Surviving COVID, a story of destruction, separation, isolation & rebirth

April 30, 2022

The word “Surviving” maybe misleading for the tittle article given that our agency was less than one year old when COVID hit us. We were, a small studio based out of Saigon with 5 designers, mostly working bootstrapped startup clients. Things were looking up as each project achieved more than the last. 

At this point, we’ll been following the news out of Wuhan, with very little reliable information about the disease or the appropriate response the air was anxious amongst our team and community. One morning in early February I receive an emergency text message and email from Australia Foreign Embassy in Vietnam that all Australian citizens and residents are advised to return to Australia or face being stuck abroad with no support. 

At the time, the common narrative was that we will flatten the curve, 2 weeks at least, 2 months the most. So I caught a last minute flight out of Saigon reassuring my team “I’ll be back, 2 months, max…”

The Aftermath

…2 years later and the full aftermath is yet to be tallied, however it can be told through 3 chapters, destruction, separation, isolation & rebirth. 

Chapter 1: Destruction 

No one saw this coming, not even the cynics amongst us would have predicted a pandemic can destroy the whole team in such a short amount of time. It was the perfect storm brewing. We had a new team with many juniors, 100% office based work culture, project management based on daily standup meetings and no plan to prepare us for what to come. A rushed evacuation out of the country left a vacuum in leadership in our Saigon office, which at the time seemed manageable. 

So how were we to tackle this problem? The first obvious answer was to hire a manager as none of the staff had supervisory experience nor were feeling ready to take on a new role. Given the urgency of the matter we didn’t have the luxury of interviewing many candidates and defining the role well so we placed a manager who didn’t have the industry experience however had very strong interpersonal skills. 

This turned out to be our downfall, given that our team was young, shy, yet capable, the new manager saw this leadership vacuum as an opportunity to create information gaps, distance myself from our local clients, and start distancing the team from me. This isn’t necessarily bad if her output met satisfied the clients & the team, but her lack of industry experience yet charismatic personality would downplay our team’s contribution and overplay her role. This quickly led to a sense of resentment amongst the team, and within the first 4 months of COVID lockdowns, not a single team member stayed. Additionally there was no playbook or best practice for remote teams in Vietnam’s working culture at the time, thus WFH arrangements made everything very inefficient. 

*honestly this is nowhere near painful compared to some of our clients who were in middle of launching; a beauty salon, an English centre, a restaurant, a night-club. All these projects, someones blood sweat and tears, destroyed. I guess we are the lucky ones who survived. 

Chapter 2: Separation 

Having lived 3 and half years in Vietnam prior COVID, I had a lot invested. Friends, relationships, networks and my dream of building my own agency. There was no goodbye hugs or goodbye kisses. Just a frantic message telling all my loved ones that… I’ll be away for a bit. From the perspective of my friends in Vietnam, one morning I was gone, yet to be seen again. 

So it began… zoom meetings & panic buying. Lost relatives and lost friends. All borders closed, no exception. The very fabric of society was being torn to peaces. 

The reality of this world is, very few countries give welfare cheques that you can live off. All my staff at the time where in the early 20s, with working age parents. Overnight, their whole family was out of work, and out of pay and they were the only bread winner, considered some what lucky for having digital work. 

So the pressure came on me, to keep this agency rolling, to keep the paycheques coming as many families needed this tiny bit of stability to have hope in the situation. So despite situation, we all tried our best to make remote working work. Everyone tried their best, but the problems kept mounting. Not everyone has a private room with a space to work, many of our younger team members still lived in shared rooms and felt it embarrassing to join video calls or team meetings. The shops were closed so replacing broken equipment took weeks, and moral hit a rock bottom from our separation. Just like patients of blunt force trauma, first couple months didn’t feel any financial strain, most clients where in denial (so was I) of the economic situation, but after the 3rd month the cash slowed down as our clients closed shop and I had an anxiety attack chasing due invoices trying to make payroll.  

We were all separated. We were all hopeless and very quickly going broke. 

Chapter 3: Isolation 

So one year into the madness, broke, depressed, no team, hardly any clients yet this nightmare had no end in sight. Nights were sleepless and plagued with questions that had no answers. 

