From his apartment in Belgrade, Serbia, Nikola Koprivica
(’10 Intl. Busi.) smiles at the webcam as he shows off his
“It’s been 10 years since I left Pullman,” he says. “Those were great times, I tell you. I miss the Palouse a little bit.”
Koprivica was a popular WSU basketball player, ending his career with 85 wins and twice selected for the Pac-10 Conference All-Academic First Team. After WSU, he played professionally in Greece and Serbia and is currently the international talent scout for the Detroit Pistons, a job that normally entails constant travel.
“Now, with COVID, I’ve never been home this much,” says Koprivica. “This is crazy. But here, we’re the kind of people who have been through wars and all kinds of stuff. We adjust and wait for it to open up.”
Indeed, as COVID-19 infections rose and fell throughout the world last fall, Washington State Magazine reached out to Koprivica and other Washington State University international alumni to see how they were holding up.
With an email questionnaire and interviews conducted by Zoom, phone, and Skype, the responses came in from ten countries on six different continents. From New Zealand and Colombia to Sri Lanka, Egypt, and Canada, each person shared their insights and ongoing struggles with the pandemic.
Lockdowns, curfews, economic collapse, and stress were common themes. Many reported using the skills and knowledge gained while studying at WSU to help their home nation and local communities recover.
Together, their voices blend into one global human experience interwoven with an enigmatic touch of Cougar Spirit.
Koprivica says last winter, he and his friends began hearing about COVID but didn’t take it seriously. Serbia’s first official case was documented on March 6 and by the end of that month, the government had shut the airport and imposed a lockdown. Police patrolled the streets.
“There was a curfew from 5:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. Monday through Friday where everyone had to stay in the house,” he says. “And, every weekend, the curfew was 5:00 p.m. Friday until 5:00 a.m. Monday morning. You could not go outside at all or you’d be fined or arrested.
“We are really social people—I like to have a coffee, talk, whatever—and then, the whole world shut down. Don’t touch anything. No talking. People tried to occupy their minds as the situation is depressing for everybody. Like in America, many are losing jobs here.
“For me, it was good as I had a lot of work. I can watch basketball on the computer. I started playing PlayStation for the first time since college too. I spent so much time on the phone that I had to charge it twice a day.”
Then, in June, Koprivica’s whole family got sick. “We were down to such small numbers of COVID infections that people relaxed and quit worrying,” he says. “But within one week, me, my best friend, mom, dad, and brother all got it. I had a fever for a couple days plus symptoms of dizziness, tiredness, and body aches like a regular flu. But when I started losing my sense of smell, I thought, ‘Ah, this is probably it.’ And, I tested positive. A friend said I should also get a lung scanner, so I did, and it showed pneumonia in both lungs.
“Honestly, I didn’t really feel anything, maybe a little shortness of breath but you don’t know if it’s real or if you’re trippin’,” he says. “The COVID hospital told me to recover at home and they rechecked my scan every week. After a month, they cleared me.”
“We are pretty back to normal now except people wearing masks,” says Koprivica.
“Yet, I think people are starting to realize that there’s something so much bigger—something that can literally collapse the world in such a short time and people are not ready for it. You see how vulnerable you are. And, especially here, people are turning away from the cities. They’re going out to farms and small villages to have somewhere to go if COVID ever comes back again.
“For me, I spend a lot of time on my little farm in south Serbia where I raise hazelnuts,” he says. “It’s so peaceful. I put the phone inside and wander outside hearing nothing but the birds. It’s amazing how fast your mind rests.”
Javier Antonio Benavides Montaño was booked on a flight to Germany for a parasitology conference on March 13. It was also his birthday.
“But that day, Colombia closed the borders, set up a strict quarantine, and my trip was cancelled,” says Montaño (’17 PhD Immunology and Infectious Diseases) who teaches preventative medicine at the National University of Colombia
“It was disappointing, but I have a positive spirit, and I love to confront challenges,” he says over a cup of tea on a Zoom chat. One of his first challenges was switching to online technologies like Google Classroom and Google Meet to complete the academic semester.
