A Year Ago

One year ago Friday, we’d planned a gathering at our house.  A few people had already announced they wouldn’t come ‘out of an abundance of caution’ a new phrase invented by Corona.  We debated whether to leave our invite open, but in the end canceled rather than make people uncomfortable by forcing them into a decision given the little information we all had at the time.  What we knew about the virus then, was that it was transmitted from person to person, it was not airborne (which later proved false), and that it was not necessarily deadly (see previous comment). 

That night, instead of hosting a party, we went out to our favorite restaurant and wondered how things would unfold. 

Within days, lockdown was declared and our upstate NY college town had emptied, my mother had moved in with us from Florida, and the dialogue around the virus had changed.  Data proved it might be deadly after all—although only to older people or those with underlying health conditions—yet suddenly everything seemed more precarious than the day before.  And that was the only certainty as days passed.

With two over-70-year-olds in the house (my mother and her Canadian partner), a high school senior suddenly homeschooling, a travel-loving husband abruptly homebound, and a dog who chose that moment to get life-threateningly sick, our life got very small and very nerve-wracking all at once.  Since I was the only one leaving the house, I felt like the designated Emissary-to-the-Outside-World as we adapted, inside, to a new normal. 

For the first several weeks (or months) I remember feeling petrified that I would kill my mother—unintentionally, of course—not careful enough at the grocery store or the gas station, as hospitals filled to capacity in nearby NYC and we watched their temporary morgues overflow.  All I could imagine, if anything happened to my mom, was not only would I be responsible for her death, but that I’d have to answer to my sisters, too, and how they would hate me.  Added to that, in one of those how-could-it-possibly-get-worse scenarios, I phoned my oldest daughter, an ocean away, who told me she had a cold.  A few days later, she updated me via text: “It’s probably Corona.”  Three grueling days of silence followed.

 I started waking at night in cold sweats—anxiety or Covid? 

It was a nervous time for everyone—and yet, as we realized that our one-month lockdown would probably go much longer—people started to adapt. 

Humans are massively resilient beings—that’s something I’m convinced of, having lived in strange or unbearable places myself and borne it; or having experienced how others, enduring even more, have borne it even longer. 

If I believe in one truth in life it’s this: humans can adapt to anything.   

So as people started discussing masks, we started sewing ours in the living room, using leftover fabric from old doll clothes projects.  At the supermarket, it turned out we weren’t the only ones; a new world of floating eyes emerged over colorful, mini-quilts as masked people started populating our town.  Neighbors offered or traded mask patterns and sewed for other neighbors. 

Overnight, plastic went up in front of cashiers, at first only lowly, see-through shower curtains that later morphed into improvised hanging plexiglass, before becoming more durable structures, demonstrating how everyone’s adaptations got more sophisticated as time went on. 

We got used to washing our groceries outside the door (before we discovered it wasn’t necessary), and figured out ways to meet up once Spring arrived, spacing our lawn chairs around the backyard at the required 6-foot distance.  Some people shopped online for the first time and we all learned to Zoom.  My daughter graduated in our living room, in a ceremony that felt both meaningful and well-organized—as we continually learned how to cope. 

As summer turned to fall and we grew tired of—but also used to—the new requirements of life: sitting in parking lots to be called in for appointments, getting swabbed twice a week to teach or study during the semester, sanitizing hands on both ends of a grocery run, we also came to understand that Covid was here for the long haul.  My early optimism of getting it under control (not impossible if we had followed the science), faded as November arrived and Thanksgiving kick-started a new explosion of cases, just as we were relocating for a half-year to Germany, a country which removed most Covid restrictions for Christmas, so everyone could enjoy the holidays.  (???)  Luckily, the Germans re-thought that strategy as hospitals imploded and another life lesson was reiterated: that although humans are amazingly adaptable, they can also be incredibly stupid. 

Now, exactly one year from the date when we first went on lockdown, it’s a good time to reflect. 

People have continued to adapt—surprisingly, so—and we have gotten used to so many things we never expected we could.  When we first got to Germany, where masks are only used indoors, I discovered how used I was to not seeing people’s faces—and how nervous it made me to see so many people unmasked.  And now, used to wearing my required N95 indoors, I will probably panic at home when people are still wearing their homemade face-coverings. 

