Life is hard for everyone during a pandemic. But in a global crisis, it is women who carry extra burdens, says Raquel Lagunas, director of the gender team at the United Nations Development Programme. “Because of their reproductive role in society, they are ones taking care of the kids, the house, the food, the survival of families.”
Over the span of three weeks in September and October, NPR photographed and interviewed 19 women around the world. They shared their challenges and fears — and how they are overcoming them.
What we found is that despite the new stresses, women are drawing upon their inner strength to survive and even thrive.
“Women are responding in the ways that they often do: with an incredible display of resilience,” says Loyce Pace, president of Global Health Council, a coalition of academic institutions, think tanks and groups. “However heavy the burdens, women are stepping up and saying, ‘OK, now what? Let’s unpack this, let’s get it done, and then let’s convert that feeling into action.’ “
Explore our profiles by clicking on the thumbnails above — then find out how to nominate a woman to be profiled.
Sept. 15, Reykjavik, Iceland
The Chief Of Health Stays Calm In A Storm
It was one of those September days in Reykjavik when you just don’t know. The sky was mostly gray, and yet the sun shone through. It might start to rain or clear up completely. But it made for a nice view from Dr. Alma D. Möller’s glass-encased office. Not that she had time to enjoy it.
At 3 p.m., she breezed into her office, smiling, in a dark pinstriped suit. She looked like a bank executive, but in fact is Iceland’s director of health. Earlier in her career, she was the first female doctor aboard search and rescue helicopters. She’d be lowered from the copter by a wire. That didn’t as much prepare her for her current job, she said, as show the world she’s not afraid of challenges and hard work.
And the past few months have been hard work, leading a team of around a dozen experts, mostly men, in the fight against COVID-19. Iceland had gone through two waves, mostly without significant restrictions on daily life. By the day of the interview, the number of daily infections was down to the single digits, even none on some days.
“We’ve tracked and traced, tested thousands. By now, that is business as usual. We’re certainly more confident now than six months ago,” she said.
“I started following what was happening in mid-January. And it was clear right away that this was a serious disease. Dead people on the streets of Wuhan, Chinese authorities scrambling to build hospitals for thousands. On Jan. 27, I wrote a memo with the chief epidemiologist, detailing our worries. We knew this would reach us, but we didn’t anticipate how rapidly the numbers would rise once it did. I sat home, on my couch, going through the data and my daughter snapped a picture of me. I think it shows a lot.” She pulls out her phone and finds the picture. It shows Möller focused, not smiling, looking at a stack of papers. Serious stuff. Möller, who is 59 years old, has two children.
“I told people we would get pushed through a meat grinder. It didn’t turn out quite that bad, thank goodness.” Möller leaned back in her chair and sighed. Today was amazingly different from six months ago. She’d spent parts of the day in a budget meeting that only had a little to do with COVID-19. But she did note that there were six new cases the day of the interview — higher than recent daily counts. A number of them were linked to Reykjavik’s largest university, where her daughter is studying law. She said she simply reminded her daughter to be careful. The next day, more infections were diagnosed, and a third wave officially began.
Möller believes planning and preparing for a pandemic, starting in mid-January, had made the biggest difference. But she pointed out that Iceland is a small island with one major gateway. Contact tracing is much easier than elsewhere.
And her role? Well, she said, she’s used to hard work and long hours, taking charge and managing teams. And the team was key. Besides, she added with a wry smile, Icelanders really do well in crisis, with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and crazy weather being frequent.
Being a woman leading a pandemic team was never an issue, she said — and in fact was an asset. “Women think differently than men. I think every team needs people of both genders.” She corrects herself: “Of all genders. We need different points of view, different people, on every team.”
Once her day is done, she likes to go home to her family and dog. Perhaps slip into the hot tub. Read a book. Watch some TV. And sleep. Women around the world are caregivers, she said, but during stressful times like these they must remember to take care of themselves.
Photos by Sigga Ella. Text by Ingólfur Bjarni Sigfússon
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Sept. 15, Sacramento, Calif.
A Doctor Fled For Her Life From Afghanistan — And Is Now On The Front Lines Of COVID-19
It turns out growing up in a war zone in Kabul, Afghanistan, prepares you to be on the frontlines of a pandemic in Sacramento, Calif., said 29-year-old Sheeba Shafaq.
“I don’t panic as much as my co-workers,” she said at a mobile testing site where she is the supervisor, promoted last month to lead a team of health care workers and medical student volunteers.
