Uncertainty Reigns on the Rift’s Edge

Malawi lies at the southwest edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley – and it’s this that led me to title this post this way. 

It has been an interesting year.  And I do not just mean what we have seen so far from the 2020 calendar year, I mean the last 365 days.  A year ago we here in Malawi were preparing for the country’s tripartite elections in May.  It was a busy time, but as the political officer at the Embassy (and a first-time political officer), it was also exciting.  Elections are a political officer’s bread and butter.  I was lapping it up.

The lead up to the elections was exciting, as was polling day itself, and the immediate days afterward.  I worked extra hours, dug into the politics, analyzed the results, and wrote reports.  After nearly two years in the country, I felt I really understood the situation, the players, and it was all culminating in this election.  The elections had shaped my tour since I arrived in August 2017, and I thought I would head off on my mid-tour home leave and return to a post-election environment with newly elected representatives and a new focus for my second consecutive Malawi tour.

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Tear gas wafts in front of the U.S. Embassy in June 2019 (photo from Nyasa Times)

But that was not to be.  The hotly contested election resulted in a court challenge of the presidential election results.  And demonstrations.  First by the opposition parties who alleged the misconduct by the electoral commission, and then by human rights activists.  During the summer, the police deployed tear gas multiple times in the vicinity of the U.S. Embassy (the main opposition party’s headquarters is next door).  At the end of his first week on the job, my summer intern and I were caught outside the Embassy while at a meeting during another tear gas display.  On another day  I could hear from my office the thwoop thwoop thwoop of the canisters being repeatedly deployed.  Estimates were some 90 canisters fired in an hour.  I never felt in danger, but things were definitely not normal.

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My own terrible iPhone zoom photo of a military escorted demo heading my way (and after taking the photo, I turned around)

By August the court case had begun.  But it dragged through the fall.  The end of every multi-week session announcing the next.  The human rights activists continued their demonstrations, though the military joined with them to provide security and there was less use of tear gas.  There were other demonstrations too, by truck drivers, by teachers, by civil servants.  Then on February 3, the Constitutional Court (a five-High Court judge panel convened especially to hear and decide on the presidential election nullification case) released its decision.  It was a day of suspense — with the lead justice reading out the 500-page decision on the radio over the course of ten hours.  And at the end he announced the landmark judgment for the opposition parties; only the second time on the African continent that a court had overturned an election.

It was exhilarating.  The country was electrified.  There were news articles around the world on this historic decision.  But it was short-lived.  Because now there are to be new elections and here we are back where we were a year ago.  Only the stakes seem higher. February felt like a really long month, approximately six weeks long.

Enter: Coronavirus.

CDC COVID-19 world map outbreak March 28 Malawi

The CDC map of countries with confirmed cases as of 12:00 March 30

As of today, March 31, 2020, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Malawi.  As I have been thinking about writing this over the past week, I have experienced a sense of apprehension that as soon as I might write that down, it would cease to be true, a case would be confirmed.  But most of us in the diplomatic community and the government of Malawi are operating under the assumption that there are cases here, we just do not definitively know it.

The Africa Report Africa Risk for COVID-19It might seem odd that Malawi seems to stand alone, that with over 170 countries and territories affected, it sits there, a greyed out area in a sea of teal. But Malawi is not only at the edge of the Great Rift but also is sort of the end of the line.  Malawi is not a transit country (I mean sure, for economic migrants, yes, but for international travel, no); it is not a major tourist destination, not even really a minor one.  It is off the beaten track.  It is landlocked and even connections to its neighboring countries are relatively limited. I found this really neat graphic online that demonstrates Africa’s risk in terms of individual countries’ connectivity with China. But it might as well be connectivity to really anywhere in terms of Malawi.  There are only a handful of international flights a day, and connections only to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, and Ethiopia.

