that should have been a full-day in-person event on Thursday turned into a virtual half-day event instead. The organizers moved pretty quickly to adjust to the new reality, and I think they did a good job. The plan as of now is to have an in-person follow-up in Stockholm in June. We’ll see how that goes.

On Friday, the whole family had planned to go to a show with Henrik Widegren in downtown Uppsala. The event did still take place in-person, but the organizers also sent a link to a recording of the show for those of us who felt that maybe going to live event with a few hundred other people was a bad idea under the circumstances. This worked surprisingly well and it was actually quite convenient to stay home and watch it on the TV.

A song by Henrik Widegren about Corona, which was released this week.

On Saturday, March 20, Eurovision 2020 was cancelled.

Since then…                                                       

More events have been cancelled or postponed, including the 2020 Olympics (postponed on March 24). At work, we have switched our Simics training sessions to a remote-live format. I must admit to having planned/hoped in mid-March that in-person trainings would be viable again in late April or definitely May. At least for trainings that happened at a certain site with a local trainer – but so far, it seems that office workers are not going back into the office any time soon in most places.

At home, things have settled into a new kind of normal rhythm. Many people work from home and you very rarely meet other adults. Video conferencing with colleagues and family is a great way to meet people. If we do meet other families, we do it outdoors with a safe distance. Thankfully, the schools up to grade 9 are still open. We do try to avoid using the buses to get to school (the kids either bike to school or we drive them).

Some interesting shortages have appeared as people switch to working from home and reducing social contact. After the toilet paper and hand sanitizer, the next category of items to become scarce were tools for working from home – webcams, headsets, and home office furniture. After that, it was exercise equipment. I found it rather funny to see three odd dumbbells being all that is left in a sporting good store:

Only some odd ones left at the XXL (sporting goods store) in Uppsala on April 4.

Companies are going bankrupt and the economy is hurting, but there is no feeling of fear or panic in Sweden unlike what it seems is the case in some other places. It is good that we are still able to go outside to exercise and enjoy nature with a safe distance to other people. Which as has been noticed is kind of a natural state for Swedes:

Quite a few people out enjoying nature, with rather extreme levels of social distancing. April 10 by Dalkarlskärret.

Businesses are adjusting, with reduced opening hours and signs to keep your distance in lines and similar being put up everywhere. Like this example from H&M (and yes, this is Sweden so of course the signs are in English):

Towards the end of March, the summer camps and events we had planned for the kids started to get cancelled. It is going to be an interesting summer… Normally at this time of the year, we would have booked flights and hotels for the summer vacation to somewhere warm and nice. This year, it would be just as nice to go, but the advice is clearly not to go traveling abroad until at least the middle of June (and I do expect that to get pushed further out).

April last (or Walpurgisnacht or Valborg or “Sista April”) is normally the biggest party of the year here in Uppsala. Some 150000 people (mostly university students) are typically out and about in town, basically packing the whole place for a few days leading up to April 30 and the traditional celebration of the coming of spring. This year was different. All the normal events were cancelled, and people heeded the recommendations to avoid large crowds. It was just like any other day from the perspective of crowds.

Final words

It is rather insane just how much the world has changed in the last few months. Looking back at how I thought the Covid-19 epidemic would blow over pretty quickly shows how the world can change in radical ways that we do not expect. I know I am lucky to be in a position to work effectively from home, and this blog is not about complaining about having to stay at home. It is about recalling just how remote the threat of Covid-19 felt until it was suddenly a true Pandemic and dominating all of life (and all of the news).

It is rather interesting to note that many companies, in particular the large multinationals, reacted faster than governments in imposing self-quarantine rules, cancelling events, pulling out from conferences, and minimizing travel. It is good that we have people whose job it is to look out for risks and take action with an emphasis on safety. Still, in the end we do rely on authorities and governments and the public health systems to get us all through this crisis.

The best we can do as individuals I think is to keep following guidelines and advice, and to

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