“It just gives you the mindset that, ‘I can get through this. There are no bombs that are going to drop on me.’ ”
Shafaq knows what it is like to live in a country where bombs are dropping. Trained as a doctor in Afghanistan, she was forced to flee her country and her medical career after the Taliban threatened her life over her work as an advocate for Afghan women. She was granted political asylum in 2019.
In quiet moments, she checks her social media feed for news from home, a country that is also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and political turmoil as the Taliban gain power again.
Shafaq comes from a medical family; her father is a surgeon and her brothers are doctors. “My dad is super-liberal, supportive, “she said. When she was growing up, he encouraged all of his children to study medicine, she recalled, telling them: “I don’t care if you’re my daughter or my son, that’s what we do.”
The pandemic has changed her life again. In March, Shafaq joined the mobile testing team, excited to be contributing in the medical field again.
“I’m back and it feels good,” she said of the 12-hour shifts swabbing patients.
“It was hard when we started,” she recalled. More than 200 people would show up every day and test kits were in short supply.
“One day, we had 34 positives,” she said. This summer the spike in cases – and deaths — alarmed her.
But the distress has faded. “As long as you do something on a daily routine,” she said, “it just gets you used to it.”
She’s not yet licensed to practice medicine in the U.S., which is a costly process that can take years. But she’s working on it. The first step was winning a scholarship for graduate school, where she was certified as a medical assistant. Her work at a COVID-19 testing site counts as experience.
Her role in the mobile clinic is another kind of education — a sobering look at her new country.
“To be honest, the homeless community is more shocking than the COVID,” she said. “We literally go everywhere, under bridges and in the forests, to places that people do not have access to health care. They move from one night to the other.”
“It’s surprising here how low you can fall in this country,” said Shafaq about a patient population with needs beyond COVID-19 testing. “Most of them need help with wound care. We give them some supplies if we think they can help themselves.”
After seven months on the job, she said the days have fallen into a familiar routine. “I get up when it’s so dark,” she said. She’s pared down her gear: medical scrubs, medical ID and a wallet. Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is packed in the trunk of her car. The evening protocol includes stripping down in the garage and a dash to shower and disinfect. “I have every kind of cleaning spray, wipes and everything,” she said, mindful of protecting her roommates.
In the past few weeks, the pace has changed. The lines waiting to be tested are much shorter, sometimes fewer than 50 per day. “Now that we have the test kits, people are not coming out,” said Shafaq — even as California officials see a “concerning” uptick in COVID-19 cases. Shafaq is puzzled by the trend.
“Maybe, I don’t know, maybe they got used to the COVID,” she said.
COVID-19 has jump-started Shafaq’s path back to medicine, sometimes a lonely journey without her family, whom she hasn’t seen for five years. She was a trailblazer back home, a female doctor in a country where gender segregation often means women are shortchanged when it comes to careers in – and access to — health care and face other obstacles. “When I was a kid,” she said, “I had a bicycle until someone told me that if they see me riding my bicycle again, they will kill me.”
Now, she aims to become an American doctor. “To be honest, it’s so peaceful in my head here. Even with all the hardships.”
Photos by Jade Sacker. Text by Deborah Amos
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Patrícia Monteiro for NPR
Sept. 16, São Paulo
Recovering From COVID-19, Dreaming Of A New Life
Jessica Fernandes de Andrade walked out her front door and down the concrete lane just wide enough for a motorcycle in Paraisópolis, São Paulo’s second-largest favela — the term used for poor, urban neighborhoods. She turned right, and the walls of stacked concrete homes gave way to a bustling avenue, many of its occupants unmasked.
Fernandes de Andrade, 28, was taking no such chances. Her mask was tight. A former kitchen assistant, she has been unable to work for months due to fatigue and shortness of breath following a case of COVID-19. Both her parents had the coronavirus; it cost her mother, Zita Silva, a janitor at São Paulo’s state courthouse, her life.
“It was a loss that has no cure,” Fernandes de Andrade said of her mother’s death. “She was a warrior. She never gave up on anything.”
Silva had encouraged her daughter’s dream of one day helming her own restaurant. “Gastronomy is my specialty,” she said, specifically beef-filled pancakes and heavily seasoned pork and bean stews. “Cooking makes me well. When I’m not doing it, I’m imagining flavors in my head.”
