Seattle street art. Artist: Sydney M. Pertl (Author Image)
One Year of Quarantine: A Look Back
On this day last year, I crossed over the border from Kenya to Tanzania. It felt like fleeing. Kenya had announced it would be halting international flights and border crossings the next week, and there was a buzz that Tanzania would soon follow. If I wanted out, I should go now.
It was a Saturday. I remember, because that Wednesday, I had gotten back from my off days to learn that my students would be evacuated the following day from Nairobi, instead of throughout the upcoming weekend as we had planned, from Kilimanjaro. At 6pm, we told them we’d be leaving for Nairobi at 7am. They had to pack up their things and make peace without goodbyes. Instead of the day-long ‘disorientation’ we normally hold to prepare students for reentry to the US, we met for maybe 45 minutes. The mood was somber. Night had set in. We had known this was coming, just not so soon. How was I supposed to prepare them to enter a world I hadn’t experienced — a United States in full shut down?
I was sending my students away from a country that had only 7 recorded cases, no deaths, and no community transmission to land in a country that had 7,327 cases, 115 deaths, and was predicted to enter the community transmission phase soon. I had made them little care packages for the plane that contained tylenol, benadryl, hand sanitizer, a lame joke, and a mask, also a joke because the most up-to-date information at that time didn’t know that masks saved lives.
My students had transformed a covered, open-air empty space into a palisade of hanging hammocks, from where, on a clear day, they could see the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro across the border in Tanzania. We met there, one final time, and everyone shared a favorite memory. As much as I didn’t want it to, their once-in-a-lifetime study abroad semester will always be defined by the outbreak of Covid and the ensuing panic that forced their early evacuation. Unlike wildfires, panic spreads through computer screens, airwaves, and across gaping oceanic divides.
When I got back from Nairobi late-afternoon on Thursday, I had from then until Saturday at 7am to quit my job, say goodbye to my colleagues and single friend I had managed to make in six months, and pack up my office and cottage, which I had worked so hard to transform into a home. Oh, and to clean, which I managed to do with my office, but not very well with my home. I still feel bad about that. For leaving a mess my colleagues who “stayed behind,” seeing as they were already home, had to clean up. I still feel bad that as we worked around the clock to plan my students’ departure, as we drove my students to Nairobi where they boarded a plane to be whisked off to the US, where, even though it was close to the eye of the storm, at least the country had ventilators to run out of, my colleagues stood by and watched, kept in the dark, with no safety net to catch them, no unemployment benefits to cash-in, no stimulus checks to expect in their bank account. A lot has changed in one year, but not the Majority world’s willingness to offset the costs of the pandemic it helped incur by encouraging people to scatter before we fully understood means of transmission, and not the Minority world’s ability to. Just last month the US, UK, and Switzerland blocked efforts to share intellectual property rights to quicken Majority world countries’ ability to produce Covid vaccines.
The US aims to offer vaccines to all its eligible adults by May 1st, and to then set them loose in the world where presidents, freedom fighters, and frontline workers continue dying of Covid. And what a choice these countries have — to protect their populations from dying of Covid or to protect them from dying of unemployment, hunger, and diseases like TB and Malaria that kill too many people in “normal” times and kill even more now, due to disruption of services and limited hospital space because of Covid (Please read The Disaster Tourist before you travel again).
I’m writing this from my sister’s house in small-town Arkansas. She, and my mom, and my dad, and my other sister are all fully vaccinated. My brother-in-law got his first dose last week. The two people back home whom I interact with in-person are fully vaccinated. I occupy a very low-risk bubble, as I have for most of the pandemic, and it’s a relief. But it’s not fair.
Spring has sprung. Though most of the trees that form the forest behind their house have yet to grow their leaves, the sun is streaming through the branches and painting the floor of leaves in dappled shades of light and dark brown. I’m seeing my nephew for the first time since he came home from the hospital in July. After a few days, I know what makes him laugh and how to tell when he is happy sitting and playing on his own and when he wants to be held instead. I know he loves blowing raspberries, being outside, and pulling my mask off my face. In other words, I know him, something that in normal times would hardly seem unusual but in pandemic times has become a luxury that I am not eager to leave behind. At least more frequent visits seem to lie ahead.
I’m spending time with my older niece and nephew for the second time since they arrived from Colombia last February, arriving in the US just a couple of weeks before borders closed. How lucky we are. In the eight months since I last saw them, my Spanish has improved, though not in proportion to the time I have had at my disposal, as has their English. While I feel like I’ve been getting to know them from a distance via my sister, I’m now getting to build my own relationship with them. The small person inside me is even a bit grateful that the pandemic has prevented other adults from creeping into their lives, since I live far away and will always be the aunt who swoops in and swoops out and rarely is part of the day-to-day.
Sitting around my sister’s living room one night, sipping adult beverages after the kids had gone to bed, my brother-in-law reminded us all how individualized this last year has been for everyone, even as we have shared a collective grief. Fifty different states have had fifty different versions of shut-down, re-opening, shutting down again, mask laws, gathering laws, travel laws. Multiply that by every country on earth. Multiply that by the usual variety life brings — single people, married people, dating people, divorced people, polyamorous people, queer people, White people, Black people, Brown people, Asian people, babies, kids, teenagers, young adults, not-so-young adults, elderly people, employed people, unemployed people, people with housing, people without housing, healthy people, sick people.
His words gave me pause, to stop and reflect on my own individual experience of this last year where I passed through three countries, three two-week quarantines — one within the confines of my four bedroom walls because my roommate, who also happens to be my sister, had traveled (to my grandmother’s funeral after she tested positive for covid) and been exposed — and have yet to figure out what’s next after 9 months of unemployment. They also made me consider how individual the emergence from quarantine is bound to be for each of us. Vaccines getting distributed unequally from state to state and certainly from country to country. Babies became toddlers; toddlers — kids; kids — teenagers. Students graduated and moved to new cities where they have yet to meet anyone. Businesses that were the culmination of years of hardwork and dreaming, shuttered in a matter of months. That opportunity only comes around once for most. Deaths left holes in hearts and houses.
We all entered quarantine as one person and came out as another. What space will we make for each other to learn these new selves? To air our individual and collective griefs rather than letting them fester? To patiently endure and not expose others even when we, or our family members, are vaccinated?