Writing for UNICEF #2

On May 18, 2021, Monica Corish and Tom Sigafoos hosted an ONLINE WRITE-A-THON to raise funds for UNICEF’s #GiveTheWorldAShot campaign. You can still make a donation – our fundraiser will remain active until June 30, and you can donate directly to vaccinaid.org at any time.

Participants from Kenya to California wrote in response to Covid-themed paintings by children, teenagers and young adults from around the world. Every Saturday till the end of June I’ll post a selection of their “Writing for UNICEF”.

We have two prose essays this week, and a haiku. All three were written in response to the painting “Health Care Heroes” by Muzzamil Mughal.  The first essay, by Jarso Mokku of Isiolo, Kenya, is called “Mass Grave Burial Is the New Norm”; the Himalaya haiku is by me, Monica Corish; and the second essay “There’s so Much in her Gaze” is by Mary Foley from Sligo. 

MASS GRAVE BURIAL IS THE NEW NORM

Jarso Mokku, Isiolo, Kenya

A story inspired by the picture of a woman wearing a face mask – a stark reminder that in Africa our people are still dying in record numbers without reporting.

 In The Name of Allah, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful. Say!  I seek refuge in the Lord of the dawn. From the evil of what is created. And from the evil of darkness when it spreads. From the past to that year when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 a global pandemic. Two years on, people world over are still dying in record numbers especially in the poorer countries without reporting. This pandemic is far from over and seems unstoppable as its rage continues to spread across the world among all communities, like the bush fires from the forest to dry grass land.

In Africa, the cases are increasing by day and all burial sites that were set aside to serve more than fifty years are full, mass grave burial is the new norm.  World travel, inter community cooperation and family connections have come to a standstill.  All learning institutions are closed, and all children are locked indoors.

Yes, it is a difficult time for all people in the same way the world over.  Whether you are rich, poor, or live in a mega-city or remote village, it is all the same. Big and small economies, everyone in the world is facing the same challenge and suffering a similar fate. This little invisible virus is not only powerful but an equalizer as it moves on unnoticed from one infected person to another, operating in the darkness of night, in the rainy season and daylight, twenty-four hours, seven days a week. Everything that humans have created and used to enjoy are now source of worries. It is scary to smell, touch or even to look closely anymore. To survive, we must all wear face masks like the veil of a Muslim woman who we all, at one time in the past, used to keep at social distance, and almost sanitize our hands when she would get closer to us. These are the realities of our new world, where what used to be normal is now abnormal and vice versa. We must adjust to survive.

In the Horn of Africa, the conditions are no longer unique, like what they used to say about the pastoralists’ way of life, people whose livelihood is inherently based on the ancient culture of mobility, moving around without care of proximity to any health facility. Pastoralists are only concerned about keeping their livestock alive. Who cares about the pastoralists? Is that why high-quality services and wonderful infrastructure created exclusively for others to enjoy now lie idle. For the pastoralist it is the same as it never existed.

The global efforts to develop the COVID 19 vaccine broke world record speeds, like Kenyan runners. For the first time in the history of humanity, it is claimed that a vaccine has been developed in the shortest time possible and authorized for mass vaccination under emergency arrangements. But in Africa, indeed in my country (Kenya), and for the majority population of the world, like the poor pastoralists, getting access to the COVID vaccine is more than good luck. In fact it would be a miracle, as always. What else is shocking is Israel’s military mass killing of the balance of the Palestine population left-over from the COVID 19.

The first supply batch from India arrived early this year in Kenya. India then dropped from that position of power, supplying vaccine, to its own lowest moment of suffering fate – greater than we who depended on them for our vaccine supply – immediately blocking the supply chain to Kenya. While vaccine shortages and challenges of logistic supply are a headache globally, our route to vaccines is more terrifying than anything else.  All travel and connections between India and Kenya is blocked, under tight lock.  The main vaccine supply system to Kenya has hit a dead-end, and will not lift it until the suffering in India ends.

