As I sat thinking about what I might write about next, it occurred to me I should say more of how COVID has been affecting us while in the U.S.. Part of me had thought this might not be all that interesting or at least less so than how we experienced the pandemic in Malawi. And that might be true. There are probably far fewer people sharing online what it like to experience COVID in Malawi, and certainly to be a foreigner doing so, than those who chronicle their experience in the U.S. And yet, I also realized our experience – as a foreign service family temporarily back in our home country – is somewhat unique to us and I want to remember it, record it, and recount it as a both a personal experience and one that becomes part of the collective memory of this global event. I figure that I wrote on COVID in Malawi (here, here, and here for example), and also about how COVID affected our R&R to Kenya, and even on my experience with SARS in as a graduate student in Singapore nearly twenty years before, so it makes sense to continue writing on this topic.
The pandemic has certainly had an effect on our lives back in the States. Arriving just as the Delta variant surge began, we spent our home leave in one of the most affected cities (Jacksonville, FL) trying to balance enjoying our time home while also keeping up with COVID mitigation measures. The training for my next post, beginning in mid-September, has also been affected by the continued pandemic, with all of it so far conducted online. But as the highly transmissible Omicron variant began to catch hold in the U.S. in December 2021 and early January 2022, we began to experience new disruptions.
Right at the beginning of the year, on January 3, the northern Virginia area was hit with a major snowstorm. Compared to other places that handle winter weather in greater quantity and frequency, it might seem that folks in Virginia have no idea what they are doing when snow hits. There is a grain of truth to that, though this storm was the biggest to hit the area in several years.
Yet when the district announced the school closure the night before – when nary a snowflake had shown up and the temperature remained above freezing – I was skeptical. When I was a kid growing up in this area, the thing to do in the morning of a snow storm was to sit by the television watching the local news as the names of school districts scrolled up announcing if school were open, cancelled, or had a late opening. I guess that morning-of decision was not great for working parents, teachers, and school staff, but I remember it with a certain amount of nostalgia. Still, I thought it premature because there are times when the forecast predicts snow but we get none.
This time though the snow absolutely showed up, falling fast and hard and blanketing the area in a few hours. I am not generally a fan of snow. It can be very beautiful in its immediate pristine state or in picture-perfect postcards, but it needs to be cold for snow and I dislike being cold, and after it gets walked through and driven through and pushed aside by plows, it is no longer pretty. But for my daughter C and our nanny JMC, this first snow was exciting. C has experienced snow so few times that they stand out — once in Ciudad Juarez and in Shanghai where flurries showed up and dusted the ground but didn’t stick. It also snowed once in the fall of 2014 when we lived in Herndon, VA when I was in Chinese training and then again on the day we flew to Shanghai in January 2015. There was also snow in Virginia when we were back for a week of training in December 2017. For our other snow experience we visited Finland in December 2019 knowing full well that snow would be a part of it. JMC had never experienced snow at all.
So it was fun at first. But then Omicron stepped in and made things weird.
Within an hour of the snow falling, I could see crews outside clearing the sidewalks and streets around our apartment building. Therefore, I was surprised when the county announced that there would also be no school the following day (Tuesday) because a COVID-related shortage of road workers meant that too many neighborhoods were still uncleared for kids to return to school. OK, I guess, what could we do? But on Tuesday evening the county announced that school would be closed AGAIN on Wednesday. Every parent I talked to was perplexed and a tad annoyed; our kids wanted to be back in school. On Wednesday afternoon our county said it would be open the following day, then that evening reversed the decision as surrounding counties would be closed. A shortage of teachers, bus drivers, and other school staff, who often live in other areas, and would not be able to come in if their kids were home, would likely end up in too few staff at our schools. So a snowstorm that would normally lead to a day off from school ended up keeping kids home for four days. Thanks Omicron.
But then, once school started in the new year, the COVID notifications for C’s school increased. Between the start of school on August 30 and the last day of school before winter break on December 17, my daughter’s school sent out a total of seven positive COVID notifications. Between January 13-31, however there were 16 notifications. For several days my daughter’s class of 26 kids was down to 17 with a combination of kids out with COVID or with symptoms awaiting test results or staying home to protect vulnerable family members.
Around our neighborhood in Arlington, we also began to notice signs new signs on store windows and doors. Maybe they had been up before, earlier in the pandemic, but we were not in the U.S. then. At my gym, people started to work out in masks. I had not seen that in my four months there. And then there was a noticeable increase in delivery times for packages. Where normally I could place an Amazon Fresh order in the afternoon for delivery the next day, but deliveries were two or three days later. Other deliveries too took longer, reportedly due to staffing shortages. After waiting three to four weeks for mail from the US when in Malawi though, we could handle it. And my Facebook feed started to fill up with reports of fully vaccinated and boosted friends and their families coming down with COVID. The majority mild cases, only one was hospitalized, but the virus felt closer than it ever had before.