On many days now, Fernandes de Andrade can afford to cook only rice and beans. Because her fiancé, Edson Santana, had a recent gig fixing a car — he was laid off from a repair shop in March — on this Wednesday morning, she was able to buy fresh bread and milk at a nearby bakery to go with the breakfast coffee.
Silva’s death in April so shook her daughter that when she fell ill herself, she took the “frightening” step of leaving her two-room home with Santana to stay in a public high school building on the edge of Paraisópolis that had been transformed into an isolation center for mild COVID-19 patients.
The World Health Organization recommends such centers for high-density areas like Paraisópolis — population around 100,000 — where isolating in homes is often impossible. Two schools in the favela housed more than 200 COVID-19 patients before they shifted back in August to prepare to accommodate students. Community leader Igor Amorim said far more men than women came to isolate at the centers “because of child care responsibilities. I had to mediate a situation in which a husband tried to get his sick wife to return home because he was tired of taking care of the kids.”
Of the six people at the center during Fernandes de Andrade’s stay, she was the only woman. Her isolation appears to have been successful: Her fiancé never had symptoms.
“Many people still don’t take the virus seriously,” she said, “but I can tell you that this is not a joke. We all need to be careful, be patient and also have something to hope for.”
On that Wednesday afternoon, after sweeping and dusting her home, she observed one of her mother’s favorite pastimes: watching an afternoon soap opera. It was a rerun from 2000 because Brazil’s massive soap industry has paused filming during the pandemic.
Throughout the day, she also exchanged messages with a friend about a free online course for Paraisópolis residents in gastronomy and entrepreneurship.
“My neighbor told me about it,” she said. “That’s another way we’ll get through this — by helping each other.”
Photos by Patricia Monteiro. Text by Catherine Osborn
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Samantha Reinders for NPR
Sept. 16, Cape Town, South Africa
An Ice Skater Holds Fast To Her Olympic Dream
At 9.45 a.m., Gian-Quen Isaacs launched into a spin. She looked powerful and graceful at the same time. Then, thud! She fell, ice splintering around her. She picked herself up quickly and, with an equal amount of poise, glided around the rink as if nothing had happened. She’s not afraid to fall, she said later. “When you fall, you learn. I got that from my mom.”
Countless falls and frustrations have built a world-class skater. She’s been South Africa’s national gold medal champion for two years already. She’s only 15.
It was just a practice day, so there’s no music, no leotards decked with crystals or makeup. But her talent is evident. Other skaters who are training can’t help but steal glances at her.
“It’s just where I belong,” she said later.
Isaacs has been ice skating since she was 7. She thought she’d play ice hockey, but her coach saw her potential as a figure skater. Fast-forward to this day – and a lot of blood, sweat, tears and 3 a.m. wake-up calls — and she is now South Africa’s hopeful for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Even with the goal posts set, there remains an uphill battle for Isaacs. She grew up in a gang-ridden and predominantly biracial suburb of Cape Town (but recently moved to a safer neighborhood).
Figure skating – laughed off as a Cinderella sport in a country where snow dissolves quickly, if it ever snows – gets little to no government funding and sponsorships are rare. Her family is biracial, but Isaacs said she does not face prejudice on the rink. Rather, it’s money that’s the biggest obstacle. Her mother, Leticia, struggles to pay for the professional skating camp in Canada her daughter attends yearly and the many competitions in Europe. Isaacs, who calls her mother her “main supporter, hero and personal assistant,” tries to keep upbeat about it, but you can hear the concern in her voice. “But when my blades touch the ice, all my worries go away,” she said.
Samantha Reinders for NPR
The global pandemic made her miss her early-morning sessions, when she’d sometimes have to be on the ice by 4 a.m. to fit in practice before school. While the ice rink was closed due to the national lockdown, from the end of March until July 1, her coaches kept her busy with Zoom training sessions to maintain her fitness. “I had so many questions – could I keep doing this? Could I even still skate? All these questions were floating about, and then the message came through that we are allowed back on the ice,” she said. “My heart literally felt like it was ready to explode in excitement and fear at the same time. Once my blades touched the ice though, everything melted away.”
Now she is back on the ice. “I’ve realized how lucky I am to be living my dream,” Isaacs said.
Photos and text by Samantha Reinders
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Sept. 17, Nairobi, Kenya
Mother And Daughter Find Comfort In Samosas
In the kitchen, Aleya Kassam and her mom, Narmin, slid their fingers across small strips of thin pastry. As if they’re doing origami, they folded them into triangles and stuff them with a beef or paneer cheese mixture.
