DATELINE March 21, 2020, Medellín, Colombia.
As recently as a couple of weeks ago we were going about our business like everyone else: working, walking our dogs, eating out, taking long bike rides, exploring new corners of the city, and – John’s favorite activity – travel planning. And, oh, we had big plans: at the end of March, we had a long weekend visit to Bogotá booked. On April 16, we were flying to Europe for three weeks in Spain and Portugal, our big trip of the year. In May, we’d planned a trip to Austin, Texas to spend some time with family. We also have (had?) trips to Ecuador and Aruba/Bonaire on the books. And that was just the first part of the year.
And then the sky started falling.
Like people everywhere, we’ve been watching with mounting horror and fear as COVID-19 has tightened its grip on the world. It’s stunning to reflect that only two weeks ago, we were thinking our trip to Spain might still be possible. “Oh, surely things will have calmed down by April 16!” And today, we’re heartsick to wake up to this statistic: well over 21,000 documented cases in Spain, where more than a thousand people have lost their lives. And then there’s the horrifying situation in Italy, where they can’t seem to turn a corner on this terrible illness and over 4,000 people have died. The courage and dedication of the doctors and nurses there, many of whom have themselves caught the virus, should be the first thing to remember when we start feeling a little sorry for ourselves about things like toilet paper shortages and, yes, cancelled travel plans.
It seems that the entire human race has been caught with its pants down. Scientists have been saying for years that the world faces a major, existential threat of global pandemic. That threat is here, and yet, world leaders have done precious little to prepare. COVID-19 has been allowed to fly around the world at will, long past the point at which international air travel should have been completely shut down. Governments are independently developing vaccines and treatments, rather than pooling their resources and coming up with common solutions to benefit the whole of mankind. Some world leaders are far more focused on elections and numbers that make them look bad than on protecting their people.
A perfect example is the spotty and unorganized response to this threat in our own country, the U.S. The lack of effective leadership at the highest levels has sowed chaos, misinformation, and a cavalier attitude by a lot of folks, who either think they’re invincible, believe the threat to be overblown, or think it’s some sort of political conspiracy. We’re encouraged that a few governors – California, New York, Illinois – have started to take matters into their own hands and enact strict quarantines and other measures. We hope the trend continues.
The Colombia response
Apart from a brief bout of political gamesmanship by the Colombian president (these leaders just can’t help themselves!), the response here has been proactive, fast, and organized. The official count of cases as of today is 196, with (so far, gracias a Díos), no deaths. A week ago, Colombia started restricting international visitors entering the country to citizens and residents only, and those were instantly subject to supervised home quarantine. Starting tomorrow, there will be NO international flights to Colombia.
The city of Medellín started early on to reconfigure hospitals and create new and expanded ICU units dedicated to virus victims. All over the country, shopping malls and other large buildings are being transformed to temporary hospitals with thousands upon thousands of beds. We’ll need them: health officials today are saying that as many as four million people might contract COVID-19.
Yesterday at 7 p.m., our province of Antioquia began a four-day isolation period, which (as of this morning) has now been extended nationwide until April 13. Only essential employees are allowed to go to their jobs, and all businesses except grocery stores and emergency medical facilities are closed. People are only allowed out briefly for dog walking or food shopping. For ourselves, we started our own social isolation last Monday, so we’re already in this groove. We’re obsessed with washing our hands, not touching our faces (gosh, that one’s hard) and keeping distance between ourselves and other people. We have limited supplies of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, so we’re trying to avoid situations where we have to use too much of those.
Our good friends and fellow Medellín expats, Byron and Mariah Edgington, posted their own humorous and very informative take on life here with COVID-19. Move over, Panama Papers – money laundering has come to Colombia!
More than anything else today, we feel gratitude. And hope.
The world as we know it has been altered – probably forever – by this terrible virus. Just reading over that first paragraph reminds me how very blessed John and I have been to have the resources to travel and see the world.
We’re grateful to have a secure roof over our heads, food to eat, and plenty of water to wash with. So many people around the world don’t even have those basic necessities, even in the best of times. What are they going to do now? And what can we do to help them?
I feel grateful I’m still able to work, unlike many others (thank you, Wall Street Communications!). We’re grateful that (so far) our family hasn’t been touched by the virus, yet. We’re grateful for our two fur darlings, Rosie and Tango, and that they’re healthy. We’re grateful for the internet and the means to stay in contact with family and our friends all over the world.
We’re grateful for the health care workers here, and the world over, who are willing to put their own lives on the line to save others.
Byron and Mariah took this video from their home last night, but the same scene took place in our neighborhood. At 8 p.m., people all across the city went out on their balconies to cheer and show appreciation for Medellín healthcare workers. It was heartwarming!
With things moving so fast, what is the world going to look like in a week? When we read back over this post a week from now, how astonished will we be with the changes? What is the situation going to look like a month from now? In August? In December? We don’t see any upside at all in the short term; in fact, things are about to get much, much worse in many countries. Longer-term, we see two scenarios playing out:
- Governments will continue to be in disarray. People will keep ignoring pleas to socially isolate. Cases will surge, hospitals will be overwhelmed, medical supplies will dry up, and health care workers will exhaust themselves. Many more will sicken and die as a result.
- The social messages will start to resonate. People will get serious about isolating themselves. Mandated quarantines will start to have an effect, and the rate of new cases will start to slow enough for healthcare systems to manage: the proverbial flattening of the curve. In the meantime, real progress will continue on finding effective treatments and a vaccine. Calmer voices of leadership will start to prevail, bringing people together (in a virtual way, of course!) to put aside political differences and help each other cope. We choose this scenario.
Longer-term, who knows? It is a certainty that life as we know it will be radically changed. So many things we took for granted before, including the ability to travel freely, might be gone forever. There are plenty of silver linings: a chance to stop and reflect, take a breath, and be grateful. A chance for the earth to renew itself, an opportunity for petty divisions to heal, and a chance for people to come together for the sake of the planet. When the smoke clears (and it will), how will we as a human race step up to these opportunities?
We wish you all a safe and healthy week. Stay home and wash your hands!