So, this relative isolation has contributed to how I have perceived the pandemic.  While so many of us around the globe have labeled this experience surreal, I have felt both affected and oddly detached.  I have watched the panic buying, the press conferences, the number tallies from a distance.  We have had meetings (many, many, many, meetings) at the Embassy, beginning in February and increasing in frequency in March.  Especially as the news around the globe worsened, as cases crept closer to home.  As the measures were slowly put in place.  My boss voluntarily self-quarantined for two weeks beginning in early March after returning from a European country that the government of Malawi had just designated as a country of concern.  From last week my daughter’s international school went entirely to distance learning — the decision made a week or two before the President announced on March 20 that all schools in the country would close – and the Embassy has gone to Team Office / Team Telework.  One week one team may be in the office (though they do not have to be) while the other solely teleworks, then the next week the teams switch, and to quote one of my favorite poets, Kipling, “never the twain shall meet.”  Well, except in Zoom meetings.

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We are still flush with TP — for now

Last week I was Team Office and still spent much of my time at the Embassy.  Not only as the political officer but also the Acting Consular Officer, because our primary consular officer opted to return to the U.S. for health and safety reasons while the option remained open.  I went home each day for lunch, an option I rarely take, so that I could also log my daughter on for her daily Google Meet session with her teacher and classmates.  The homeschooling was rough for sure, more akin to co-dependent torture than learning, but I felt useful and efficient at work.  This week I am on Team Telework and it is only day two but it is like everything has fallen apart.  Well, homeschooling is on the upswing and work is, um, on the opposite trajectory.

I do not quite know how to describe how I am feeling; I am sure I am not alone in this.  I am not worried about the virus for myself or my daughter.  And while I am working with my family to put into place measures to make my elderly parents safer, I am not all that worried about my friends or family.  I expect that some might find this callous.  Although I can be an emotional person, I feel I am approaching this situation more as a pragmatist.  I think it may be due to my experience in Singapore during SARS.  Singapore handled that pandemic well and is by all reports doing the same this time around.

I know COVID-19 is not SARS. I felt I needed to say that. But there are some similarities.

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Handwashing station – similar to what most places I frequent have set up

Not that I personally handled the time during SARS in Singapore all that well.  It was not an easy time.  While I sent back some thoughts to friends and family (summarized in my two blog posts on the time), I went back to look at my journals for the time period and found nothing at all written in them over a 2.5 month period.  That in and of itself is telling.  It is rare for me to go for more than a week without writing.  What I do remember is that at first the situation was novel, even exciting, but over time it really began to drag on myself and my friends.  I even sought out counseling.

There are concerns about the virus coming to Malawi.  As one of the poorest countries in the world, the health system is already incredibly limited, and would likely quickly be overwhelmed by a pandemic.  Also, social distancing is just not something that fits well with the culture and customs here.  Malawians are very social.  They enjoy group meetings, family gatherings, attending church or mosque.  In the few walks that I have taken around my neighborhood, I still see Malawians greeting one another touching hands, walking closely together.  And the reality of poverty is that people live, travel, and work together in very close quarters.

And yet I think I am doing better this time around for a number of reasons.  Perhaps it is because I am here in Malawi, with our relative isolation and delayed case confirmation, but also because I have my incredibly lush and calming yard full of birdsong.  Also, I have meaningful work that keeps me busy, I have been meditating almost daily for over two years, and I am here with my daughter, and everything is better with her.

These feelings are valid as of today.  Things will continue to be uncertain for the foreseeable future.  If COVID-19 follows a trajectory similar to SARS, then it is likely peaking, but will continue well into June.  July 2 is currently the date for the “fresh” (as all the papers here like to call it) presidential election.  My daughter and I are opting to shelter in place here in Malawi, our home, and though it will not be easy, I expect us to be fine.  Despite all of the uncertainty and challenges my friends and I faced in Singapore during SARS, it did pass, and those feelings faded.  So I know that this too shall pass.