“In the beginning, the students protested,” he says. “But they adapted and tried to connect from different towns. I taught them to follow critical protocols such as social distancing, washing their hands, and using a mask.”
Though Montaño says their government has done a good job of containing the coronavirus, at first, there was a heightened sense of confusion.
“People said, ‘We’re not prepared for pandemia in Colombia!’ But I had studied Nipah virus at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at WSU, so I know how the coronavirus propagates and could share my experiences,” he says. “I also know the technology and said we need to start educating people, so I made videos and held seminars to explain things like, ‘What is a virus? What kind of conditions does it live in?’
“Colombian people are so folkloric and did not take it seriously,” says Montaño. “Dancing and social parties were not an exception. People did not behave correctly and when many died, they finally changed behaviors.
“Fortunately, I did not get COVID-19, but some students did, and they described each case at Google meetings during my classes, asking other students to take care.
“Overall, I’m a very optimistic person but during the initial lockdown, I was in a depression,” he says. “I suffered some kind of anxiety because in normal times, I’m very active with meetings and friends. Then, suddenly I couldn’t go anywhere or see people.
“Keeping indoors has caused a huge amount of stress and problems for many people, especially relationships with kids and family. Many couples broke up and others are trying to get their own apartments as there is too much drama.
“I’m happy to live alone right now,” he says. “I don’t feel as responsible for potentially exposing others to COVID.”
After a month, Montaño was allowed to exercise outside and soon he was developing the conferences and seminars that happily kept him busy.
“Many people called me to be on radio and TV asking, ‘What do you think about chloroquine? Do you think animals can transmit COVID?’” he says.
“I try to help them learn that science is not so easy, and we need to keep studying but people just want to know, ‘What is the cure?’ We need to be prudent in these situations and try to give them knowledge.
“I say we have many alternatives, so don’t panic. We need to keep hope that the future will be better, so don’t be scared.”
“We’re in the midst of a second wave or an extended first wave of COVID—it feels like a never-ending tsunami!” writes Nicola Perera (’15 MA English) in an email from Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Perera works at the University of Colombo and says that although Sri Lankans are familiar with curfews from recent civil war years, the extended curfew of the COVID-19 lockdown was extraordinary.
“Initially, the government raised the curfew for a half-day in which people trudged over several hours under the sun to their nearest supermarket to stock up on emergency groceries,” she writes. “Eventually, the government organised deliveries of essential items to neighbourhoods.
“After a few weeks, it was possible to have sushi delivered to your door as well as rice, vegetables, and flour. So, if you were among the fortunate minority guaranteed job security and a paycheck to weather lockdown, then you watched the headlines and spent more time than usual over the stove.
“However, for many people dependent on daily wages, lockdown meant worrying about rent and where the next meal was going to come from,” Perera writes. “The government did organise donations of cash through local officials, but it was an insubstantial amount and many families fell through the cracks.
“The government has also stranded a large number of people who were working abroad as domestic aides or in factories. The money they send home is the largest source of foreign income to the Sri Lankan economy. These people have lost their jobs and are sleeping in streets and parks, with no way of coming home. At the same time, there’s a segment of Sri Lankan expatriates who are being repatriated in luxury hotels for the quarantine period.”
Although Perera has remained healthy, she worries about coming into contact with asymptomatic carriers and of becoming one herself. During lockdown, she relied on phone, email, and Facebook to keep her sanity but says it also meant “struggling to keep from climbing the walls and getting on the nerves of those around you.”
“My mother nearly burnt our kitchen down,” Perera writes. “She was staying with us while she recovered from severe ill-health and left a saucepan of hot oil unattended on the stove. The next thing we knew, the cupboards above the stove were ablaze. No one was hurt. The cupboards were charred. Our nerves are still frayed.”
It’s 7:00 a.m. in Hong Kong and Jackson Fu (’16 Hosp. Busi. Mgmt.), is cheerfully asking about WSU. “When I see Instagram pictures of Bryan Hall or the cougar statue, I kind of miss the good old days,” he says over Skype.
Fu is the member relations officer for The Great Room, a Singapore-based real estate company that offers flexible shared workspaces with the added benefit of a hospitality service.