My wife and I got our first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in March 2021. It was one of our lucky days, as we are categorized among and exclusive first-line group authorized by the government of Kenya, with health workers, other essential service providers and persons older than 58 years. Who knows when we will get the second dose? The supply system is broken and it is dangerous to think of opening it.  Our challenge is not unique, but one thing is very clear, this little virus has changed our world in unprecedented ways. COVID 19 is not satisfied that it has brought to its knees the strongest world economies and entire global system of power and knowledge to its limits. The images of Indians throwing away their idols, Europeans their Euros into streets, and Americans their freedom, staying indoors, this was never expected.

Truly everyone everywhere is seeking the attention of the creator, all seer, and all knower, the only one with absolute power over this tiny virus to save the world. 

Written by Jarso Mokku, Isiolo, Kenya, 18th May 2021.

A HIMALAYA HAIKU

Monica Corish, Co Leitrim, Ireland

the roof of the world
is burning – human fevers
melting ice and snow

THERE’S SO MUCH IN HER GAZE

Mary Foley, Co. Sligo, Ireland

There’s so much in her gaze. A Modigliani face, long and narrow with big eyes, fringed with full lashes and sharp brows. A face that’s seen things she’s never seen before or, never so many; never so fiercely; never so repeatedly in one day or night. Eyes that still seem to contain a kindness, a connection, still seeing the person she’s looking at. And it’s got to be hot behind the mask and the goggles. How does she maintain staying connected to the human beings in her care? There must be moments of despair: those fleeting images of health workers – heads in their hands or on their co-workers’ shoulders or deeply inhaling a cigarette outside the hospital. There must be moments too of thinking they can’t go on, maybe when they can’t cuddle their own children, be held by their partners. The frustration of seeing people act in cavalier ways around restrictions knowing they could be next through the hospital doors. Burnout. Health staff leaving their profession.

I’m glad I’m not still nursing, facing a Covid avalanche on repeat. Sure, there were tough days, people with new – and old – strange illnesses like the sailor covered in large, black lesions who ended up on a ventilator. His brother arrived drunk, one evening, to see him. As the senior nurse, at twenty-three, I watched apprehensively as he placed his hand on his brother’s unconscious forehead. The man never woke up, died on the ventilator. Another man with syphilis in the insane stage – he must have been one of the last people, at least in the UK, to get to that stage. Raving, getting out of his railed bed, unsteady on his feet. And people dying in rapid succession from lung cancer.  A rapidly advancing type, they eventually came to the ward after pretty useless, unpleasant chemotherapy, to die. Once, eight deaths in ten days – a lot at twenty-three, still having to appear ‘in charge’ for the even younger student nurses.

But we did it, we carried on so, probably, if Covid had been around then, we would have carried on too. What were we going to do? Say, ‘I’m off, it’s too hard.’ No, it was part of the job as it undoubtedly is for this young woman and many like her. She looks like she had reasonable PPE but what of the many who had none or little? Who knew they were exposing themselves, and their families daily to the risk of Covid.  Now, that I do find hard to imagine: going into work everyday knowing there’s a high risk I or a family member might become ill or even die as a result, as too many did. A nurse shockingly commented that nurses during the pandemic were ‘cannon fodder’. There have been other similar illnesses like Ebola and who knows what’s coming down the line?

Will there always be health workers to look after us? To look at us with compassion even amid exhaustion and overwhelm?  Who will think about their needs? This young woman seems to hold so much in her kind gaze but there’s a limit to humanity, a limit to the ability to absorb and sacrifice so much, maybe even your very life. When we think about preventing pandemics do, we think about her? A ‘her’ who is probably also a mother, who needs to survive for her children? If we don’t look after her, pay her properly, will we be able to depend on her? Will there always be a limitless supply of ‘hers’? We can’t imagine there not being health workers and maybe there will be but at what cost to humanity? I loved many things about being a nurse, most particularly the patients. But I didn’t love often having no time for a break, instead gulping down a medical milkshake in the ward kitchen or regularly staying on duty for an extra hour with no overtime pay. And that was forty years ago in a relatively well-funded NHS. So, what’s the future of health care in pandemics if we want to still see her compassionate gaze above her mask?

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