As contagion stalks our planet, cities shuttered behind cordons militaires, cruise ships denied port or anchored in a sea of troubles, and hospitals ominous with taut, costumed creatures, a back story has been mass flight in search of safety. An early report estimated that nearly half of Wuhan’s 11-million population fled as the handwriting went up on the wet-market wall. In Mumbai, Delhi and scores of other Indian cities, destitute families of day-laborers, bundles on their heads and infants on the hip, stream into the backcountry on foot – public transport under lockdown – in a gamble that home villages are a safer bet than their slums. A source has written from Kinshasa (DRC) to say the cité is in turmoil with the poor frothed by fear, desperate to leave. Lest anyone think this is unique to cities of the global south, consider the current flight from New York city to the far reaches of Long Island, to Florida (itself a virus hotspot) and to North Carolina. It is all but certain that they carry contagion – the very thing they dread – with them to their bucolic refuges.
Our own family travels (my wife, Mary Kay, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist) once took us, improbably, straight into the maw of what was to become the HIV/AIDS pandemic in southern Africa. Over the course of nearly three decades we found ourselves in the midst of a struggle whose proportions find ready parallel in medieval times: paralyzing fear, wave upon wave of deaths, frantic rumors, abandoned victims, secret ‘cures’, apocalyptic preachers, whispers of dark spiritual arts, helpless healers. In the following series of posts, I plan to give a personal account of what we witnessed, some of which may well presage what Covid19 will entrain should it, like HIV, linger as an unwelcome and lethal guest.
It all began innocently enough for us at the edge of the Kalahari in the early ‘80s when we were present at the burial in our city of its first infant AIDS victim. About a dozen family members and friends stood on the mounded sand beside a tiny coffin which was lowered by ropes to the strains of a hymn. Within weeks the infant’s twin succumbed and soon thereafter, their mother. It received hardly any notice at all. The residents of our city had no inkling of the tide of suffering and sorrow that would soon follow. The cognoscenti who had the courage to speak up endured not just neglect and ‘shushes’, but met with stinging rebukes as doomsayers.
And so it was that an entire region was swept along in the comfort of not-knowing, drifting in the night toward calamity.