“Right now, coworking spaces are trending because of the pandemic, and businesses are downsizing,” he says. “We rent small offices to start up companies or those in need of temporary space during renovations.”
Fu had been working as concierge for the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, a five-star hotel, when the coronavirus first began spreading.
“Hong Kong is kind of the world’s financial center with lots of yearly conventions,” he says. “Many of those meetings were cancelled as no one was traveling and occupancy rates dropped significantly. Hong Kong relies on tourism, so everyone has been doing a lot of virtual exhibitions to keep things running.”
Fu explains that Hong Kong was the center of the SARS outbreak in 2003, so residents are extremely vigilant.
“The SARS death rate was super high—once you get it, you’re done,” he says. “So, when COVID hit back in January and February, everyone knew what to do. We bought masks right away and cleaning supplies. We didn’t have to wait for the government to step in.
“By late March, 80 percent of the population was working from home unless they were part of the necessary sector and had to go to work.”
Hong Kong experienced a second wave in May and a third wave in July that Fu says brought nearly 100 new cases per day, a serious threat to the densely populated city.
“We still have high COVID infection rates. We had mass testing just last week to try to find the hidden spreaders, those asymptomatic people with no visible signs of the virus,” he says. “But, gratefully, all of my family members are doing well. We take extra precautions because we have my 100-year-old grandma living with us.”
For Hong Kong residents who land at the airport, Fu says there is a mandatory 14-day quarantine either at a COVID camp or a home quarantine. “You can’t leave your house for two weeks or there will be criminal charges and you have to go to court. The government gives you a wristband that can track you to make sure you are actually in your building area.
“Also, the public sort of monitors the situation as they know wristbands mean you can’t leave the house,” he says. “As a collectivist society, 90 percent of people here have self-discipline and care about community well-being. They wear masks and carry a spare in case they see someone who needs one.
“Hong Kong has a population of about 7 million people who all live in tiny apartments,” says Fu. “In normal times, they can just act like the U.S. individualism—everyone’s minding their own business. But when a problem happens, we come together as a group really quickly to support and help each other. That’s the beauty
of Hong Kong.”
Tuariki Delamere (’74 Acc., Math.) turns his laptop to show me the bucolic farm scene outside his window. It’s springtime at his home on the slopes of New Zealand’s majestic Tararua Mountains.
The farm is Delamere’s safe house while New Zealand battles its second wave of COVID infections—a nation that leads the world in successful control of the virus.
The former WSU track star is famous for his wicked sense of humor and flashy forward somersault during the long jump. As a member of one of New Zealand’s indigenous Ma-ori tribes, Delamere rose to prominence in Parliament and also served as minister of immigration. Today, the avid Cougar football fan runs an immigration consultancy in Auckland.
“I was in Auckland when the pandemic arrived in mid-March,” he says. “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern locked down the country a week later and gave people 48 hours warning.
“Because I have several comorbidities, my kids shipped me off to the farm for 12 weeks where I had no interaction with anyone except a few family members. I ran the business from home, contacting clients on Zoom. And, I was able to keep training for track and field Masters events, doing my shot put and hammer throws in the paddock.”
Delamere says his business has boomed since COVID brought the whole immigration sector to a grinding halt.
“Those living outside New Zealand with visas haven’t been allowed to return even if they have homes here,” he says. “Some have expired visas and they are stuck offshore. Many have lost jobs in Europe or the USA. Plus, a lot of people temporarily living in New Zealand don’t want to go back home where infections are very high.
“Only New Zealand citizens, permanent residents, and those with occupations deemed critical to the economy can enter the country,” he says. “Hollywood was allowed to fly in 200–300 people for the next Avatar movie. And, the American Cup race is held here, so overseas teams are allowed in as it’s worth hundreds of millions to the economy. But the average Joe is not expected to be allowed in until sometime in 2022.”
Delamere says New Zealand was COVID-free for 102 days before the second wave hit.