But to a great extent, as we think about our migration back home in Spring, at least in the US, it seems as if there’s a glimmer of a post-lockdown hope—because of vaccines.  And if anything has surprised me most this year, it’s the speed of the vaccine roll-out.  I never would have anticipated a year ago that already the people I worry about most would be vaccinated against the virus. 

One of the jobs I did back in East Africa was running vaccination programs in war-drenched South Sudan, a place that could break your heart with all its suffering.  Between fighting and bombings, droughts, Nile flooding, crop failures, malnutrition, evacuations and population relocations, vaccines provided protection from at least one type of terror that could kill.  Our teams regularly vaccinated against diseases like Polio, Diptheria, Tetanus, Pertussis and Measles.  

This was an effort.

When we’d arrive at a new location, we had to start by figuring out how many people were there—mainly counting the children, our strategic target.  Then we’d ask local elders to identify community members who we could train and hire as Immunization Workers.  After several weeks of training, our new team members would be ready for vaccines. 

 I don’t even know what goes into vaccine production—certainly another long and complex procedure—but starting with ready vaccines, the most important step in the process for us was getting the vaccines on site.  We benefited from ‘The Cold Chain’ system, an organization of people and logistics that started at the World Health Organization headquarters in Nairobi and ended at our location in South Sudan, almost a thousand kilometers away.  Two flights, several cool boxes, people to load and unload; ice packs, working thermometers and speed was all necessary to get the vaccines to us.  Once we got them, we needed our kerosene-powered fridges up and running perfectly and adjusted every day to keep the vaccines viable.  It was a system, not just of logistics, but of amazing people power—communal power—negotiated between with two countries, several aid organizations, rebel leaders, commanders on the ground, our vaccine teams and the local population.

Each morning in the field, the team would gather at the fridge to unload the tiny glass vials into cool boxes for transport to the community.  If we had done our information campaigns well, mothers and children would already be waiting at the various stations we’d organized, at clinics if we had them or under large trees if we didn’t.  One line would distribute drops of Oral Polio Vaccine; another DPT; Measles vaccines for mothers and children in yet another line.  At the end of the day, each vaccinated person held a little yellow vaccine card stored in a plastic hull—a much-revered possession that many guarded like gold. 

Because of war, populations were always moving and we almost never could stay in one place long enough to complete a 9-month vaccination schedule.  Yet every time we started over at a new location, there would be families proudly waving their little yellow cards.  

Vaccines in South Sudan were nothing to take for granted.  They were the difference between life and death in a place where death from vaccine-preventable disease was a daily occurrence. 

Although I know there are vaccine doubters in this world, they are not the people who have ever seen a whole village of twisted children scuttling about on mangled limbs from polio; or those who have watched a mother sob after losing all her children from measles; or witnessed the body of a seven-year-old boy, muscle-locked and asphyxiating as he dies, slowly, excruciatingly from tetanus.

This is the reality of death by vaccine-preventable disease.  Only those who live in the luxury of health can believe that vaccines are not a privilege, or, when offered: a responsibility. 

Which is why, as I scroll through my neighborhood list serve from Upstate NY, with all its complaints about the difficulty of booking appointments, or the hours spent online being told to check back later, or the broadcast dilemma of figuring out which vaccine is best, I get frustrated.  Or when I read about a nurse somewhere in the US who ‘believes it is his choice’ not to get the vaccination although he puts his patients at risk.  Or when others say it’s too much of a hassle for something they’re not really worried about getting. 

Because I know how valuable vaccines are.  And how much work it takes to get those vaccines out.  And how much good they can do. 

I also find it disturbing, that whole privileged line of thought, when I’m sitting now in a country who can’t seem to get their vaccine roll-out under way, and where my almost 80-year-old father-in-law was told last week that he’s still ‘too young’ to sign up for a vaccine. 

That’s the reality, actually, in most of the world.  In Germany, they’ll get the vaccines eventually, but as Covid is now a vaccine-preventable disease, I know how urgent the timing is to reign it in now.  And while the vaccine roll-out here is probably mere months away, there are other places in the world, places like the rural communities where I used to work, that still lack Cold Chains and health workers and infrastructure and vaccines—and they will wait longer for their protection.  Possibly years. 

So, get your vaccine as soon as you can and encourage others to get it, too.

And then, be grateful.

Because many people have worked very hard, so you can have this protection.