International soccer player hustles home as coronavirus strikes in South Africa

Michele Barletta doing soccer drills at his home

The date is Sunday, March 15, 2020. Michele Barletta has three days to get home.

Why does he only have three days? And why is three days such a time crunch? None of his relatives are dying. He doesn’t have an ailment for which he can only get medical attention at home. So what’s the rush?

Barletta’s home is in Johannesburg, South Africa. The entire country of South Africa is about to go under lockdown. No flights will be let in or out of South Africa after three days is up, so he has three days to get home. If he doesn’t get home, it could be months, perhaps longer, before he gets to go home again.

Quincy University’s spring break was supposed to end March 15, with classes set to resume the following day. On March 13, QU announced that spring break would be extended through the following Sunday, March 22, with online instruction going through at least April 3.

Barletta had spent spring break visiting a friend in Arkansas and returned to Quincy the night of March 14. With no clear return date for in-person classes and South Africa’s travel ban, Barletta had a decision to make: stay in Quincy and ride out the storm, or go home as quickly as possible so he can, well, go home.

Once Barletta got word that international students could finish their classes online, whether or not classes resumed in person, the decision was made for him.

“It was kind of a no-brainer to come home at that point,” Barletta said via Google Meet. “Obviously, there were risks travelling, catching the virus and things like that, but with the way things have escalated, if I didn’t come home, I could have been stuck in Quincy or somewhere in the states for who knows how long. I could have been there until May, June, maybe July, and at that point, is it even worth coming home?”

The next day, March 15, Barletta bought plane tickets and packed all his belongings. The morning of March 16, he boarded a flight from Quincy to Chicago, then from Chicago to Dubai. His flight from Dubai arrived in Johannesburg on March 18, the last day he could have arrived in South Africa before the travel ban went into effect.

Virtually empty Dubai National Airport
Barletta walks through Dubai International Airport, usually one of the busiest airports in the world.

The trip went smoothly, except for an interesting encounter in Chicago. Barletta pulled out his phone to take pictures of the virtually empty O’Hare International Airport. As he did, a police officer and a security official approached him.

“They said to me, ‘You have to delete those pictures, and we have to watch you and make sure you delete them. You’re not allowed to take any pictures,’ Barletta said. “So that was kinda interesting. I guess there’s a reason for that, though.”

On March 27, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize imposed a 21-day lockdown on South Africa. On Thursday, Ramaphosa announced a 14-day extension on the lockdown until the end of April.

Under the lockdown, residents are only allowed to leave their homes for emergencies.

“You’re not allowed to leave your house unless you’re going to any essential services, so unless you’re going grocery shopping or going to get medical care or something like that,” Barletta said. “So the only things open are grocery stores, clinics and hospitals. Everything else is shut down completely, everything’s closed.”

Empty road in Johannesburg, South Africa
A virtually empty highway near Barletta’s home in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Barletta has kept himself busy as much as possible, staying sharp on his soccer skills, trying to stay in shape and, of course, watching Netflix. He has also picked up some new hobbies.

“I’ve been doing a lot more handyman stuff with my dad,” he said. “I’m not usually that kind of guy who goes around fixing things, but nothing else to do and my dad needs and extra hand. I’ve done some baking, as well, which is something I never thought I’d do, but I’ve done that a couple times.”

Cookies that Barletta baked
Barletta has taken to baking to cure boredom during the lockdown. Don’t those cookies look good?

Maybe he’ll even catch up on some Ernest Hemingway or George Orwell.

“My mom’s got a bunch of books laying around. I might start reading one of those. I’ve never been much of a reader, but you never really know what this thing could force me to do.”

Sewing, maybe?

“That’s pushing it a little,” Barletta said with a chuckle.

So no sewing, but maybe he’ll be the next Cake Boss, Chip Gaines, or Mark Twain. Who knows?

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