We are impacted by COVID-19 in some form or other. You probably know someone whose loved one has been tested positive. You probably know someone whose livelihood is severely impacted and worrying how to take care of their family. You probably know business owners who face the threat of closing down because suddenly there is no more revenue. You probably read about the thousands of people who spend their life now in ICU clinging onto their fragile lives. You probably see how healthcare workers are stretched to their human limits taking care of patients who burst through the seams of hospital capacity.
Never before has there been such a tsunamic impact on people globally, regardless of age, social class and background. Never before have we been caught with our pants down and under-prepared to respond effectively. Never before had doctors, confronted by the severe lack of ventilators, had to shoulder the burden of deciding who lives and who dies.
The human faces of COVID-19 are multi-faceted. A relatively mild impact would be the inconvenience of quarantine, isolation from working at home, irritation of entertaining pesky kids celebrating school closure, washing our hands constantly or scrambling to panic buy some essentials at the supermarket.
But consider the COVID impact on these other fellow human beings.
- Workers: No Money, No Family
Sumon, father of 2 girls, is one of the 100,000 of Malaysians, who chose to be in Singapore during the 2-week lockdown in Malaysia. He usually travels 2 hours daily to get into Singapore to work and returns home to his family. “I haven’t finished paying the instalments on my house. There’re also electricity bills,” he says (CNA Asia, 25 Mar 2020). His wife’s shop will be closed with the lockdown. He has missed his daughter’s birthday. With tears in his eyes, he says, “I feel sad thinking about her. We’re very close.” With the extension of the lockdown in Malaysia beyond 31 March 2020, it is uncertain when Sumon will see his family again.
Sumon is just one example of the thousands who are separated from their family. He counts himself lucky that he still has an income, what about others? Airplanes are grounded. Restaurants are closed. Events are cancelled. Hotels are empty. The livelihood of workers and professionals in these industries are at risk. International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates 25 million jobs could be lost due to COVID-19. In the 2008 financial crisis, 22 million jobs were lost (ILO, 18 March 2020). What happens when one’s means of livelihood has been robbed?
- Healthcare Workers: Exhaustion, Sickness and Even Death
Fighting the virus in the frontline, healthcare workers endure long hours in their protective gear. Chen Ying, a nurse in Zhejiang called on duty on the first day of Chinese New Year, often works till 2 am. As she walks to her dormitory home, keeping her company is her boyfriend. Though exhausted, chatting with him on the video chat keeps her heart warm. The couple has postponed their plans to get married on Valentine’s Day. Her face shows the marks from wearing protective gear for long hours.
More than 3000 Chinese healthcare workers have been infected with the virus (ICN COVID-19 Update). New York Times report that nearly 14% of Spain’s 40,000 confirmed coronavirus cases are medical professionals. That is 5,400 doctors and nurses. In Italy, France and Spain, more than 30 healthcare professionals have died of the coronavirus, and thousands of others have had to self-isolate (New York Times, 24 Mar 2020). The most common reason is the lack of protective gear. The very people who heal the sick are now sick themselves. When happens when the healers are down?
- Patients: No Breath and then Death
Very high fever. Dry cough. Breathing difficulty. These are the symptoms of COVID-19. A Malaysian patient, in his 30s, describes his experience, “I was coughing like crazy until the acid in my stomach came out. I was scared and had thoughts of death.” Another patient, Tara Jane Langston, a 39 year-old fitness enthusiast, did not think she could contract coronavirus. She described breathing was so painful “like having glass in her lungs”. To warn that anyone can contract the virus, she created a video. Other patients use ventilators, which help them to continue breathing long enough for the body to recover on its own. These patients are probably the luckier ones.