 

 

 

SARS in Singapore (2003) Part Two

Between July 2002 and July 2003 I lived in Singapore while studying for my graduate degree at the National University.  For three of those months, from 1 March to 30 May, Singapore life was altered with the arrival of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS.  During that period of time 238 people fell ill with SARS and 33 people died.  The small country reacted quickly with numerous restrictions and regulations affecting most aspects of social life. 

This is the second of two posts cobbled together from emails I sent out to family and friends during this time.  The strain of living under the conditions imposed to stop the spread of the illness began to take their toll on me.  I began to feel depressed.  I will admit I sought some counseling. At the same time SARS not only brought me closer to my Singaporean friends but also made me think about the consequences of SARS in a more political context.  The ways in which the Singaporean government could react quickly were both positive and negative.  And I got a little political.  When my friends and I, along with all the other international graduate students in our building, were unceremoniously notified on a weekend that we would have to vacate our apartments earlier than expected, we contacted the media.  I served as a student representative from our building in meeting with university officials and I was interviewed on television.  We still had to move out but I spent my last six weeks living with friends in an even better apartment.  When the government announced the plan to require all international students to pay a deposit before they left the country to pay for their possible quarantine upon return, my friends and I contacted our relevant embassies to express our dissatisfaction.  The government soon backtracked and it was never instituted.  The below was written before I started to work for the US government and as such represent only my thoughts at the time and not those of the USG or any department or agency of the US government. 

7. Batman mask SARS comic

Another Straits Times front page SARS comic

May 6, 2003

If you think that subject “SARS: The Show Goes On” sounds silly or tasteless I will have you know it is the title of yet another SARS-related television show launched here.  The following night you can tune into another show entitled SARS: A Courage Within.

Now not only do we have to report each day for our temperature check and receive our stamp, but if we fail to do so we are charged 50 Singaporean dollars a day.  On a Saturday afternoon – when we could not complain until Monday – an announcement was placed in our elevators notifying all students we had to vacate our apartments by June 16 because they will be doing a massive cleaning and all the incoming students will have a ten day mandatory home stay. (Sounds like a fancy name for QUARANTINE!)

8. Fight SARS together brochure

A cover of a what-to-do in the event of SARS brochure

At the bowling alley my friends and I had our temperatures checked, and once declared normal, issued with a sticker allowing us entry.

I have seen the workers at the Deli France wearing their “I am fever FREE!” stickers and the “I’m OK!” sign in the windows of the Singapore buses, to report the temps of the drivers.

Now I am, though not completely officially, a person with a Masters degree.  I thought I would feel happier but because of SARS and the government and university policies my friends are scattering to the winds all the more sooner.

Things are just not as I expected them to be now.  I had plans.  To travel to Malaysia with friends, or to hop over to Batam or Bintan (nearby Indonesian islands, one I fondly remember as the Island of a Million Mosquitoes).  But life has a funny way of throwing up the most unexpected things.  I am itching to travel.  I had planned on a glorious month long trip to China, but that is a definite no-go.  Yesterday downtown I saw three western backpackers alight from a bus near Orchard Road.  Each was wearing their very own mask.

May 22, 20039. cover mouth when sneeze comic

Though the World Health Organization has declared Singapore “safe” in the battle for SARS, the Singapore government continues its relentless political and media campaign. Though today’s Straits Times declares Singapore need not be on the defensive against allegations that it is “exporting” SARS, the government seems intent on pointing its own fingers at the importation of the disease. If ever there was a global non-traditional security issue, SARS is it.   It is literally testing the invisible boundaries between countries and the ability for countries to work together on such an issue. Singapore may have won the battle so far in containing the disease, but I do not know if it would win popularity contests for its diplomacy.  Just a few days ago the Singapore government announced that ALL foreign students in the country would have to re-apply for their student passes and come up with a S$1000 deposit when leaving the country FOR ANY DESTINATION to cover possible medical expenses upon return.  This is clear discrimination against foreign students in the country, as Singaporean students are free to go on their trips abroad without such a deposit, although they are just as likely to contract SARS as anyone else.  I have already sent my letters of protest to the US Embassy and Singapore Ministry of Education after phoning the Ministry of Health. Of course for SARS affected countries there are special measures, but Singapore seems to so easily forget that it is itself a SARS-affected country, and that viruses do not recognize invisible lines drawn on maps, nor the nationalities of its victims.

