Taking it Seriously: Comparing COVID-19 to malaria

Author: Dr Máire Ní Mhórdha, a social anthropologist at Maynooth University, Ireland. Maire’s PhD research looked at NGOs and international development, and human rights, with a focus on Senegal. She  is currently working on a project at Maynooth University/Trinity College Dublin that looks at how the abortion rights campaign in Ireland used digital tools to organize, resolve conflict and build alliances and win the 2018 referendum on the Eighth Amendment. 

I write this at 4am. I want people reading this to understand what it’s like to have your body attacked from within, to fight it, to feel pain and fear and worry. And to be healed. And, above all, to know the loss of someone who should never have been lost, whose loss could have been so easily prevented. This blog connects my past experiences with malaria to the present COVID-19 pandemic. 

I am thinking back to September 2008, Ramadan. My then-boyfriend and I travelled overland from Dakar to Ouagadougou, through Bamako and any number of places in between, taking the whole month to do it. We were young and invincible. Hot and humid as it was during the high malaria season, we didn’t often sleep under mosquito nets. We were staying in the cheapest places we could find, ill-equipped, and we didn’t bother to bring our own. 

I had stopped taking antibiotics as prophylaxis since first coming to Dakar a year before. It wasn’t sustainable. But sleeping under a mosquito net certainly was – nets were readily available and affordable for us, but happy in my weed-and-love-fuelled youthful bliss and privileged ignorance, I did not opt to access them. 

Getting sick

Our trip ended, I returned to the UK and the day after, we broke up. I was heartbroken. I threw myself into my research, and ran, to clear my head and ease my sadness. A couple of weeks later I was running through autumn fields on a cool, dry Fife day, and realised I was sweating a lot. I got home, drenched to the skin. As the days progressed, my head ached, my back ached, I sweated. I felt sure I was dying of an actual broken heart. 

A few more days and I was taken by ambulance, delirious, to Dundee hospital. I had malaria (my heart turned out to be fine) – the bad kind, the “brain kind,” (cerebral malaria). I remembered the diagnosis, remembered snippets from what I had heard from people in Senegal about the different types and forms of the disease.

My treatment in Dundee was tremendous. Swift diagnosis, rapid care, a comfortable room, the kindest, funniest nurse. My parents rushed over to my side and when I was discharged after just under a week, they nursed me back to health at home in Ireland, although I was thinner and weaker for quite some time after. I still remember that Hula Hoops were the first solid food I could keep down, and how tasty they were.

Returning

The following year, I returned to Senegal for the next phase of my research. At one point, I lived in a house in Dakar. Like many houses there, it had a “gardien” (guard, really a caretaker), Daouda, who lived in the house with his little daughter, Fatou. I had no children then, so I didn’t know much about classifying them by age, but I now think she was probably around two years of age.

Fatou was everything a two-year-old could and should be – cute, curious, friendly, loved snacks, loved playing. She would have breakfast with me and the house residents (some of whom may read this and will certainly remember her), peering at our computer screens in gentle wonder.

I will never forget the day, however, after Fatou had been unwell for a week – listless, sleeping, feverish, when her father entered the kitchen silently, and in response to the question, “où est Fatou?”, he replied “elle est décédée.” I will never forget that moment. Everything froze in me, and around me. Fatou was gone, taken by yellow fever. 

The guilt and shame has never left me, that I slept under a mosquito net in that house and never once thought to see or care whether Fatou also did, that I didn’t realize how sick she was, that I didn’t ask her father if he needed help in bringing her to a doctor. She didn’t sleep under a net, and she didn’t go to hospital until it was too late, and after a mosquito carrying the yellow fever virus bit her, she became infected and she died.

There is a vaccination for yellow fever, which I got before I first entered Senegal. It is mandatory for visitors to get it. It’s also mandatory for children to receive it in Senegal but a State emaciated by decades of structural adjustment means that many children, like Fatou, don’t receive it.

Fatou

I will never forget Fatou. My three children are now all older than she was when she went. I see her in them every day. I was Fatou’s turandoo (namesake), and she was mine. I remember her.

I remember her now, as I remember the feeling I had of near death from malaria. Until these things happened in my life, I felt invincible in the way only a person who has never suffered illness or infirmity or loss has.

I write all this because I can. I’m alive because I got the treatment I needed, from an illness derived from my own recklessness. Fatou didn’t get the prevention or the treatment she needed and deserved, and she isn’t here. I got sick because I failed to prevent myself getting sick. Unlike most people in Senegal who have the information but often not the material resources, I could easily have carried a 500F net with me and stopped that bug from biting me. But I didn’t, and yet because of the privilege of access to the health care I needed, I survived, and thrived. This never happened for Fatou Ndiaye.

Today: COVID-19

Now, I am the one minding my elderly parents. Making sure they stay home and away from the world, making sure they have their medicines, their favourite brown bread, the newspaper. I speak to them two metres away through the window, we do not touch, but we smile and wave. I am petrified of them catching the virus and of what it could do to them.

I know so many people here know of these things, of care, of loss, of worry for loved ones, of devotion, of healing, of sorrow. 

The situation in which we now find ourselves in the privileged postcolonial West is a new one in the postwar period, but one that is more known to more people across the world, than not known. In these places, people know that caring about your community is often the most rational, logical thing that one can do for survival and well-being. Never is this logic more evident than now.

Please, do what you can to protect yourself and everyone around you from this virus. Do it for yourselves, your community, and your health workers, who are putting their physical and mental health, their very lives at risk, and who face a long and difficult time ahead. If the virus is allowed to spread, people will continue to suffer and die from it, and we won’t have a health service left. Countless people, already relying on our health service to survive, will have shorter lives because they won’t get the resources they need that will be lost because of the virus.

Staying safe

In case there is still any doubt – this crisis is real. What happens right now, today, will have far-reaching impacts into the future for health services, and the well-being of people everywhere – viruses know no borders and elderly people, people who are already unwell, the poorest folks, people in refugee camps and asylum centres, homeless people – those with the least ability to fight it, will suffer the most. It must be contained.

Put others first. Stay home, don’t spread the virus, watch out for each other. We can’t rely on political institutions alone to take care of us in a massive health crisis, when it’s clear that mass effort, commitment and care is what is needed. If you’ve read this far, thank you. Now please do the right thing and STAY HOME, while we can still make a real difference.

[Image by Gian Cescon on Unsplash]

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