After pandemic year, weary world looks back – and forward

WASHINGTON (AP) – No one has been untouched.

Not the Michigan woman who awakened one morning, her partner dead by her side. Not the domestic worker in Mozambique, her livelihood threatened by the virus. Not the North Carolina mother who struggled to keep her business and her family going amid rising anti-Asian ugliness. Not the sixth-grader, exiled from the classroom in the blink of an eye.

It happened a year ago. “I expected to go back after that week,” said Darelyn Maldonado, now 12. “I didn’t think that it would take years.”

On March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, few could foresee the long road ahead or the many ways in which they would suffer – the deaths and agonies of millions, the ruined economies, the disrupted lives and near-universal loneliness and isolation.

A year later, some are dreaming of a return to normal, thanks to vaccines that seemed to materialise as if by magic. Others live in places where the magic seems to be reserved for wealthier worlds.

At the same time, people are looking back at where they were when they first understood how drastically life would change.

Francisco Espana, 60, is surrounded by members of his medical team as he looks at the Mediterranean sea from a promenade next to the ‘Hospital del Mar’ in Barcelona, Spain
ABOVE & BELOW: A man and a girl on a scooter are backdropped by a Lombardy region campaign advertising reading in Italian ‘Coronavirus let’s stop it together,’ at the Porta Nuova business district in Milan; and Sangu Kande, a nurse at Queen Anne Healthcare with Jean Allen, one of the patients Kande cared for during the past year. PHOTOS: AP

On March 11, 2020, confirmed cases of COVID-19 stood at 125,000, and reported deaths stood at fewer than 5,000.

Today, 117 million people are confirmed to have been infected, and according to Johns Hopkins, more than 2.6 million people have died.

On that day, Italy closed shops and restaurants after locking down in the face of 10,000 reported infections.

The NBA suspended its season, and Tom Hanks, filming a movie in Australia, announced he was infected.

On that evening, President Donald Trump addressed the nation from the Oval Office, announcing restrictions on travel from Europe that set off a trans-Atlantic scramble. Airports flooded with unmasked crowds in the days that followed. Soon, they were empty.

And that, for much of the world, was just the beginning.

Today, thanks to her vaccination, Maggie Sedidi is optimistic: “By next year, or maybe the year after, I really do hope that people will be able to begin returning to normal life.”

But it is a hard-earned optimism. Sedidi, a 59-year-old nurse at Soweto’s Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, the largest hospital in South Africa and the entire continent, recalls she was devastated when the first cases appeared there last March. And she recalls being terrified when she got COVID-19. Her manager fell ill at the same time and died.

South Africa has had by far Africa’s worst experience with the virus. The country of 60 million people has had more than 1.5 million confirmed cases, including more than 50,000 deaths.

“You can imagine, I was really, really frightened. I had all the symptoms. except dying,” she said, with a survivor’s grim smile. Her recuperation period was lengthy.

“I had shortness of breath and tightness of the chest. It lasted for six months,” she said. “I didn’t think it would ever go away.”

But she mended, and she’s back at work in the surgical ward. Others have not been so lucky. In the United States – the world’s most COVID-wracked country – 29 million have been infected, and 527,000 have died. Latoria Glenn-Carr and her partner of six years were diagnosed at a hospital emergency room near their home outside Detroit on October 29. Despite Latoria’s qualms, they were sent home.

The partner, 43, died three days later.

“I woke up on Sunday, and I didn’t feel a pulse,” Glenn-Carr said.

One month later, COVID killed Glenn-Carr’s mother, too.

In quiet times, in prayer, Glenn-Carr thinks she should have pushed for the hospital to keep her husband, or should have taken her to a different hospital. She is also angry at America’s political leaders – in particular, Trump, who she believes was more worried about the economy than people’s lives.

“If he was more empathetic to the issues and concerned about people, in general, he would have taken it more seriously,” she said. “And because of that, 500,000 people are dead.”

She joined a survivor’s group for people who lost loved ones to COVID. They meet weekly on Zoom, text each other and help with the grieving process. Glenn-Carr knows she will dread birthdays and Mother’s Days that will go uncelebrated.

“Nothing goes back to the way it was” she said.

At Queen Anne Healthcare in Seattle, 96-year-old Jean Allen was infected and recovered. But 19 of her fellow residents and two staff members died.

The deaths trailed off, but the isolation and boredom continue. Allen is now fully vaccinated. She has had enough of sleeping her days away, of having only limited visits with other residents.

She recalled the yarn shop she ran decades ago, where she taught knitting and gabbed with the customers, and thought maybe she’d resume that old hobby, which she learned from her grandmother around 1930.

“I’m starting to get that feeling: It’s time to go back and do something,” she said. “If you find some knitting needles, let’s say size three and five, pass the word on to the front desk. They’ll get them to me.”

With the pandemic came hard times to so many places. In Nepal, the stream of foreign adventurers arriving to climb Mount Everest stopped – a disaster for guides like Pasang Rinzee Sherpa.

Sherpa has scaled Mount Everest twice and spent 18 years helping climbers up the highest Himalayan peaks, generally earning about USD8,000 a year.

In the past 12 months, he had no income.

Sherpa had to beg his landlord in Kathmandu to waive his rent. He borrowed money from friends, cut down on expenses, stopped sending money to his parents, who have a small farm. He lives on two simple meals a day, cooking them in his room.

It’s been difficult. “We are mountain people who are used to walking freely in nature,” Sherpa said. “But for months during lockdown we were forced to be confined in a room in Kathmandu city. It was mental torture for us.”

In Mozambique, one of the world’s poorest countries, domestic worker Alice Nharre remembered the desperation of people forced to stay home for a virus that some initially thought was not real.

“People were thinking: ‘We’re going to stay at home, with no help from the government – how are we going to survive?’” she said.

The southern African country’s government pledged that relief pay of the equivalent of USD20 would be given for three months to those thrown out of work.

“It never happened,” said Nharre, 45. “My mother signed up, but the money never arrived. We don’t know what happened to it.”