The Foreign Service Friend Countereffect
I think having been in Malawi for the first 17 months of the pandemic has helped us to weather the past six months in the U.S. better. That is not to say there are not challenges. A childless friend of mine overseas asked me if I thought being a parent was a major factor in my different outlook on the pandemic. A resounding yes. Though I will note I have never been particularly worried that my daughter would get COVID or rather should she get it that it would be serious. And at 10 she is now vaccinated so our situation is different than parents of younger children. But as she is school aged and in in-person schooling, there are regular reminders of the pandemic’s tenacity that non-parents or parents of children not yet in school do not have. I receive a survey by text and email from the school that must be completed daily and the school notifications of positive COVID cases, mask and testing policies and more is fairly constant.
But having been in Malawi where we had no Whole Foods or Door Dash, no movie theaters or shopping malls, few to no sidewalks and no string cheese, made for a different experience than those who had such things. More importantly are the friendships we made in Malawi before COVID that changed and strengthened during it. We have been so incredibly fortunate to have made one really good friend in our building in Arlington — another single mom in the Foreign Service currently in language training for her next assignment with two boys, one of whom is just a year younger than C. They get us in ways that few others do. Also, three of our closest friends from Malawi have also been here in the U.S. One family lives just 15 minutes drive away. Another family is in upstate Pennsylvania but has come down to the northern Virginia / DC area on several occasions. And as luck — or more like the twists of fate — would have it, the third family whose tour after Malawi was Ethiopia ended up nearby while on authorized departure from Addis Ababa at the height of the civil conflict. Though we have seen them less often than in Malawi, being able to see them on occasion during this stint back in America has made the transition easier.
We have done less here in American than if it were not a pandemic; I have met with fewer friends than I might have done, cocooning ourselves away. It is in part due to my introversion heightened by language study (I get a wee bit weird when in language training), but experiencing nearly a year and a half of the pandemic in Malawi with our particular restrictions, small circle, and limited activities, shaped how continue to react now. So though an overwhelming majority of my U.S. based friends are vaccinated, their circles are not my circles, and it feels weird to branch out. I hope these friends understand and forgive me for being physically distant, as though I were not in the U.S. at all.
As we reach a stage where I daresay signs are pointing toward the pandemic slowing (though we have seen this before, of course), I can feel a wee shift within, a hope that this will come to an end in the near future. I am very cognizant this is not the case for everyone around the world, and yet, the glimmer is there nonetheless. I started bidding on my next assignment in September 2020, a year and a half ago; I never thought we would be going to this new place — Conakry, Guinea — still in the pandemic. Here we are just months away from that move. To a whole new country. Without the comforts of Americana, our family, and friends. It’s all part of this crazy foreign service life though. I’d just like to get back to doing it without a pandemic too.
NPR recently ran a story on how they believe several African countries have reached the endemic phase of COVID-19 faster than just about anywhere else in the world. It focused heavily on Malawi, and made me think of your time there. Basically, they tested the water supply in Malawi to learn an overwhelming chunk of the population had COVID well before even Delta hit. Really worth a read. Considering Guinea has even fewer documented cases and deaths, I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar pattern follows there, and likely the rest of sub-Saharan Africa with it’s young population base, even if Malawi and Guinea are nowhere near each other.
Thank you Nick! I did read the article you are mentioning. It is indeed fascinating. Lots to think about.
Hi, I’ve been enjoying your posts for some time now. I can relate as a former USAID brat who also served an excursion tour as a labor officer in W. Africa and recently returned tothe DC area from several years in Geneva with the UN. I especially get the difficulty with finding friends; even though I lived and worked in DC for many years, now that I’ve been back it’s surprising how…aloof…old friends have been through this pandemic. But I’ve done a few things to address the lack of social connections that I will share FWIW. First, I play tennis, which gives me an opportunity to meet other singletons out on the neighborhood courts. Second, I took up dance classes in Silver Spring (Arthur Murray) through which I’m enjoying getting to know about a dozen new acquaintances. Third, I walk/bike/jog in the neighborhood often (Kensington) and am starting to greet a lot of familiar faces. I sometimes join my son for a workout at his gym but honestly can’t relate to that cohort. Anyway, I usually take a brisk walk on the C&O Canal every other week; if you (and your daughter) would like to join me sometime please do email and we can schedule a meet up. I realize this is quite forward but you might be interested in my W Africa stories (Liberia to Cameroon inclusive), my experience as a TCKSURVIVOR, or my ‘insights ‘ on the State promo panel process (I served on a couple of Admin and Pol 02-01 panels during my excursion tour). Cheers. Nick L