Contagion: What Pandemic Hath Wrought

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.

As the grim truth of pandemic begins to break upon cities and shanty towns across southern Africa, health workers find ready audience for their counsel.  The faces and demeanor in this circle in an Angolan settlement mirror aptly what the threat has come to mean.  It is likely that many in the circle suspect they are already HIV-positive.  Often small teams would convey the public health message through skits and role play.  Notice the team members at the back of the circle.  The utterly homely setting – far beyond the bounds of hospital or classroom – becomes for some, a critical, life-saving encounter.   photo credit: WHO   

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.     

8 thoughts on “Contagion: What Pandemic Hath Wrought

  1. Thank you my friend … here’s hoping that you and your grandchildren next door continue to stay safe.

    All the best in our mutual hunking down, Tim


    1. Yes, Tim! These strange times cause us to stray to places we don’t always go, and to find kinship there. Bless you for thinking of us, and for affirming that shared, indelible thread from the past. You must be finding pleasure in that garden you and Carol have tended – which comes into its own in such a Spring as this. JPL


  2. Great info & insight into what did happen back in the ’80’s with the HIV pandemic! Looking forward to “the rest of the story!” We leave Az next week heading direct for Cambridge to continue our isolation lifestyle! Blessings & be safe trusting in the Lord for our strength, Dan & Sherri J.


    1. Hello, Dan and Sherri! It’s fearsome to think of the nation you will traverse in a few days; you will be watchful, surely, for what is happening in the becalmed towns, along deserted highways, and around countless kitchen tables where families are closeted in dread. The reality that pierces through to those conversations must surely be the acknowledgement that we are not in control of so much that surrounds us. And that unites us with communities around the world. It is the place where the spirit stirs, and sets out in the search you speak of. On the far side of these events we will be richer – far richer. Blessings to you on your journey home!


  3. I just happened to catch this post and I thought I had lost track of you. Keep them coming and I hope I don’t miss them this moment.


  4. Jonathan–Dale and I are also in Durham–let’s find one another! I’m on Facebook as Magaretha Herman


  5. Once, in Serule – Aunt Joyce’s homevillage; I attended a funeral at which the eldest brother in the family eulogized his little sister. He had been a medical doctor at Deborah Reteif Memorial Hospital. He knew of the condition his sister died of. AIDS of the 1990s with its strong stigmatization. He pursued the truth and used facts to bring that message home. It earned him the wrath of the whole village and ostracism. Here was a privileged high-class spitting scum on his own blood!


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