Dispatches from the corners of a pandemic: part one

Medical staff administer COVID-19 tests for foreign passengers at a virus testing booth outside Incheon international airport, west of Seoul, South Korea on April 1, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jung Yeon-je

BU News Service reporters from seven different countries on five different continents spotlight the state of affairs in their backyards in the midst of a raging pandemic. This is part one of the series.

Ghost town

By Elizabeth Butler

NAIROBI, Kenya — After the coronavirus made its first appearance on March 13, Nairobi became a ghost town. 

The government banned all international flights arriving or departing Jomo Kenyatta International airport. It closed schools and prohibited large gatherings, including mass prayer gatherings, large weddings, and funerals.

On Nov. 16, Kenya announced another 800 new cases of COVID-19 from 5,832 samples tested in the last 24 hours, bringing infection rate to 13 percent and the number of confirmed infections to 70,804. The death toll stood at 801.

Before the pandemic, Nairobi was known as “Safari Capital of the World.” Tourists arriving for safaris would linger in the capital city for a few days, roaming the city’s parks, shopping, art museums, and other cultural attractions. 

All these activities have closed with the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Other economic drivers, including the export of tea, flowers, fruits, and vegetables, have suffered from lockdowns of key markets and global travel restrictions.

David Kinyua, a Kenyan landscape architect from the Nairobi suburb of Juja, said nearly all industries and business sectors have been hit hard by the pandemic. Most businesses were forced to shut down for lack of customers.

“My city particularly was locked down for several months; to make worse, the restriction of movement was reinforced with a strict evening curfew,” he said.

Those restrictions, enforced by police roadblocks, made it hard for people to get to work or meet with clients over coffee. It also ended weekend time with friends. 

 “I miss all these things,” Kinyua said.    

Moving home

By Sidney Goldber
CHATHAM, N.J. — Before Covid-19, Maggie Dougherty, 24, was living in Washington, D.C., working as a manager of professional development at the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

When the pandemic struck, her company went fully remote until June 2021. So Dougherty moved back to her parent’s home in Chatham, New Jersey, a Morris County suburb outside New York City. 

“I love my parents and am so grateful I have a place to live that is safe and functional, but it does feel like being in high school again,” Dougherty said.

Before COVID-19, Chatham, population 19,049, was bustling. People cheered on the Chatham Cougars high school teams, ate at Café Roma and Mitsuba Japanese Cuisine and shopped locally-owned stores like Sunnywoods Florist and the Jabberwocky toy store.  

Rising infection numbers forced Chatham to shut down in March. On Nov. 19, Morris County had 174 new positives, for a total of 11,760 positive cases and 707 confirmed deaths, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. 

The town is reopening, but slowly and not without controversy. 

“People are much more hesitant to go out, in the pandemic,” Dougherty said, “there is a lot of tension with those that wear masks and many people that refuse to wear masks, or wear them improperly.”

The experience has had its impact on Dougherty.

“We don’t take advantage of all the things we can do and connections we can make when life is moving so fast.” She said. Everything can be taken from you in an instant.”   

There’s an error in your connection

By Saumya Rastogi
NEW DELHI, India — Yukta Talar had to skip tests required for postgraduate studies. Tanishq Khurana attends Zoom classes from the University of Illinois, but the time difference and work load is taking a toll.

“I barely move because of the amount of work I have to do,” said Khurana, a freshman studying computer science.

As India anticipates another COVID-19 surge during the holiday season, students are struggling with fear, uncertainty and internet access.

“The digital divide is deep when it comes to online studies. Many of my classmates were not able to attend classes,” Talwar said. 

According to Health Ministry data, India has seen 8.85 million coronavirus cases. The recovery rate is 98%; more than 130,000 have died. 

The National Center for Disease Control warns of a worsening situation. Delhi faces a potential surge of 15,000 daily COVID-19 cases brought by winter and festivals, more than triple the city’s daily average number.

Although students are not considered at the highest risk from the virus, they face many challenges.

Talwar, a University of Delhi political science major needed to take National Testing Agency exams for postgraduate studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. 

“My parents refused to allow me to take it considering my pre-existing health condition of Thalassemia [a disease affecting oxygen in the blood],” she said. 

India’s anemic internet is also a problem. In 2018, internet users stood at about 49% of the population, compared to 85% in the U.S., according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India

Even though internet availability isn’t much of a problem for upper middle-class students like Khurana, there are other issues.