The fresh onions, cilantro and ginger all mingled in the air.
“I had never made a samosa in my life,” said Narmin, 63, who had spent her professional life as a human resource manager. But she has learned to make the Indian snack. She expertly dabbed a bit of watered-down flour to seal in the contents of the samosa. The seal has to be perfect, because the next step is putting them into a vat of superhot oil. The pastry will become flaky; the flavors inside will coalesce.
“I just love that this is a beautiful vessel that can carry whatever it is you need in it,” Aleya said.
Aleya, 38, is a writer so she thinks of samosas in literary terms. They represent the mixing of cultures here in Nairobi. For her family, which came from India to settle in East Africa generations ago, they represent new beginnings.
“The samosas are the story of our family rebuilding,” Aleya said.
Aleya’s grandfather sold samosas in Tanzania. When the government nationalized industries in the ’60s, he lost his business and had to leave the country. He drove to Kenya with all his belongings in Volkswagen Beatle. He couldn’t make a bakery work along the coast, so he moved to Nairobi, where he set up a tiny canteen attached to a gas station.
“So samosa by samosa, they started kind of building their lives,” Aleya said.
But one day, he found the canteen destroyed. A politician had sold off the land and didn’t even bother to tell him. By that time, Aleya’s parents were professionals, so they just told her grandparents to retire.
In 2015, however, the family lost all of their wealth when the bank that had their money went bust. It took them years to come to terms with the fact that they were never going to get their money back.
In late 2019, Aleya’s dad, Nashir, suggested they start making samosas.
Aleya told their story on Twitter. And from home, they made samosas day and night. They were a hit, selling more than 1,000 samosas their first week. They decided this would become a family business: Wau Eats, a play on the word wow. They took a break to set up a professional cooking space and restarted the business in March.
Narmin says the plan was to make this business into a social affair. They planned tastings, and to pair samosas with drinks and literature. But at the same time, the pandemic hit.
They were shuttered, yet again. But customers started asking for the samosas.
They slowly started making them again. And, oddly, the pandemic helped. Restaurants were shuttered, and Kenyans were looking for something to eat at home.
Today, they’ve hired a few employees, and they are churning out samosas.
Aleya and Narmin walked across their kitchen. It used to be a residential apartment in Nairobi. They’ve turned one of the rooms into an office. Aleya pulled out an album with a studio picture of her grandparents. He’s in a suit, she’s in a floral dress. Both of them spent countless hours making samosas.
She said that in times of crises, people turn to what they know.
“And it’s funny, because many people I know have gone back to cooking,” she said. “And within my community, that’s been a really familiar way of income generation for the women.”
Like her mom, she said, it’s the last thing she expected. She’s an artist. She writes, she acts, she makes jewelry.
“I look at people who were lawyers are now baking cakes,” she said. “It’s just been that return: Let’s do what we know how to do. And what we know how to do is make food.”
She walked out into the living room, which has now become a packing area. They have lists of motorcycle guys ready to ferry white boxes across the city. On each box, in red marker, Narmin writes a little message — sometimes just “made with love” — punctuated with a heart.
Samosas, she said, are meant to be social. They are tiny triangles you can hold while you talk to people at parties and get-togethers.
But somehow, they still play a social role during the pandemic. People don’t want to cook, so they order a box of uncooked samosas to fry for lunch or a quick dinner. Because people can’t get together, they also gift boxes of samosas to family and friends.
Surprisingly, Aleya said, even at a socially distant time, the samosas keep bringing people together.
Photos by Sarah Waiswa. Text by Eyder Peralta
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Julia Gunther for NPR
Sept. 18, Middelstum, The Netherlands
Calm And Juggling On A Dairy Farm
The cows rode around the milking carousel, a circular platform lined with 30 individual holding pens that slowly turn clockwise. In each pen, a black-and-white Holstein or brown-and-white Montbéliarde waited to be milked.
In the pit below the carousel, 40-year-old Nienke Pastoor stood at udder-height, attaching the milk-extracting pump to each cow as it passed her.
Pastoor, her husband, Jaap, and Henk, an employee, need just 90 minutes to milk all 165 of the farm’s dairy cows.