10. I'm OK SARS note on bus

It’s alright to ride this bus because this driver is OK

I find it so intriguing, this focus on SARS, equating it with war and battle.  I noted that once SARS hit Singapore the front page headers of the Straits Times simply changed from “War in Iraq” to “War on SARS.”  Every day in the paper, the front page begins with a cartoon related to SARS.

Yesterday I heard on the radio that a new television channel has been launched, the SARS channel.  I am not making it up.  They say on this channel one can “see all the SARS programs you missed.” Oh, what a teaser!  Makes you want to tune in right now.  Once I move to my new digs with friends (for just a month) I just may try to tune in, out of curiosity and my new found fascination with the media’s role in policy.  The radio and television ads plead with Singaporeans to be vigilant.  One ad proclaimed that such a war required vigilance, that one mistake, one “selfishness,” could cost the country greatly.  There is even a terribly annoying television commercial in which two “friends” badger a third friend about hygiene practices. It starts with the woman saying she is going to wash her hands, and the idiot friend asks her “why?”  She and her male partner begin a barrage of DOs and DONTs for their third friend, such as “you should always wash your hands after you use the toilet” and “always cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze” and “don’t spit on the floor” and “if you feel unwell see a doctor but don’t ‘Doctor hop.'”

Singapore’s most well-known comedian Phua Chu Kang released a song called SAR-vivor.  There is a video.  It is basically a public service announcement about washing your hands and delaying travel to SARS-affected countries packaged into a dreadfully silly rap.  (This is not a joke.  You can Google it.)

What gets me is that Singapore has been declared SARS “safe” and the regulations and admonishments just keep coming.  So far eleven people have been arrested for spitting. (One such criminal claimed “something flew into my mouth and my instinct was to spit” but the judge would have none of that and he was fined S$300).

11. dont discriminate SARS quarantine comicSingapore is doing its best to recover from the economic consequences of both the Iraq War and SARS.  The government has launched a campaign “Step Out! Singapore” to encourage Singaporeans to get out and have fun, “live life as usual,” yet while being socially responsible (i.e. not spreading SARS).   I am tired of campaigns.

As far as “living life as usual,” we all have to adapt to what is now usual.

Yesterday I found myself taking my temperature while at the copy machine at the library. Although the mandatory in-person temperature checks at the apartment complex have come to an end, we must now register our temperatures on-line every day.  One problem with this, which I pointed out to the Dean of the Office of Student Affairs, is that we have no internet connection in our housing complex.  It is perplexing that international graduate students in one of the world’s most connected countries are housed in a building with no Internet or air-conditioning…but I digress.  Therefore, we are supposed to go to the campus every day, twice a day, and log our temperatures.  Never mind that the computer labs now close at 5 PM each day and they were not open last Thursday, which was a national holiday, and last Friday I could not access the SARS daily temperature declaration website.