“It is hectic. I have a messed up sleeping schedule that is impacting my health,” he said. 

Don’t let your guard down

By Sawyer Pollitt
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Everyone here gets a phone call at the same time every Friday.

“Let’s face it, all of this feels like it’s getting really old,” Mayor Jon Mitchell told residents in one recent all-city call. “It’s natural to relax and not bother with the mask or physical separation, but the reality is, we cannot let our guard down.”

New Bedford’s COVID-19 situation has grown worse since April 14 when 164 cases of the virus were first reported. 

On Sept. 9, it was designated a COVID-19 “red zone” by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which means there were over eight COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. That surge was blamed on a church that was fined for violating pandemic rules

The city is still in the red zone with 29.9 average daily infections and a total of 3,653 cases.

The designation prevented the city from joining the latest stage of Massachusetts’ reopening plan, which allows indoor performances and gatherings of under 25 people. 

Mitchell blamed recent COVID-19 cases on unmasked social gatherings. In a Nov. 6 phone call, he stressed the need for residents to keep their distance.

“It might seem awkward or silly to wear a mask with someone you know well, but it just isn’t worth the risk,” he said. 

Meagan Sullivan, a music education student at nearby University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, said New Bedford is doing a good job protecting its citizens, but some are not taking it seriously. 

“I don’t see people wearing masks or distancing,” she said. “They only put on masks when they go to a store, and that’s only because they won’t get let in otherwise.”    

What’s in a slur?

By Shannon Sollitt
JACKSON, WYO. — Verbal abuse can be a daily occurrence for Taylor Sheldon at the souvenir store she manages in downtown Jackson. 

“I got called a bitch today,” she said, as casually as though recalling what she ate for breakfast.

Sheldon’s offense was asking a customer to wear a face mask. It’s store policy. In Jackson, it’s also the law. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jackson officials have tried to balance a tourist-driven economy with residents’ safety. Nonessential businesses were closed for two months this spring and visitors were encouraged to stay home. 

Coronavirus kept its distance. Fear of the havoc the virus could wreak in a one-hospital town was palpable, but the threat remained abstract. Case numbers lingered in the single digits.

The summer tourist season was one of the busiest on record, according to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce and neighboring Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. 

Now, Teton County is in the “red” zone. 

The positive test rate grew to 13% in the past two weeks. The county recorded a record-breaking 53 new cases on Nov. 12. There were 175 active cases as of Nov. 15. Teton County Health Department Director Jodi Pond said her agency can’t keep up with contact tracing. 

To make it worse, the usually quiet fall off-season hasn’t begun. October visitation at Yellowstone National Park up was 110% compared to October 2019.  

“We’ve just had the season that won’t end,” Pond said. 

Sheldon usually closes her store in October. The $100-200 daily take wasn’t worth staying open. This fall daily sales average $2,000. Summer revenues were up by $250,000. 

Sheldon said she’s used to the occasional rude customer. But the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new layer of exhaustion. Although the county requires mask use, enforcement is up to Sheldon and other service workers. 

“This isn’t my job. This is never anything I wanted to do,” Sheldon said. “I’ve never been this fatigued.”

Voices from an emergency room

By Laura Martinez    
RECIFE, Brazil — At times, the neurology emergency room of Hospital da Restauração Governador Paulo Guerra has been a scene of chaos. 

Patients on hospital stretchers line the dark walls of every hallway. Mask-clad family members sit on plastic chairs near them, little room between each person. 

Nurses and doctors yell out names to find patients, whose nametags were on printed pieces of paper taped to their stretchers.

The hospital, the largest public health facility in Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, specializes in neurology, neurosurgery, and burn treatment.

And now, by necessity, COVID-19. 

The hospital’s neurology ward was separated into three rooms to receive COVID-19 patients — an average of 25 infected patients during the pandemic’s peak in June and July. At the same time the number of neurology-related patients fell, according to Dr. Eduardo Aquino, coordinator of the neurology’s ER.

Pernambuco entered quarantine in mid-May and ended its most restrictive phase on June 1. Citizens are still urged to wear masks and practice social distancing. Businesses opened while schools remained closed or under a hybrid model. 

The hospital’s neurology ER reduced its COVID-19 space to one room for eight to 10 patients, according to Aquino. 