As of 28 March 2020, more than 600,000 people have been infected; more than 27,400 people have died. Italy alone reported 793 deaths on a single day on 21 March. Results of modelling efforts on the infection and death rates vary widely. A study by Imperial College London estimated if nothing was done to rein in the virus, 2.2 million Americans could die. With interventions such as social distancing, the number of deaths could drop to 200,000. Still, this means between 160 million to 214 million Americans could be infected by the end of summer (Atlantic, 25 March 2020). These numbers are staggering. This will not be the worst.
Over lunch, I spoke to a dear friend, an Indian national, about the impact of the coronavirus in her country. Without the luxury of social distancing in the slums, about 300 to 590 million people can contract the virus. The lack of medical resources will mean an approach to “let nature take its course”. This means expecting the weak, old and sick to die whilst the healthy ones develop antibodies naturally. Literally, the survival of the fittest. This herd immunity strategy has a huge price. The death rate is expected to be 10% more than the annual number of deaths in India, so that’s a blip in numbers. My heart sank. “Really, just a blip in numbers”, that’s the value of human lives?
Source: New Straits Times, 22 Mar 2020
Without good knowledge of self-protection, sense of social responsibility and strong medical infrastructure, the COVID-19 impact in developing countries is likely to be catastrophic. In these countries, people cannot stay away from work if they have no money, Africa is woefully ill-equipped to deal with COVID-19. At this moment, no one has yet to estimate the casualties in these developing countries. But it is expected to be bleak.
Knowing all of this, how should we respond, and what can we do about it? The scale of this catastrophe fills me with a sense of overwhelming helplessness, as I am sure it does for many too. With every story that I read, I find myself asking, “What can I do?”
To release that tension one day, I went for a long jog to clear my mind and let the emotions settle. To my pleasant surprise, my mind began to reframe all of the anxiety and hopelessness; I asked: how can I turn this feeling of helplessness into helpfulness? I’m not a politician or biomedical manufacturer, nor am I a frontline healthcare worker or a superhero. In fact, not many of us are. However, what I do know is that, like all of these people in the first line of action, and all of those people hit hardest with the impact of this virus, I am a human being. And as a human being, I can be resilient, and I can put myself in a position to act within my own circle of influence.
Bridging reality and hopefulness at home
As a parent, it is my duty to keep my children safe and educate them on what is happening in the world, so that they grow up understanding the fragility of life and beyond that, that they may choose kindness. Every night at 9 pm, I round up my children to watch news on TV together – a guided understanding of the world beyond the comfort of our home. Finn, my middle child, was shocked when he learned that some migrant Indians had to walk 200 km to get home when the country locked down. Even though these experiences might scare them, the reality of the world helps to put their worldview into perspective. As a mother, this means bringing impact and hope to the future generations too. With this comes the question that they learn about through these stories: how can I make the world around me a better place? How do I bring hope?
Likewise, as a business owner, I choose to support our workers as much as we can. In climates like these, companies may consider pay cuts instead of retrenchments as a first option. However, if retrenchments are inevitable, do it compassionately. As an entrepreneur, create and scale solutions to these problems. Sir James Dyson designed a ventilator in 10 days and 15,000 units will be produced. CEO of Razer, Tan Min Liang, plans to donate 1 million masks to affected countries to fight COVID. As key decision leaders in your scene, you have the potential to make impact at a scale, directly with the people underneath your wing. In seasons where it may feel as though everyone is trying to fight for the same area of the pie, ask how we may expand the pie in a mutually beneficial way?
While not all of us may be mothers or business owners, we would all, in one way or another, have an immediate circle of people we call friends. And as a friend, it is also our duty to reach out to others – including strangers – to show your support and care. As a child, take care of our parents and spend time with them (virtually, too) even as you encourage them to stay at home (much to my amusement, my father claimed that he is staying at home, but at a friend’s home!).
Lastly, as a global citizen, which we all definitely are, be interested in what’s happening in the world, and be an actor. These times call for all of us to be part of the solution. Be whole ourselves, be connected to our community and lead from whatever position we are. We are in this together!
Author, Wholeness in a Disruptive World
Connect on LinkedIn