This year more than any other before now, I came to grips with my own mortality. It was the year I felt that seeing my next birthday was a distinct probability.
The rumblings began on international news media about a virus somewhere in China where people were showing symptoms of pneumonia that would not respond to normal treatment. You see, we are used to hearing about such news from Africa (side eyes Congo) and then seeing it fizzle out into nothing so serious. But this one didn’t go quietly into the night like the African outbreaks.
Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and some other Asian countries reported cases and by then it still felt like the virus was under control. Debates started popping up on whether we should lock our borders to China while we investigated the outbreak. Nobody felt like making the first move. It felt like poking the bear. Then Europe joined the fray.
At work, we were very concerned because as a multinational firm, we have strong links to Europe. We even had Chinese contractors too who were returning from New year holidays. Should we quarantine them? Could we interact with them? Had any of them fallen sick? Were they in direct contact with sick loved ones? We had a travel questionnaire to ask some of these questions, but the niggling feeling remained that the answers weren’t always genuine or auditable.
At some point, a global database of cases was launched on the internet. It became an obsession monitoring the numbers in different countries, seeing which ones were getting more cases, more deaths, more critical hospitalisations. People at work started getting reports of their families at home falling sick. The dashboard even had separate lines for specific cruise ships that were being denied permission to dock in any country. Parallels were soon drawn to the Flu pandemic a century ago.
The World Health Organisation had yet refused to call it a pandemic. Our company had the policy of following the guidance of WHO and the host country in responding to any health outbreaks. We didn’t feel the urgency to impose supranormal barriers beyond what international health bodies were recommending. It was a dilemma. We were basically operating the equivalent of cruise ships on all our operations sites, with clusters or groups of people living in close quarters, sharing meal spaces, laundry services and even central air conditioning.
It was only a matter of time. We got reports that COVID19 had recorded its first case in Nigeria. Thankfully it was still far; Ogun state – a bit jittery but not too bad. Talk began about whether we should shut down operations, or test everyone coming out to these population clusters where social distancing was next to impossible. With each crew change or personnel injection, for the first few days, there would be this unconscious withdrawal and avoidance while we looked for any flu signs.
Coughing in meetings was forbidden. Sneezing was a direct slap in the face. Temperature checks at the gate became the norm, following the Ebola protocol. At the same time, we were reading that majority of carriers were without symptoms. We couldn’t be more careful – why fear a disease that most people wouldn’t even show symptoms for? Also we couldn’t be more careless – without symptoms, the only safe way to behave was to act as if everyone had it.
Suddenly we received news of an outbreak on one of our work locations. Up to 80% of the personnel on board were affected. The NCDC took samples from the crew and meetings began to investigate how the location was exposed, and how to respond. It felt a bit pointless and helpless. Some of our locations overseas were testing everyone coming out to site and were still getting outbreaks. All it took was one person to be exposed and the entire crew would be at risk. You wouldn’t even know until you had someone come down with a fever or a dry cough or flu symptoms or red eyes.
I was not so afraid to begin with. They said it was mainly affecting older people (see I’m not so young again). The statistics showed that it wasn’t a death sentence, especially for people younger than 50. I mean, highest you would get was a cough and a fever if at all, right? Nothing too serious. People with underlying health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension were also requiring extra care. As someone who takes exercise very seriously, and based on my medical checks, it didn’t seem so bad. So off to work we continued to go.
Eventually the outbreak came around to my work location. Someone who left our site tested positive on arrival in town and we were immediately designated primary and secondary contacts. Nobody had any symptoms so it was not even clear if the person had a false positive. Still, we had to be sure.
The test crew arrived with their protective equipment and took samples of everyone on board. The test itself was truly scary. Nobody had put a probe up my nose that far up (it felt like someone was touching my brain). My strong gag reflex also meant that getting a throat swab was super annoying. We shut down operations to reduce interpersonal contact and waited anxiously for the results.
It’s one thing to hear of Corona cases. It’s quite another thing to be confirmed as positive. We were to be quarantined in observatory care until we tested negative for the virus. I told my friends and family of my positive result outcome and the support was overwhelming. Fortunately, very few people in my work location had any symptoms. I would feel thirsty very often and a bit fuzzy or dizzy when I moved suddenly but that was it.
My mind didn’t get the memo though. It became an endless stream of negative possibilities. What if I had an underlying condition I wasn’t aware of? What if my case would suddenly take a negative turn and I would have difficulty breathing? What if I didn’t live to see my next birthday? How did I need to put my house in order? After a week of nothing going wrong, I was able to put thoughts of death aside and focus on getting better.
I have to say again that my friends and family were so supportive. All the natural remedies were prescribed for me in addition to the ones from the doctors. I picked the ones I could implement and just continued to pray for a speedy recovery.
After receiving my negative test result, I was finally able to go back home. I had been away for 7 weeks in total, a new personal record. From the stories of other survivors with long term symptoms, I began to appreciate just how lucky I was that it didn’t go beyond what I experienced. I love Volleyball, cycling and swimming. It’s not even like having it once gives you immunity for life. There have been numerous cases of people getting it twice, sometimes with more serious subsequent bouts.
This is why even though this story feels like a happy ending, it also feels incomplete, like we are still waiting for season 2. It’s not suspense as much as it is frustration at a lack of resolution. It’s January 2021 and we are still at almost the same point we were a year ago, unsure of whether to close borders, how to deal with immigration and our normal entertainment centres and events. The Olympics are still in doubt. Somehow we have a vaccine (or three) and still we can’t see a path to getting a shot or two here in Nigeria yet.
For now though, I have to give thanks to God for seeing all of us through 2020, while praying for the comfort of those who lost loved ones, and praying for healing for all those still dealing with the effects of this life changing virus.
Please stay safe everyone, and wear your mask and wash your hands.