As of Nov. 19, the total number of cumulative cases in Pernambuco was 173,624, with 8,890 deaths and 154,312 recoveries, according to the state’s Health Surveillance Strategic Information Center, Cievs/PE. Numbers have fallen since peaks in June and July, dropping from 1,332 new cases and 33 deaths on July 17, to 908 new cases and 17 deaths.

Brazil has reported a total of 5,945,849 Coronavirus cases on Nov. 19, according to Cievs/PE, with 167,455 deaths and 5,389,863 recoveries.

Despite lower numbers, the novel Coronavirus left its mark on local doctors. 

“[Some of the staff] was very anxious and scared of having to treat a patient with Coronavirus because of the risk that the disease brought and the mystery it came with,” Aquino said.    

Signs of better times

By Bilin Lin
WENZHOU, China — This major commercial hub with a population of 9.3 million in Zhejiang province is showing signs of a return to normalcy. 

The Walmart, the Mixc shopping mall, HaiDiLao Hot Pot and other businesses no longer required masks, a marked difference from earlier this year. 

Even though Wenzhou is more than 800 kilometers, about 500 miles, from Wuhan — ground zero of the pandemic — heavy traffic from the Chinese New Year holiday saw more than 40,000 people flow into Wezhou, 

The city issued 25 lockdown orders starting Jan. 31. Highway exits were blocked, schools and private and government businesses were closed. The travel records of over 7.6 million people were tracked; those from high-risk areas were quarantined. 

Testing stations took passersby’s body temperature. Households were given three tickets for a single person to go out shopping for necessaries every week. 

That privilege would be cancelled and entire buildings or residential communities would go on a full lockdown if a resident tested positive. That was the case for 22-year-old graduate student Jiayi Huang, who lives in a complex of six 12-story buildings. All residents were confined. Necessities were delivered.

“It was a little inconvenient, but even without the full lockdown, only one person could go out in two days,” Huang said. “So it wasn’t that much of a big difference to me.”

But there were notable differences as food prices rose due to shortages.  

Before the pandemic a half kilogram of pork cost 30 yuan, about $4.45. The price  more than doubled to 70 yuan, about $10.40, during the lockdown. 

“The selection for food was minimal,” said Xi Lin, a 55-year-old event planner. “There were only two kinds of fishes available on the market and very few types of vegetables. Meat got sold out really fast.”

However harsh, the measures seem to be working. According to China’s National Health Commission, 504 people tested positive for COVID-19 in Wenzhou. One died, the rest recovered. No other COVID-19 cases have been reported since March 18.    

Three sides of a broken workforce

By Eliot Hay
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Christina Howland is angry about losing her job to COVID-19. Concha Prado Giammattei is grateful she still has hers. Attorney Paatrick Grimmer is learning new skills to practice law under quarantine. 

“From dealing with witnesses to opposing counsel, everything has been changed,” said Grimmer, a criminal prosecutor for Elkhart County. 

Howland, a personal trainer and fitness coordinator at Beacon Health and Fitness, lost her job before the recent surge, a victim of cost cutting. She is frustrated with the timing of the pandemic, which saw many of clients cancel gym memberships. 

“I barely had time to gain my footing before shutdown occurred. I didn’t teach classes for months,” she said. “When we reopened, I had one or two members for classes that usually saw 20.”

Giammattei has a more resilient job, working in the University of Notre Dame’s tax department. The office was hard at work preparing the school’s tax returns when students were sent home in March. 

The pandemic continues to grow in St. Joseph County, with total cases reaching 16,319 the Monday before Thanksgiving. The county has recorded 220 deaths.

“I had been allowed to work remotely … but that changed to the expectation and coming into the office became the exception,” he said.

Outside the tax office, Notre Dame has struggled with everything from outbreaks blamed on illicit partying to the news that the university president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, tested positive for Covid-19. He had attended September’s White House ceremony for Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Notre Dame alumnae. 

Outraged students called for his resignation, but Giammattei has no such feelings.

“I am extremely grateful to my employer that they managed to have no layoffs or salary reductions.”

For attorney Grimmer the pandemic has meant spending more time on teleconferences and less time working face-to-face with clients. 

“I had to have witnesses testify digitally and had to present evidence by sharing my screen with the court and opposing counsel,” he said. “The pandemic has been a real challenge to the daily tasks of the law.”

This is part one of a series. Check back tomorrow for part two.

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