12. A tribute to healthcare workers window display

After the WHO declared SARS safe the fancy stores on Orchard Road used window displays to celebrate and recognize the sacrifices

So, yesterday.  I went to the school library. Before entering one must have their temperature checked and identification cards swiped.  This is reportedly so in the event of a spontaneous SARS outbreak, all persons who were present at the time can be contacted.  I submitted myself for the requisite check. I registered a temperature of 37.5, which is the cut-off point, and had to wait five minutes to have my temperature taken again.  I will note that this is Singapore, located close to the equator, with a year round average temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity.  The entrance to the library is located on the fifth floor and I had just climbed five flights of stairs. I certainly felt warm.  My second temperature check registered at 37.6.  The young woman taking my temperature sounded panicked. “No, no way!  Sorry.  Zhe ge ren you 37.6.  Wo yinggai zuo shenme? (This person has 37.6 degrees, what should I do?)”  I thought, “Maybe I should not have walked past the hospital which looked like a scene out of the movie “Outbreak” because now I might have SARS and I cannot get into the library.”  Luckily, third time was the charm; I was released and allowed to enter the library.  Thereafter I found myself photocopying with thermometer in mouth.

But things did eventually return to normal of course.  The temperature checks and other SARS related measures slowed and then ceased.  The Singaporean government announced that the Great Singapore Sale would happen, a bit delayed but as part of normalizing.  Tourists returned.  My roommates and I moved out of the University apartments to our own place.  I did my six week internship and then left for travel – not China, but Turkey and Denmark instead. 

SARS in Singapore (2003) Part One

Between July 2002 and July 2003 I lived in Singapore while studying for my graduate degree at the National University.  For three of those months, from 1 March to 30 May, Singaporean life was altered with the arrival of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS.  During that period of time, 238 people fell ill with SARS and 33 people died.  The small country reacted quickly with numerous restrictions and regulations affecting most aspects of social life.  It was a strange time to be in Singapore.  The following is edited from emails I sent to friends and family while living through this period.  It is my take on my experience only.

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One of the SARS related comics from the Straits Times

April 14, 2003

 If one rides the subway or buses or goes out, there is a feeling that many Singaporeans are restricting their movements around town.  Subway stations on Friday or Saturday nights are almost deserted.

There has not yet been a case of the disease on my campus, and the school is doing a lot to see that it does not, although many other schools in the country have already been closed.  Fewer people eat at the canteens and all the silverware and plates have been switched to disposable plastic.  All the water fountains have been shut down.  The university administration divided the campus into five zones.  We received a Presidential circular requesting we restrict our movements between zones.

2. SARS ambulance brochure

A special SARS ambulance with is own number was established

The exam schedule is also going to be adjusted so that students can undergo a health check before entering the exam rooms.  Students will be sat further apart and there will be fewer students in each room.  We have known our exam dates since the semester began and now we are in limbo, awaiting news as to whether our exam dates will remain the same or be pushed back.

The other day there was a bit of a scare.  One of my roommates and I had just finished our last class and were feeling really good.  We joined classmates for a lovely late dinner.  We felt relaxed in a way we had not for weeks.  While at the restaurant, we received calls that two people from our apartment complex had been taken away in ambulances, possible SARS cases. We were told not to take the elevator for fear of exposure.  Previously I had not given much thought to my own safety in regards to SARS.  Cases are going up in Singapore, but I spend little time in places other than my apartment and the study room at school, but this, this was where we lived.  It turned out the students had food poisoning and all is well, but for an hour or so it was scary.  SARS became real.

Much of the papers in Singapore are dominated by two stories: SARS and the war in Iraq.  Though the war receives more notice in the paper, it is SARS that has people here jumpy.  My roommate and I went to a party last evening and needed to get off at the subway station closest to the hospital where many of the SARS cases are quarantined.  We were warned not to go.  We went anyway.  People want to avoid movie theatres, clubs, restaurants, basically most public places.  I just don’t know how dangerous could it be?

3. fever and weight SARS comic

SARS comic humor.  Keeping it light.  Unrelenting but light.

Last evening on the bus my roommate and I saw an advertisement for a new weekly television program called Living With SARS.  No joke.  I can see it is quite a shrewd move on the part of the government to calm the fears of citizens and help businesses being affected by the illness.  But something rang so….uh…Singaporean about having such a show.

