"Hi Samik, welcome back to Brussels!" My guide, Guimore, greeted me at the underground Brussels Central Station. It was 7 March, a little over two weeks ago, when Europe was just becoming familiar with the new pandemic: coronavirus.

I extended my right hand, but she smiled hesitantly and said, “Is it safe to shake hands? I am not infected, are you?" We laughed and greeted each other with a namaste. The Indian greeting had become popular across Europe.

For almost 10 days now, we have all been self-isolated in our homes in the Netherlands. We, 100-plus employees of a major Indian IT company, are in Utrecht, a city about 45km from the capital of Amsterdam. We’re working for a Dutch customer to understand their IT requirement, and return to continue their work from India. It’s typical IT offshoring.

After eight months of knowledge transitions, the first batch of associates returned to India in February’s third week. More were to travel in March and April. I was scheduled to return to India after couple of months, but now, with all the shutdowns, I’m not sure when I’ll get home.

When news gets real

The first case of coronavirus in the Netherlands was confirmed on 27 February. Within weeks, the disease went from being an epidemic to a pandemic, and now the number of confirmed cases has crossed 2,000, and at least 18 have died.

I started taking it seriously when a colleague sent me a leave cancellation request on 1 March. He’d planned to visit Italy, but “with the situation there", he was not willing to risk it. Initially, I thought he was overreacting, but within five days I was proven wrong. The virus had gripped all of Europe.

Most people seemed to take this casually in the beginning. Maybe the current generation of Europeans is not familiar with fear.

It’s proved costly. In Italy, the virus has claimed more lives than in China, where it originated. Italy is in a total lockdown. The healthcare system has collapsed; older people are being abandoned to die. All this happened in just two weeks.

From the first week of March, my Indian colleagues wanted to go back as soon as possible. The management was cautious and travel was allowed on a case-by-case basis. Since the second week of March, all travel was suspended, and now in the third week, the Indian government has also suspended all travel from EU countries to India.

From 9 March, the change in behaviour was apparent. Colleagues were careful to keep a distance, and the business continuity plan was discussed and invoked.

Home office

Our client, a prominent financial business in The Netherlands, identified its skeleton team. Comprising both Dutch and Indians, the skeleton team was told to isolate itself and work from home from 4 March. In the meantime, the coronavirus graph in this small country is rising.

Most European countries made the same mistake as Italy in the early days. They did not impose restrictions on their borders or citizens. People kept moving freely across the EU, carrying the virus.

From 14 March, most businesses, including our customer, shut offices and asked employees to work from home. Being a first world country, internet connectivity is not a problem. With a laptop and required access, we are running the office from home, miles away from our own homes. There are challenges, but we are adjusting very fast.

Real panic hit us 14 March, a day after our office shut. We decided to stock up on groceries, but we were too late. Shelves were empty. Rice, sugar, bread, milk, chips, biscuits—all gone. People around me had not looked panic-stricken, but they had hoarded everything. Stations, streets and buses were deserted.

Everyone has now become aware of social distancing and personal hygiene. We’re far from home, and we’re worried, but we draw strength from one another, and are taking it one day at a time.

The writer works for an Indian multinational IT company.Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.cvom

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