Pastoor and her husband co-manage a 336-acre dairy farm. One of her many responsibilities is to help run the daily milking operation. She’s also the mother of four teenage children; she cooks and cleans; and she manages the farm’s books. She regularly gives tours to schoolchildren from the nearby city of Groningen, taking them around the farm and letting them milk the cows by hand.
For a while Pastoor cherished the sudden quiet and freedom that COVID-19 brought to the “Other World”: the name given to the remote farming district in the far north of the Netherlands where the Pastoor family have been dairy farmers for 75 years. “We established a strange new family rhythm during the lockdown,” she said on a blustery blue-skied afternoon.
The only set routines were the morning and afternoon milking of the cows, and the e-lessons of her children: Thomas, 17, Daniel, 15, and twins Emma and Paulien, 13, who like many students in the Netherlands switched to remote learning in March.
“There was less pressure,” she said. “No music lessons or sports games to drive the children to. And because the weather was so nice, life definitely felt a little more relaxed.” The only visitors to the farm during the lockdown, which lasted from March 15 till June 2, were the truck drivers who came by three times a week to pick up 3,079 gallons of milk, and the vet who visited every two weeks.
But the pandemic also added new tasks to Pastoor’s farm routine. She suddenly had to help the children with their schoolwork. “I made sure they were sitting at their laptops when they were supposed to be. I told them, ‘We all have responsibilities in life. I have to do things. And so do you. You make sure the thing you are doing is done on time.’ “
The children didn’t mind the sudden shift to learning at home. They were able to sleep longer in the mornings as they didn’t have to bike to school. The only frustration was the frequent technical glitches — no sound, the teacher’s screen not working.
Pastoor was so busy she couldn’t do the books for a month. Work kept piling up on the long wooden kitchen table where she normally sits.
“In the end, I had to tell [Jaap and the children] to get out of the kitchen so I could have some time for myself.”
“It was difficult being a mother and a farm manager,” she said, reflecting on lockdown life. “Everyone expected me to successfully juggle everything.”
But dealing with all these responsibilities didn’t concern Pastoor. What truly worried her was how she would cope if her husband were to get COVID-19 and succumb to the virus — and she’d be left to manage the farm on her own. “The pandemic really brought that home.”
So Pastoor spent as much time as she could learning how to operate the farm’s tractors, feeders and other heavy machinery — usually her husband’s domain. “I also told him to write everything down on paper,” she said. “Just in case.”
While COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc around the world, life is slowly returning to normal on the Pastoor farm. The children are back at school, the price of milk is stabilizing after dropping dramatically during the lockdown due to a decrease in demand. Last week, Pastoor oversaw the birth of five new calves.
“Nature has a rhythm that dictates life on the farm,” she reflected. Pandemic or not, cows need to be milked.
Photos by Julia Gunther. Text by Nick Schönfeld
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Image provided by Deng Ge
Sept. 19, Wuhan, China
Activist With A Rap Side Hustle
On a mid-September Saturday night in Wuhan, China, Deng Ge, founder of the hip-hop record label Bad Commune, walked into 404 Club. Her label was co-hosting a hip-hop party at the bustling venue, and hundreds of fans gathered to see the show.
The sounds of music mixed with people cheering on the dance floor was deafening. Only a few people in the audience were wearing a mask. It’s hard to imagine that this was the same city that had been at the center of the pandemic just a few months ago.
“It feels like we just woke up from a nightmare,” she said.
Deng, 42, a single mom to a 6-year-old daughter, has been a part of Wuhan’s music scene for decades. In college, she formed a band when punk rock reigned supreme in the city. Then she discovered rap music. Three years ago, she quit her job as an art school professor to found the all-female rap group Bad Girls. “None of us leans on men,” Deng said. “We support each other.”
Since COVID-19 cases in Wuhan have slowed down and the city reopened in April, Deng has been able to focus on her music again. But things weren’t always like this — especially at the beginning of the pandemic.
Deng first realized the coronavirus outbreak was worse than expected around the beginning of the Lunar New Year in January. She saw a post on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform, of someone selling 10,000 masks — specifically for use in Wuhan.
“I felt something was really going wrong with Wuhan at that moment,” Deng recalled. Shortly thereafter, the city announced its lockdown.
Her instinctive reaction was to become a community volunteer, she said. At that time, the outbreak was spreading rapidly. All hospitals were extremely short of medical supplies. Medical workers were desperately calling for help on social media.
Deng said that broke her heart.