“We had allowed New Zealand citizens to return to the nation from other countries. They all had to quarantine for 14 days but somehow, one got out and infected an airport worker who went to a big church and didn’t know he was sick. There were 500 people singing and it spread. Once it was identified, all the churches were locked down and we used contact tracing.
“The system’s not perfect but New Zealanders are very willing to be compliant,” he says. “Sixty thousand have gone through the quarantine process but only five went nut job and broke out of their quarantine places. These are five-star hotels with a ring fence and military guards. Five did escape, if you like, and three of them were sentenced to prison for a month.
“Although the economy has problems, we’re lucky because the government acted well. I think being an island at the bottom of the world is also very helpful.”
Read more on Delamere’s remarkable time at WSU in “Staying a jump ahead.”
A world away in Ft. Nelson, British Columbia, not far from the Yukon border, Natasha Ostopovich (’11 Kinesio.) barely notices the effects of the pandemic.
“COVID hasn’t been super negative on my life,” says the former WSU rower. “There’s been a lot of positives. I’m now in my first year of full-time teaching high school math with a foot in the door toward eventually teaching physical education.”
Ostopovich was still working at a boarding school on Vancouver Island when Canada went into lockdown last March. Her campus closed and everyone went online.
“My outlet is working out and lifting weights, so when all the gyms shut down, that was tough,” she says. “Even buying equipment was tricky. I could walk or run—and sometimes I worked out with a couple dumbbells, socially distanced with friends.
“I was also at a crossroads in my career and had just given the school notice that I wasn’t coming back. I was heading to New Zealand to chase my dream of being a physical education teacher. But then COVID came and the borders closed. The school was great and let me stay on for the rest of the year and I got to teach the physical education program online.”
Yet Ostopovich kept thinking about New Zealand. Come summer, she moved back home to Ontario to stick with her plan and wait for the borders to open. Unexpectedly, the Ft. Nelson job caught her eye.
“I’m now up north in a small community of about 3,500 people and if there’s anywhere to be, this is probably better than the larger cities,” she says.
“If there was no COVID, I’d be over in New Zealand but it’s a lot of money and a lot of unknowns. My whole goal was to advance my teaching career and get experience and that’s exactly what I’m doing right here.”
Heba Alzan (’16 PhD Vet. Med.) sips tea in her apartment in Cairo, Egypt. The sounds of city traffic filter through the window where, outside, pyramids rise in the distance.
“Actually, our government did a good job dealing with the COVID outbreak as we took preventive measures when it first started in China, before we reported any cases in Egypt,” she says. “We had a night curfew and people worked from home for about three months. When it started to reopen a little bit, infection rates increased but recovery is high according to public reports.”
Alzan is an adjunct professor in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine where she studies Babesiosis, a cattle disease transmitted by ticks.
She says when the pandemic began, she was glued to the computer, tracking COVID’s spread and checking up on friends, including those in Pullman.
“I miss Pullman a lot—it’s my home in my heart,” Alzan says. “It’s not only the place I got my PhD but the place I got to know myself.”
So far, she and her family have remained healthy but suspect they may have had asymptomatic infections.
“Nobody knows for sure,” she says. “Sometimes when I feel fatigued or have something in my throat, I think maybe I got it and it was mild.
“Others have not been so lucky, especially if they were smokers,” Alzan says. “Some got blood clots in their heart, legs, or other parts of the body. Some famous Egyptians got COVID and died while others survived, so this is a battle for the immune system.
“We are supposed to wear masks and social distance but not everyone follows it. With careless behavior, we’re worried about having a second wave as one has already started in Europe.”
In retrospect, Alzan says, “I think now you can see that life was running, running, everything was going so fast. It was kind of like, hey, slow down and look at what we left behind. Most people are racing through life so fast they forget what they have—other people they love and never see, especially the elderly.
“This little virus hit all the countries at once and made the entire world at the same time stay home. It doesn’t differentiate between well-developed and developing countries. It’s something we have to think about.
“It’s not about the money, it’s your health,” she says. “We have to depend on the strength of our immune system and try to revisit our lifestyle. Regardless of COVID, in the future, we could get other new viruses, bacteria, or problems from global warming. We can’t take anything for granted.”