I do not know how plans will turn out for the summer.  I had wanted to intern for six weeks and then travel.  But I had planned on traveling for a month in China but with SARS that seems very unlikely.  Right now even people who travel to Singapore are quarantined for ten days when they go back to their countries.  It is hard to say how long these measures will be in place.  Two more patients with SARS died yesterday in Singapore.  It is not quite an epidemic, but it is very serious.

April 28, 2003

There are already more precautions and more new things to report about SARS in Singapore.  I am not sure what to make of it, but the paranoia is growing. I am glad I do not have a television as I might be locked up in my apartment afraid to go out.

4. SARS foldout poster

A “Fight SARS” poster – I collected one in all four languages

Last night I had the opportunity to watch television for about an hour on a friend’s computer, and we tuned in just in time to catch the beginning of the new show Living With SARS.  We promptly changed the channel.  We know what living with SARS is like. All over the campus are signs about SARS; all the water fountains are shut down for “maintenance,” and every time one signs into the campus intranet via Outlook we get a dose of SARS with notifications telling us to wash our hands, not to hang out with any SARS affected people, not to do this and not to do that.  Today there was a list of places that if anyone has visited in the past few weeks one was supposed to monitor their fever every two hours.

By email we also received an exam update, which listed the number of people who went through the exams and how many had to go to the isolation room and how many went to the hospital.  I know it is supposed to make us feel better, but in reality, I am not all that sure it does.

Beginning tomorrow there will be daily checks at the dormitory apartment building where I live.  We have been issued thermometers.  Every morning the residents of our complex, all 350+ of us, are supposed to line up to have our temperatures taken.  Should we be “cleared” we will receive a stamp – HEALTH SCREENING NUS – on our wrists, which is good for the whole day.  The following day we go through the whole thing again.  This will go on every day until the end of May when the policy will be reviewed.  And the stamp colors are changed each day so that we cannot cheat and use the stamp from the day before.  (I want my next one on my forehead!)  Those who fail to turn up for these checks face disciplinary action.

5. support friends in quarantine comic

A few days ago I was a bit hungry and wanted something different than the usual fare, and it being a Sunday the school canteens were closed.  A friend drove me to the National University Hospital, which has a Deli France.  The scene which met me as I stepped out of the car and up to the entrance was straight out of some movie.  The people were dressed all in plastic with hats and gloves and face masks.  I explained I just wanted to get a sandwich and they said I just needed to go through this small procedure before I could enter the hospital.  I was given a clipboard with a form to fill out (have you been to Hong Kong, Hanoi, Toronto? In the past few weeks have you been around a SARS victim?), and then they took my temperature, issued me a sticker badge only for the Food Court and ATM and my very own mask.  Then properly masked I headed off to get my sandwich.  I was not so nervous until I saw those hospital workers decked out like that.  I will not be getting any more sandwiches from the hospital for some time to come.  It felt very odd because just a week before the SARS outbreak my best friends and I had enjoyed a lovely lunch there.

The other day I stepped into the university bookstore and already there were two books on sale about SARS.  I went to our local supermarket yesterday and there were very few fruits and almost no veggies. I didn’t make the connection until a roommate reminded me that the Pasir Panjang market closed down because a worker there came down with SARS.  The market, a major supplier of produce in Singapore was shut down. 7-11 is selling SARS kits for S$19.90 which includes masks, gloves, vitamins, and related items.

6. Me in SARS mask 2003 close up

Look, I got my stamp, so I’m good to go.

A few quarantined individuals broke their quarantine so now things are even more stringent.  In a special congressional session the government is going to pass a law that allows people who break quarantine to be fined.  Quarantined individuals who refuse to answer their phones will have to wear electronic tracking bands.

The final thing is this screening at Changi airport and at the causeways connecting Singapore and Malaysia.  Now they have infrared temp screening for all passengers/arrivals/departures in Singapore.  The authorities are looking into putting these machines in other places.

These are certainly strange times in Singapore.