“What do I do now?”

“How will I reach my dreams?”

“How will I ever be able to build a family?”

“When can I go see my father and grand father?”

Living abroad for 3 and a half years and another year in lockdown doesn’t exactly correlate with a good social life. Since I was stuck in Sydney, I needed to build my friendship circles, but most people, facing their own demons and depression didn’t have the carnage to rekindle old relationships. 

So I tried something else. 

The sad irony is, parallel to the pandemic there is at least a dozen social media movements encouraging “mental health”, or “men’s mental health” or “we’re all in this together”. So out of desperation I reach out to those who post on social media  about these topics. I though, ah these people get it, people need to be heard and cared for in a community. It starts off really well until you cross that invisible line. The moment you disagree with COVID related policies (no matter how respectfully and rationally), you’re no longer someone who needs help and to be understood, you’re a far right neonate who is killing grandma. Ok. 

This is when I knew, everyone was lost. Those who had steady employment and government cheques felt that the “others” are making COVID management impossible, and those who’ve been cut off from their livelihood and loved ones felt that the “others” don’t care about them. So we have riots, we have police mandates, we have social media wars and we have teen suicide. This is how society falls apart. 

In the end of the day, we are all just people trying to hold on to our livelihoods and protect what we love. But with fear, paranoia, mass hysteria and internet censorship it’s so easy to get a fight between those who get it and those who don’t. 

**Now to all my friends and clients who were really there for me during this time, honestly can’t express how important your support was. 

Chapter 4: Rebirth

There were some nights, where I wished to quietly just disappear into the night. Felt like a convenient excuse to become another statistic. However there was one inconvenience, I wasn’t alone in being alone. Despite the time, despite the border, despite the distance… my family and my friends from near and far needed my help, and they keep helping me. I couldn’t given up on them, they all battle their own demons and personal tragedy. This is were my friends stories, my ancestors tribulations and my families legacy helped me wakeup from this lucid nightmare. 

Upon reflection I realised the world is different now, but the world has always been changing. Why am I so weak, why am I letting myself get into this slump? How have my parents survived to economic collapse of the soviet union, how have my grandparents survived many wars and famines of their time? They survived together. 

So the one or two clients I had to keep the lights on also needed my help. They knew I’ve dropped the ball since our team has collapsed however they still trusted me and supported me with enough work to have a reason to wake up in the morning. They weren’t giving me work, they were giving me hope.

To know that people still believe in me, believe in the future and believe in a better tomorrow gave me hope… and I wasn’t going to waste it. 

I got up, every day and did the work. To the point where I couldn’t do any more, I found another designer who was willing to help all the way from Vietnam, and that was the first step to build Kholab back up again. 

That was 1 year and 2 months ago, and here we are now. 

(I hardly get time to write these days so don’t judge the rushed poster)

The Realisation

It’s a long windy story that gets very personal I know… But there are so many important lessons to be learnt, and if we fail to learn now we will fail at the face of future adversity. 

Lesson 1: You’re not alone in being alone. Reach out, ask for help and help others whenever you can. 

Lesson 2: The world is unstable and unpredictable. We should aspire for resilience and strength, not comfort and complacency. 

Lesson 3:  We should be willing and able to listen opposing sides of a viewpoint, as our unity and cooperation is more valuable than our moral high grounds. If we don’t we risk isolation and breakdown of community. 

For our aspiring and current business, political and social leaders I would like to remind you:

  1. Prioritise social stability over radical policies 
  2. Empower the people to make informed decisions 
  3. Give certainty and confidence to your community 
  4. Create an environment youth can thrive in 

The Way Forward

The aftermath of COVID is yet to be understood and new pressing global issues are adding more uncertainty for the road ahead. The saying goes, don’t wish for it to be easy, wish for the strength to overcome hard. 

I encourage my team, partners, clients, friends and family to push on through and come out stronger on the other side. This is why I wanted to share a very personal story. Seeing other push through and grow is empowering. Don’t be afraid of the obstacles ahead. 

You got this!- Tem