Victor Crentsil describes the experience of traveling in Vietnam and Cambodia in the lead-up to the Safer at Home social distance measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He shares what he's been doing to stay engaged while staying at home, including listening to podcasts, cooking, and volunteering with a local food pantry.
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Interviewer: My name is Danny Atwater, and I am a Library Assistant for Madison Public Library. This interview is being recorded as part of the Madison Living History Project “Stories from a Distance” series. Today’s date is Friday, May 8, 2020, and this interview is being conducted via the videoconferencing software Zoom. I’ll have our storyteller introduce themselves. Please tell us your first and last name and describe your connection to Madison.
Victor Crentsil: Hello, my name is Victor Crentsil. I’ve lived in Madison for almost twelve years now, so this is very much home. That’s my connection to Madison. I’m a resident.
Interviewer: Thanks for joining us, Victor, and sharing your story. Would you tell me where you are right now, so our listener can get a sense, and describe how you’re feeling in this moment?
Victor Crentsil: I am at my house, which is on the near west side of Madison. I don’t know a hundred years from now if we can identify roads and what-not (laughs), but very close to the Whole Foods and Target, and Hilldale—that’s where I live. At this very moment I’m feeling pretty refreshed. I just went on a long walk; that’s pretty characteristic of my days right now, during the pandemic.
Interviewer: What have things been like for you in the last few weeks, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Safer at Home order?
Victor Crentsil: I think it’s been pretty uneventful, I would say, which is good in a lot of respects. I have adjusted to a routine of looking at the news, keeping it to a maximum of—in the morning of looking at the numbers and looking at different advisories from public health departments, to figure out what I should be doing. Either I should do something differently from what I’ve been doing in the past, or not. And then, trying to stay healthy. Again, doing those exercises where I walk anywhere from three to six miles, just to get some of that fresh air. That’s been most of my routine—trying to stay healthy and pay attention to what our public health experts are telling us to do.
Interviewer: When you’re walking around, what does the neighborhood look like? What are people doing?
Victor Crentsil: It’s interesting, especially this time around Madison in May it starts getting warmer, so you’ll see a few more folks out. The good thing is that most people that I’ve encountered are trying to keep their distance, so when I cross paths with another walker, they usually try to give you a good berth, so you can keep at least six feet of distance from each other. Seeing a few folks wearing masks, as well. It’s really quiet, which is good, too. This neighborhood in general is pretty quiet too, so I don’t know if it reflects a difference from pre-pandemic, but at least it seems like folks are trying to observe the Safer at Home order.
Interviewer: Are you working right now, during this time?
Victor Crentsil: I am not, actually. I’m a unique case in that my employment wasn’t affected by COVID-19 explicitly. I took off from work last September to travel the world for the better part of a year. I was able to get to most of the places that I wanted to visit prior to things getting really serious here in the States. The last places I visited were Vietnam and Cambodia, in February. At that point, I was realizing that the U.S. may not have been taking it as seriously as the rest of the world, at least, especially, that part of the world.
I had a layover in Hong Kong, for example. I remember there, that temperatures were checked at airports; I was given a mask at the airport. This was February; I don’t think we even had as many Shelter in Place or Safer at Home or any of those types of things in the States yet. It was definitely a little bit more serious, or taking it more seriously, there, at that point.
And then when I got back to the States, it was strange, still. That was at the end of February when I flew into Chicago, and—no temperature check, nothing, really, at that point, to signify that we were in the middle of a crisis. But, here we are (laughs).
Interviewer: Besides the airport, was there any indication on your travels that things were different? Were you seeing the locals act differently, or places that you were staying?
Victor Crentsil: Yeah, I think all of the places that I stayed, for the most part, most of the people behind the front desk had masks. That was definitely a change. That said, I don’t know if, in that part of the world, since they were used to SARS before, and H1N1, I don’t know if that may have been something that they were accustomed to already. So I can’t say whether it was just in reaction to the Coronavirus or that was just how they did things.
I remember also, when I was in Hong Kong, it was encouraged for folks to do takeout versus dining in. So, I remember when I got food, I got a discount for just getting food to take out versus dining in. I knew that was something that was different. Then when I was chatting with my partner via WhatsApp at points I was like “Oh, my gosh, it’s crazy here!” I was thinking it was sort of overblown, like I thought they were doing a lot more than they needed to. So, I think it was just crazy. That was just a few months ago, now, when you think about it. But it feels like years (laughs).
Interviewer: You said that you had plans to travel the world. Did you have any future plans that are affected by the world being, essentially, shut down right now?
Victor Crentsil: Yeah. One of my trips, my last trip that I had scheduled, did get cancelled. That was to go to Europe. It would have been pretty close to Italy—sort of a mix of disappointment and relief. I’m at least at home during this time as opposed to trying to navigate that situation. Around the time when I was planning to go, I know there were U.S. citizens who were still stuck in various places, trying to make their way back home. I’m glad I wasn’t in that situation.
That said, I’m still hopeful that maybe in the next few years, when they have a vaccine and when it’s safer for folks to make these international trips that I’ll have the opportunity to do so again. Right now I’m trying to keep things in perspective, and recognize what things I should be grateful for.