She bought the 10,000 masks for 18,000 yuan ($2,650) with her own money and donated them to a medical center. Soon, she organized her own volunteer group with three women to coordinate donations and deliver more supplies to hospitals. Deng called her team the “Angel Squad.”
Deng and the Angel Squad “didn’t take even one day off” during the nearly 80 days of lockdown. And because she didn’t want to worry them, she didn’t give her family too many details about what she was doing. She was in and out of medical equipment factories and local hospitals, potentially exposing herself to the coronavirus. Despite the strict lockdown, the government did not interfere. Deng said that’s because they recognized how flexible and responsive the volunteers were.
These days, however, life almost feels back to normal, she said.
Image provided by Deng Ge
Deng is about to release Purgatory Pink, Bad Girls’ second album. She’s hoping to line up more live concert gigs, which are now allowed in Wuhan.
During our conversation, Deng was sitting in her studio, in a tile-roofed house in a part of Wuhan called Hankou. It’s close to her daughter’s kindergarten. And it has a tiny garden where Deng’s cats like to play around.
She reflected on the months she spent living through Wuhan’s lockdown, which she described as an “unbelievable and strange time.” She even tried not to read any news at the time. “I must stay emotionally stable,” she said. “That is the way I protect myself.”
All over China, her city is famous for its cherry blossoms. As a local, Deng always thought she’d seen enough of the flowers.
But on the first day after Wuhan reopened, even though the blooming period was almost over and the flowers were about to wither away, she took another look.
“It was the first time in my life that I realized how beautiful they are,” she said.
Images provided by Deng Ge. Text by Xueying Chang
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Sept. 19, Gurguda, India
Falling Into A River Won’t Stop This Community Health Worker
On a sunny morning in mid-September, Ranjana Dwivedi sat at a table strewn with medicines — sachets of oral rehydration salts, iron tablets, painkillers. She was checking to make sure none of them had expired. Later, dressed in a bright purple sari — her uniform — she would go door to door in her village distributing some of those medicines. It’s part of her job as a community health worker in the village of Gurguda in central India. (The community health workers are literate but don’t have a medical degree and get regular training by the government and nongovernmental groups on subjects like vaccination, maternal care and nutrition.)
And when a pregnant woman in Gurguda goes into labor in the middle of the night, Dwivedi is probably the first person the family calls. For most people in the village, the 42-year-old is their only link to the public health system.
They know her as “Asha didi.” Asha is an acronym for ASHA, Accredited Social Health Activist, a program run by India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and Dwivedi’s job title. The term asha also means “hope” in many Indian languages. Didi is Hindi for sister, which is an apt name as well. Dwivedi’s job includes advising new mothers about breastfeeding, administering vaccines to babies and sharing information about common illnesses such as malaria and dengue.
This summer, Dwivedi found herself on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to her regular duties, she handed out masks to villagers, instructed them to social distance and told them to call her immediately if they felt sick.
Initially, COVID-19 cases were concentrated in India’s cities, but the virus has been spreading in smaller towns and villages. India is now seeing more new cases every day than any other country, with about 70,000 new infections daily.
For the past few months, Dwivedi has been interacting with dozens of people each day, some of whom might be infected. Even though she wears a mask and uses sanitizer regularly, she’s nervous.
“I go straight into the shower when I get back home,” Dwivedi says.
But she’s used to working in a dangerous environment. Her village is in a hilly, remote part of central India, surrounded by thick forests where wild animals and armed robbers roam. Twice, she’s fallen into a river while trying to cross in a boat to reach her patients.
The physical demands of her job aren’t the only challenges. During her early days as an ASHA worker, when she went on immunization drives, women would run away and hide from her. They feared the vaccines would harm their children.
Something similar happened during the pandemic, too.
“People would say there’s no such thing as corona,” Dwivedi says.
But Dwivedi explained to them how the virus works. With the help of her 21-year-old son, she drew posters featuring COVID-19 do’s and don’ts. Usually mild-mannered and sweet, Dwivedi says she has to sometimes be stern with people — mostly men — who tend to joke about the virus or shrug off her instructions about masks.
“The extra responsibility of maintaining sanitation during the pandemic falls on women,” says Dwivedi. “They are the ones cleaning the groceries or making sure the kids wash their hands when they come from outside.”
Dwivedi has been an ASHA worker for nearly a decade. Women trust her, she says. One even named her daughter after her. The sight of a baby or a smile on a new mother’s face compensates for all the stress of her job, Dwivedi says.
