A Quarantined Surfer’s First-Hand Account Of The Coronavirus In China

by stab February 27, 2020 4 min read

Could the rapidly spreading coronavirus put an end to the Olympics and surfing’s golden dreams? Potentially. Stab reported on the implications of the pandemic today, and now we’re getting our first reports from a surfer who’s already been quarantined once in China and is now currently being quarantined in Italy.

Meet Italian surfer Nicola “Nik“ Zanella. A self-described surf explorer, he was the editor of SurfNews Magazine from 2000 to 2011, is the author of the book “Children of the Tide” (which sounds absolutely fascinating) and works with the ISA.

“I have spent the last 10 years working and surfing in China,” explained Zanella when we spoke with him. “I mapped the whole coast and went all the way up to North Korea on surf trips. I love China. I have wife and kid in China and we planned to move back to Hainan island from Beijing, but seems like flying to and from China will become even more strict, so now I’m checking how things are evolving before I commit to anything.”

Taking a shot in the dark, yesterday we emailed Zanella and, luckily, he hit us right back. He was happy to talk, so we peppered him with a few questions about what it’s like in China right now, and from his first-hand perspective, how the coronavirus will affect the Olympics and surf travel at large. His answers were honest, informative and shine some light on what’s really going on out there:

Stab: How long have you been in quarantine?
Nicola Zanella: I almost quarantined myself for a month in Beijing where my wife just had a baby. I spent the worst month of the epidemic in Beijing with very limited contacts outside the house. We had a newborn baby at home, so our safety measures were at the highest level. I flew back to Italy on February 14th. I am now quarantined at home again until the 28th. I only have two days to go then I’ll be free to go out. And there’s gonna be waves here on Sunday!

What’s it like living under quarantine?
Really, for strong healthy people, coronavirus is just a flu. But the measures to prevent catching it are extremely painful and depressing, especially for someone used to 200 days of surf/outdoor life per year and a decent social life. Being quarantined is total boredom. After awhile you don’t even want to get out of bed. I lost any motivation to work out. Going in and out of the house is the worst because all overcoats, gloves, trousers, hats are to be considered “dirty,” so in Beijing we sterilized all of them after every trip out. Everything you bring in the house from shops must also be sanitized before you put it in the fridge. 

Then you take a shower and change into fresh clothing. It takes forever and what you do never seems like enough. Having a friend visit you at home is equally complicated, so you end up with a lot of screen time on your iPad. I read all sorts of news and talk about my experience on Insta stories. I think I’m one of the few going through the coronavirus twice. I somehow got caught in twice by the same rogue wave. 


Your home country of Italy is being affected by the coronavirus. I just read about a hotel in the Canary Islands that has put 400 people under quarantine. As a citizen of the world, do you think this will get worse before it gets better?
Yes, I think it will get worse first. Not much in terms of safety, the virus is mild, but in terms of quality of life and impact on the economy. I think Italy and Europe now are at the same stage China was on January 23rd to 25th, after they raised the bar in terms of sanitation and shut down Wuhan and the whole Hubei province. 

Cases went up for over two weeks before slowing down. Italy has now shut a few areas. Only that Chinese closure worked. But the borders between Italy and China have been extremely porous in the past month. Italy flamboyantly shut direct flights in early February but didn’t tampon-check nor quarantine those who came from China—like myself—flying through others nations like Russia or Germany. Experts say that this may have been the cause of the current situation with hundreds of cases and people starting to die. I hope I’m terribly wrong, but I think Italy, and maybe most of Europe, failed prevention and is now struggling with last-minute mitigation. 

A lot of surfers travel to Asian countries like China, Japan and Indonesia to chase waves, how do you see travel restrictions impacting surf tourism from your perspective?
I hate these new restrictions like everyone else, but there will possibly be more of them as new cases pop-up around the planet and hysteria builds. Moreover, people are bombarded with “the end is nigh” news and possibly not willing to spend their savings on leisure, sports and tourism. Things can change quickly, so surfers risk being quarantined abroad or denied access or discriminated because they come from a certain area. Another big concern for outdoor enthusiasts is the risk of getting a cold or a flu with fever. That must be checked, isolated and treated like a possible coronavirus case until proven differently. 

In six months the Olympics will be in Japan, do you see a way the coronavirus could impact the Games, more specifically the debut of surfing?
I have no idea on how they will handle this. What’s for sure is that these days/weeks are crucial for the global outcome. China is already seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Cases are going down, but it took over three weeks to reverse the trend for China and the display of power and extreme measures they implemented was impressive. I don’t think any other nation can afford to do what China did. The whole nation stopped for weeks, 1.4 billion people voluntarily locked themselves indoors even if they were allowed to go out. We will now see how the other countries will react when the corona swell hits them.

What should surfers know about coronavirus?
Tread light, stay close to your home spot, live clean and don’t catch a cold. Surfers are mainly healthy, young people, the risk is small but the social consequences and annoyances are massive. 

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