United States pandemic coverage has rarely mentioned the European country of Croatia. With a population of 4 million people, it sits on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea across from Italy. Toward the end of April, Croatia reached 1,980 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 50 deaths. With a comparable population, Oklahoma’s total was roughly 2,800, with 164 deaths at that time.
Tribal member Tesha Spitzer and her husband, Igor, live in Zagreb, the nation’s capital. The Tescier family descendant moved to Croatia from California nearly 20 years ago. The first case of COVID-19 in the country came from a resident returning from Italy after attending a soccer match.
Living near one of the hardest-hit countries in the world, Tesha and Igor have followed the virus’s development and spread, both in Europe and America. Tesha’s sister lives in California and is part of the high-risk segment of the population, and her husband works at a hospital. Their safety remains one of Tesha’s main concerns.
“I just worry about him picking up something there,” she said. “They really do take a lot of precautions. He has all kinds of protective gear. But I know because of him working there, it is possible he brings it home.”
Tesha and Igor began their self-quarantine at the beginning of March. At the time of their Skype interview with the Hownikan, they had spent four weeks contained in their apartment.
“I’m normally an introverted person anyways, so I’m not going crazy or anything like that. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t tell me I couldn’t do it. When they say, ‘You can’t go out.’ All of a sudden, I want to go out!” she said and laughed.
Tesha is a homemaker, and Igor works as a software engineer for his company with clients across Europe. His work frequently causes him to travel; he returned from Belgium at the beginning of March. To comply with the Croatian government’s strict quarantine rules, they separated from each other for two weeks for their health and safety. Many Croatians travel back and forth throughout the region for work, including Italy.
“At first, people were still coming and going across the borders. And then we got that first case from Italy. … And it was a little bit scary, but they still let people in and out at the time. And then it started growing and growing,” Tesha said.
Then, the Croatian government set out rules regarding travel. Citizens are not allowed to leave the country or the town they occupy without special permission. Overall, Tesha and Igor expressed satisfaction with their government’s response to the World Health Organization-declared pandemic.
“They started taking precautions pretty quickly. Once they really realized it’s not going to just be in China. Whenever Italy started getting hit pretty bad, they realized it’s going to spread. They started taking precautions,” she said. “Some people are complaining it’s too strict.”
Trip to America
Last September, Tesha purchased tickets for the two of them to spend a month in the U.S. in spring 2020. At the beginning of March, she and Igor still planned to fly into California to see her sister before setting off on a cross-country road trip, ending at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. However, COVID-19 spread very quickly, and soon enough, they made the decision two weeks before their flight to stay home.
“Wow. What a disappointment because we were so excited,” Tesha said. “We had been planning that for like six months now, and then this happens. But that’s not something you could even possibly dream would happen.”
The trip would have been Igor’s first time visiting the United States. When he tried to apply for a visa in 2002, travel restrictions were harsh for entry due to 9/11. Igor was also a student, and Croatia denied him, anticipating he would not return after visiting America.
This time, Igor received his visa, but the U.S. implemented travel bans on March 14.
“If you don’t laugh about it, the other option is to just cry about it. So, which one do you want to do?” Tesha said. “We’re more ‘laugh at the irony’ type of people.”
Igor has still never traveled to America, and this spring’s trip was going to be Tesha’s first time to visit Oklahoma and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center. They hope to try again next year.
Along with COVID-19, Croatians recently experienced a large, deadly earthquake. The rumbling forced Tesha awake at almost 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 22, also Igor’s birthday. It lasted a long 10 seconds. As a former resident of California, she has experienced them most of her life.
“This was definitely the strongest one I’ve been in. And it was not a rolling type of earthquake; this was a shaking, jarring, bouncing-up-and-down type of earthquake,” Tesha said. At one point, she worried their glass patio doors would shatter.
Since the pandemic’s onset, the Croatian government reminded self-quarantined residents to stay inside and away from others; however, when the earthquake hit, it quickly told everyone to move outdoors.
“The government’s saying, ‘Go outside! Go outside!’” she said. “Everyone was like, ‘What do we do?’”
Falling rubble crushed cars on the street, and it caused one death and dozens of other injuries. It also took down a spire of one of the towers of the Zagreb Cathedral, the city’s tallest building constructed in 1217. It registered as a 5.4, the biggest earthquake in the region since a 6.3 magnitude struck the capital in 1880. Now the Croatian government must balance restructuring and repairing buildings along with pandemic safety plans.
The city felt aftershocks from the earthquake registering as high as a 3.7 for several days, and the effects of COVID-19 show no signs of slowing either.