Interviewer: Since you’re not working right now, and you’re not traveling the world, besides exercising, what is it that you do to occupy your time?
Victor Crentsil: Honestly, lots of Netflix, puzzles, reading, podcasts. I guess a hundred years from now people won’t understand what a podcast is (laughs). But one of my favorites right now is “Hidden Brain” through NPR. It covers a lot of interesting psychological, philosophical questions. I get super-engaged in that stuff. As more profound as it gets, I get more engaged. Usually, when I’m walking, I’ll be listening to a podcast.
And cooking, too. I do love to cook. I’ve been trying to brush up on a couple of dishes, since I have plenty of time to do so. That’s been pretty much what I’ve been occupying my time with. Also, trying to keep in touch with family and friends. If there’s an opportunity to do some type of service, then trying to do that, if it’s safe. That’s a thing that I’ve been struggling with, is how can I feel useful and helpful in this time, when the directive is to stay home.
Interviewer: Have you found any place that you can volunteer right now?
Victor Crentsil: I did volunteer at Second Harvest Food Bank here in Madison a couple times. I still am on their list, and I plan to do so in the near future as well. What I was doing with the other volunteers was just packaging up food for a lot of folks in need. I know with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s really affected a lot of folks financially. A lot of people have needed Second Harvest services more than usual. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. Also donating money where I can, to various charities.
Interviewer: You mentioned keeping in touch with people. How are family, friends, loved ones doing right now?
Victor Crentsil: So far, most of my family and friends have been healthy and, luckily, not directly impacted by the virus. One of my partner’s friends did have the virus, in Florida. He has since recovered, which is good. Most of my family and friends have been safe and healthy thus far. I think the one that I have the most concern about is my sister; she lives in New York City, and she’s been working remotely, luckily, as a political director for the nurses’ union in New York. It’s been really stressful for her. She started right in the middle of the pandemic that new position—I think March 20th—and she has not had a day off since (laughs). It’s been constant working, dealing with the stresses of hearing of workers losing their lives, having to contact families, and keep everyone else’s morale up in the midst of this crisis. That’s been really stressful for her. I’ve been trying to make sure that I at least try to keep positive for her, and make sure that I’m there for her as a support system. That’s the main person I’ve been really concerned about, throughout this.
Interviewer: You talked a little bit about the news, the media, and how you’re limiting your viewing of that. Are there any news images or stories from the last seven, eight weeks that stand out to you?
Victor Crentsil: When I heard about the disproportionate impact of the virus on Black people in particular but definitely people of color, people on the front lines, etc.—when it was originally reported, they cited Milwaukee, Detroit, other cities across the country. Because I didn’t see anything in Madison at that point; that was earlier—either late March or early April when I was keeping close tabs on that, I reached out to the Dane County Board of Alders [Dane County Board of Supervisors] to see—“Why aren’t we getting this information?”—to see if we’re seeing the same type of disproportionate impacts, so people can concentrate on where they can help people the most.
I was directed to the Dane County Public Health Facebook group, and their website. They started publishing weekly reports detailing the impact in Dane County, and also calling out that there is a disproportionate impact of the disease and the effects of the disease on Black people even in Dane County. That was something that struck me; it was reflective of the injustices, inequality and inequity in this country, as was reported a lot of places. It was something that I felt passionate about; here in Dane County we should be mindful of it, and try to do something about it.
Interviewer: You mentioned before, being grateful for things. What are some things that you’re grateful for right now?
Victor Crentsil: The biggest thing right now, in light of the pandemic, is my health. I’m healthy; my family and my friends that I’ve contacted are healthy. I’m thankful that I’m able to still keep in contact with a lot of folks through Zoom and other means. I’m grateful that my partner is—we’re still able to keep in touch—socially distanced—but still able to keep in touch. He lives relatively close to me, so we can still make that effort without having to go across the country to meet with one another. And grateful that I’m in a position where I can take the time to reflect and be at peace, and still have food and a roof over my head, because it’s definitely hard for a lot of folks who are dealing with uncertainty—financially, etc. I’m grateful that I don’t have that worry or that anxiety.
Interviewer: At some point in the future, when this is behind us, what changes do you hope will have happened as a result of this?
Victor Crentsil: It’s a good question. One of the biggest things that I notice, in terms of the immediate relief that I saw from governments—supporting people, almost without conditions. We’ve seen the stimulus checks, unemployment insurance, people getting relief on rent, on mortgage payments. I’m hoping that we become a little more compassionate as opposed to greedy. Because I think that what’s exposed a lot of the problems in the country as a result of this pandemic is the greed. And if we steer more towards compassion, we can save each other, literally. I’m hoping that when we come out of this, we take those lessons to heart and try to be more compassionate, from a policy perspective, from government, as well as individually. I’m hoping that our leaders take to heart that—yes, we can still survive but be compassionate at the same time, as opposed to focusing just on the bottom line.
Interviewer: Victor, thank you for joining us today and for sharing your story.
Victor Crentsil: Thank you, Danny.
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