‘Really frightened’: A year since the day the world changed

Providence, Rhode Island: No one has been untouched.

Not the Michigan woman who awakened one morning, her wife 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 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.”

Darelyn Maldonado, 12, at her home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, US.Credit:AP

On March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organisation 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.

On March 11 (March 12 AEDT) last year confirmed cases of COVID-19 stood at 125,000, and reported deaths stood at fewer than 5000. Today, 117 million people are confirmed to have been infected, and according to Johns Hopkins University, more than 2.6 million people have died.

On that day, Italy closed shops and restaurants in a lockdown designed to halt the spread after 10,000 reported infections. The NBA suspended its season, and Tom Hanks, filming a movie in Australia, announced he was infected.

That evening, the US 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.”

Maggie Sedidi, a 59-year-old nurse at Soweto’s Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine last week.Credit:AP

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.”

Pasang Rinzee Sherpa, 33, in Kathmandu, Nepal, last week.Credit:AP

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 $US20 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.”

With a delivery from the global COVAX initiative this week, the country has nearly 700,000 vaccine doses for its 30 million people. It’s not clear when they will be widely available.

“Maybe, it’s for doctors, and the big people. For us, the little people, we don’t know,” she shrugged.

When Trump began calling COVID-19 the “China virus,” Joyce Kuo tensed up.

Soon after, 36-year-old furniture manufacturer from Greensboro, North Carolina, recalled taking her three children to the dentist, a white woman in the waiting area pulled her daughter close and loudly instructed: “You need to stay away from them. They probably have that virus.”

More than once during the pandemic, Kuo and others in her family encountered that kind of racism. Though born in America, she was unnerved by reminders that others felt she did not belong there.

Life pivoted for Darelyn Maldonado last March during her library class. She recalls sitting at a table with her close friends, talking with the teacher about COVID-19. The teacher told them their school in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, would be shutting down — briefly, she said.

In the 12 months since, she has lived in limbo and online.

There is a light at the end of her tunnel. Parents in her city waged a pressure campaign to reopen schools, and she is due back in the classroom on March 16.

A year from now, on March 11, 2022, she pictures herself doing all the things she missed in this endless pandemic year.

“Playing outside with friends, playing softball with the dog,” she said. “Being with the people that I love most.”

Others, however, still have a long way to go.

In Brazil, COVID-19 infections and deaths are accelerating, not declining like in most nations previously hit hard.

In the 24 hours to Wednesday (Thursday AEDT), the country broke all previous records to count 2286 people dead from the virus, according to the Health Ministry. The total death toll of 270,656 is the second-highest after the US.

People collect food donated by aid groups in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Wednesday. Credit:AP

New infections tallied 79,876 on Wednesday to bring the total to more than 11.2 million.

The Pan American Health Organisation said infection rates in Brazil were worrying, spurred by a new and more contagious variant known as P1, and called for much stricter public health measures.

“We are concerned about the situation in Brazil. It provides a sober reminder of the threat of resurgence: areas hit hard by the virus in the past are still vulnerable to infection today,” PAHO Director Carissa Etienne said.


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