On Jan. 29, the day of the United Arab Emirates' first confirmed COVID-19 case, Manson Tung, ’16, posts a photo with a face mask on his Instagram story. (Photo courtesy of Tung)

IN THE MIDDLE OF IT ALL: Manson Tung, ’16, praises United Arab Emirates’ response to pandemic

This is the second installment in a series on Country Day alumni around the world during the pandemic. 

Manson Tung, ’16, is a senior majoring in political science and minoring in urbanization at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Q: Before you were ordered to quarantine, what was the atmosphere like in Abu Dhabi?

A: New York University (has) what they call J (January) Term. It’s three weeks when you take a class at one of the sites in NYU, and there are 11 sites around the world. (There) were people on every continent (who came) back on the 26th of January, when COVID-19 was breaking out. Because the school had so many people from around the world, I felt that. 

In late January, we had the first case of COVID-19 here in UAE, and then it (continued) into the middle of February. In late February, the case counts in the UAE started skyrocketing, (and) we moved pretty quickly. People were flying all over the world back to their home countries.

Maybe a week or two after that happened, NYUAD shut down its physical interaction. We were probably one of the first universities in the world to actually end in-person classes. 

Q: When did you realize it was getting serious?

A: I have family in China and in Hong Kong, and (they) remember SARS. So I was on it when it was still (around) 300 cases. I went out and bought N95 masks, surgical gloves (and) hand sanitizer back in early February.

By early March, we realized that this (was going to) be really bad. (Class) was all online.

Q: Have you been tested for COVID-19? 

A: No. They are only testing people who have come into contact with people that tested positive and those at extremely high risk.

Q: Do you know anyone who has tested positive?

A: A very distant cousin is confirmed (to have COVID-19) in New York, but otherwise no one I know. (There have been) a few scares (with) either symptoms or contact with confirmed cases, though. 

Q: How has your daily life changed?

A: My day-to-day life is completely different now. Before, I used to wake up, go to the gym, grab breakfast, go to class and then have a pretty packed day of meetings for my senior thesis. (I would also be) working at my on-campus jobs (in the dean of students’ office and the Moses Center for student disabilities), applying for internships (and) studying for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test). I was quite busy, and a lot of the stuff was in person. 

Now, I don’t leave my room. I haven’t left my building in three days.

Q: What has the reaction been like in Abu Dhabi?

A: Everyone’s just on edge because every day, the government releases new (infection and death) count figures. People are just really anxious because it’s never been this bad before. There’s still food on the shelves, and food deliveries are still working, so in that sense it’s normal. It’s pretty shocking that the malls are shut, which took a good while for me to wrap my head around.

The airports are shut, so there’s no way for you to leave this country except on a government-sponsored repatriation flight. There’s only one of those to the U.K. this week, so there are no flights to the U.S. I’m here until the situation changes.

Q: What has surprised you about Abu Dhabi during the pandemic?

A: I was really surprised by how resilient and forward-thinking the leadership both at the school and also in the country has been. We never had a shortage of toilet paper or food or anything like that. Food deliveries are still being made. 

Because the government here basically has unlimited power and financial resources, they’ve just been able to marshal whatever is needed. It was decided and done very clearly and effectively. 

Q: How have people banded together in Abu Dhabi?

A: Because the government and the school have dealt with this situation so effectively resource-wise, there have not been any calls to donate N95 masks, and they haven’t been calling on emergency workers or former health care workers to come back into the field. When the crisis isn’t that bad, it hasn’t really galvanized public support. People are just kind of fending for themselves at the moment.

Q: Are you able to get access to supplies?

A: I haven’t noticed any shortages. That being said, I’m also super insulated on this campus. NYUAD does a ridiculous job procuring stuff. Besides the mask-wearing, the fact that classes are shut and most public spaces are banned, it’s still fine. We still have food, (but) it’s takeout only. You can’t sit down and eat in public spaces.

Q: What are your online classes like? 

A: I vastly prefer my in-person classes to online classes. Part of the reason I chose NYU Abu Dhabi is the small class sizes. The fact that I’m in a class with 300 people or 30 people online doesn’t make a difference. It just feels really distant, and you don’t get that same sense of camaraderie.

Q: How has this affected your plans?

A: This is my senior year of university, (and) it’s really bizarre — we are not having a physical commencement ceremony. We had (a) 100-days-until-commencement pool party, and then everything after that has just been canceled.

I don’t know what is happening with (my) summer internship, and I don’t know (if) they (will) push back the starting date of school. I don’t know whether I can take the LSAT. I don’t even know if I’m flying home because the borders are shut. Right now I’m just kind of floating, and I don’t know whether it’d be safe to go home.

Q: What do you miss about pre-quarantine life?

A: I miss being able to go out to dinners and lunches in the city. 

(I also miss) randomly meeting up with and having dinner with people on campus. Because I am trying my hardest to socially distance myself, there is a core group of four individuals who I have contact with. I have not interacted with other people. Even though we are on the same campus currently, it doesn’t feel like it. 

A big part of the NYUAD experience is packing up your bags and going at the drop of a hat to an unknown destination. I had originally planned a four-country jaunt for spring break and had another five-country trip planned for the fall. Of course, this is an immense luxury, but it is a part of my pre-corona life that I miss, (especially) the open access, freedom and knowledge.

—By Samhita Kumar