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COVID-19 diary – Part 4

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PHOTO: TIME

Many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits, as yet. Plague was for them an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come. Alarmed, but far from desperate, they hadn’t yet reached the phase when plague would seem to them the very tissue of their existence; when they forgot the lives which until now it had been given them to lead. In short they were waiting for the turn of events. With regard to religion— as to many other problems—plague had induced in them a curious frame of mind, as remote from indifference as from fervour; the best name to give it, perhaps, might be objectivity”—Albert Camus.

This instalment drives home the point that COVID-19 is real and extends gratitude to the health workers all over the world for their immeasurable sacrifices. They are the heroes and heroines of this global health emergency. Truly COVID-19 is evil. The virus has wrecked havoc globally. Tales of its exploits are heart-rending. From Wuhan to Italy, United Kingdom to the United States, it is a tale of death and woes, such that forced Dear John Keats, the British Romantic poet, to exclaim that “pleasure is oft a visitant; but pain clings cruelly to us”.

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It is now historical that COVID-19’s point of diffusion is Wuhan, Hubei province, China. In Wuhan, the sorrows of COVID-19 played out and Tracy Wen Liu, a Chinese and US resident, in her “Witnessing Wuhan” recounted the experience of Li, Wang and Jing respectively. Do note that the names of the threesome are pseudonyms. Dr. Li is a heart specialist, at Wuhan No. 4 Hospital; Ms Wang is a nurse at Changhang General Hospital and Ms Jing, an anesthesiologist in the city of Shiyan, near Wuhan.

Following the Wuhan lockdown, Li worked on the frontline for about two months fighting the COVID-19 and as a result she had become a psychologically wreck. In the words of Liu, “he has become a different man – one who understands that ‘life is fragile and weak’”. What is perhaps a momentary Chinese victory over COVID-19 came through great human sacrifice. Li could imagine thousands of outpatients thronging the clinic each day. The inadequacy of facilities had been traumatizing and she saw people occupying hospital’s wards, corridors and doctors’ lounges with hopeless cases. There is a point in a man’s life where he loses control over his human essence, where the animal impulse takes over. The beleaguered patients were at that point—the height of frustration that they pulled off the face mask of a medical doctor out to help. Without adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), Li resigned to a fate of infection. The scene of sitting beside unevacuated dead bodies and the longing of a change of career to live off the nightmares of Wuhan endured. Liu summarised this heart-rending experience:

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“That morning, after passing through several stages of disinfection, Li had walked into the hospital’s contamination zone, where he immediately encountered a man sprawled on the floor, masked, covered in a quilt, with a yellow-green complexion. Two steps away, another person lay prone on a bench, seriously ill and hardly breathing. A young man sitting next to him was yelling into a phone, seeking help. And many other patients were lying on the ground in the clinic hallway, gasping for breath. All around, patients and their family members stood, sat, or simply lay on the floor. According to Li, they had no expressions on their faces, as if they had become accustomed – or at least resigned – to their misery. The floor was covered in garbage, blood, vomit, and sputum. The patients far outnumbered the medical personnel. Li saw two nurses in charge of intake and registration surrounded by patients’ family members, some of whom knelt at their feet begging for help. Occasionally an ambulance arrived with still more patients. Looking outside, Li saw a seemingly endless line of people waiting at the hospital door, many of whom could support themselves only by leaning against the wall”.

On her part, Wang went through long and harrowing shift hours. At times she had to walk to her workplace and sleep by leaning against the wall. She braced up for the worst, bought Tamiflu – an antiviral drug for treating influenza for her relatives and friends. Although Tamiflu was administered to patients in Wuhan, there is however no clinical certification on its suitability for COVID-19. Infections among medical staff were commonplace. Her friend had been infected and a photo of her smiling behind a ventilator increased her horror. She was soon infected though her diagnosis was based only on CT scan without the testing kits. She was quarantined at home separated from her husband and her four-year-old son. Upon testing negative through the double-day test, she was back at her work with a morbid fear of further infection and with a need for a safer job.

Although a heath worker, Jing never anticipated that she would one day work as an epidemic soldier. By late February she was on the frontline as medical personnel were pushed to the limit due to a deluge of patients and was on edge as ambulance brought in COVID-19 patients. She felt like running away, an inclination she fought being a health-care provider for the people. What she saw made her cry and dread the possibility of new waves coming from abroad.

Liu who shared this story made a point to the effect that “the campaign against COVID-19 is far from over, and that we will all be living under its shadow for a long time to come”. The next story is from the United States. My co-fellow at Stanford University, Mr. Chito Gascon, a Pilipino, shared the emotive story of Jennifer Cole, an Emergency Room (ER) nurse drafted to Intensive Care Unit (ICU) giving care to COVID-19 patients in New York. She witnessed the death of a patient under her care. Adopt a phenomenological outlook; put yourself in her shoes, you will know what grief is in life.

Here is an excerpt from what she penned down perhaps as a catharsis for a mind full of sorrow.

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Ms. Cole had seen COVID-19 patients in excruciating pains, “a delicate balance of breathing, of blood pressure, of organ function. The slightest movement or change sends them into hours long death spirals”. She noted that, “Regardless of age, health status, wealth, family, or power the diagnosis is the same, the disease process is the same, and the aloneness is the same”. In her words,
“I lost a patient today. He was not the first, and unfortunately he’s definitely not the last. But he was different…I’ve taken care of this man the last three nights, a first for me. In the ER I rarely keep patients for even one 12 hour shift. His entire two week stay had been rough for him, but last night was the worst. I spent the first six hours of my shift not really leaving his room. By the end, with so many medications infusing at their maximum, I was begging the doctor to call his family and let them know. ‘He’s not going to make it’, I said.  The poor doctors are so busy running from code to code, being pulled by emergent patients every minute. All I could think of was the voice of my mom in my head, crying as I got on the plane to leave for this place: ‘Those people are alone, you take good care of them’. I was the only person in that room for three nights in a row, fighting as hard as I could to keep this man alive. The doctor was able to reach the family, update them. It was decided that when his heart inevitably stopped we wouldn’t try to restart it. There just wasn’t anything else left to do.”

The Guardian of London reported the case of Dr Peter Tun, an NHS doctor from Reading. Tun worked at Royal Berkshire hospital and died on 13 April from COVID-19 infection. With over four decades in the medical profession he had complained of inadequate PPE, but his team was not availed. His, son, Michael, an Australian resident, said his father’s death was avoidable: “I think that my dad’s death was avoidable and that probability would have been reduced if he had had proper personal protective equipment”. Tun’s case was a case of inadequacy of supply of PPE, a recurring narrative of the efforts at combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back home, the frontlines are extending and we have lost a few medical doctors and a few have recovered. The COVID-19 plays the death game; if it can be appeased, I will on behalf of mankind. But we can triumph over it by commitment, discipline and sincerity of purpose, and above all, by the simple act of restoring nature’s equilibrium and acknowledging that planet earth is not made for man alone.

Akhaine is a Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.

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