As for monetary compensation from the government, Dwivedi says she receives little. These days her monthly income comes to about $60, which includes an extra $16 for COVID-19 duties. Across India, ASHA workers have gone on strike in recent months, demanding a hike in wages given the health risks they undertake.
Dwivedi expresses solidarity with the protesters, but says she hasn’t taken part in the strikes.
“What if someone needs me here while I’m gone?” she says.
Photos by Rishikesh Dwivedi. Text by Sushmita Pathak
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Sima Diab for NPR
Sept. 20, Cairo
Even In A Pandemic, Love Has Power
On Sept. 20, Dina el-Harazy sat in a makeup chair in a hotel suite steps away from the Egyptian pyramids. She wore an ivory-colored satin robe embroidered with “bride to be” as a makeup artist carefully applied shades of pinks and nudes. Her mother fluttered around, fielding calls as the clock ticked off the few hours remaining before the ceremony.
Harazy had waited months for her wedding to take place. She had to reschedule it three times because of restrictions on gatherings due to the coronavirus. Plus, she contracted the illness on April 1 and stayed in the hospital for two weeks, although her symptoms were mild.
“It was hard on us emotionally,” said Harazy, 26, a banking professional who describes herself as a meticulous planner.
In January, she made plans for a late summer reception on a white sand beach on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. But that went out the window in March as cases mounted and the government banned all large gatherings, throwing thousands of wedding celebrations into limbo.
Harazy and the groom, Adham Bagory, 33, rescheduled to a luxury hotel at the foot of the pyramids near Cairo for Sept. 18, hoping restrictions would be lifted by then. But they had to change the venue of the party once more, switching to a nearby private compound that was not subject to government restrictions.
(The government, meanwhile, implemented new rules at the end of September allowing outdoor-only receptions of up to 300 guests.)
The couple met at a resort wedding two years ago and were engaged six months later. “I was playing hard to get for sure, and he was being very nice,” she said. “I was engaged before. I was the one who was more afraid.” He would say, “I love you,” and she would want to shut things down.
But she overcame her fear of commitment and said yes: “Deep down, I know he’s safe.”
Sima Diab for NPR
The stress of contracting the coronavirus and living under lockdown made her cherish their relationship.
“I think corona and staying at home and being with your brain, it made me aware of my feelings and how I feel and appreciating ones who actually are there for me … and who’s not. If anything, it made love better and stronger.”
And, Harazy said, it made her realize she couldn’t plan everything.
“Let go, and let what will happen just be,” she said. “Let God plan. I got corona, I spent two weeks at the hospital, so I had a lot of time to think things through, and I had to let things go.”
At 5:32 p.m. on a warm but breezy Sunday, a sheikh married Harazy and Bagory in front of family and friends in a private garden as white doves were released.
“Love wins all the time,” the new bride said. “If there is love, you can get through anything.”
Photos and text by Sima Diab
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Sept. 21, Eau Claire, Wis.
A Single Mom, Her Son And ‘Kindness Rocks’
It was Niko’s idea to drop the decorated rocks in the schoolyard. Jessica Barrera, Niko’s mother, said it gave him a sense of connection to the school.
“Since he can’t be there [in person] at least the rocks could be there from him,” Barrera said.
The rocks are a tradition Barrera started when she realized she needed new ways to get outside with her son. The 40-year-old single mother was laid off from her job at an airport shuttle service in Eau Claire, Wis., in March. Niko finished the last few months of fourth grade virtually. Their list of reasons to leave the house was dwindling.
She read about “kindness rocks” online — stones decorated with art or inspiring messages and left conspicuously around a community for strangers to find. It sounded like a fun thing to do with Niko; they could go for walks and leave the rocks around town. Their first one had a simple message: “Be kind.” They left it in a park at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers.
Niko is not a morning person. He typically starts his day with a granola bar and orange juice in a coffee mug (always a coffee mug). When he used to go to school, Barrera would sometimes take him to the Kwik Trip gas station, get herself a coffee and get him a hot chocolate in a to-go cup.
“He’d go sit with the teachers — they had their little coffees and he had his Kwik Trip hot chocolate. They were just sitting there talking, like he’s like a grown-up,” Barrera remembered with a chuckle.
“He’s an old soul in an 11-year-old body.”
Now Niko, who is on the autism spectrum, is one of the millions of kids learning remotely. After breakfast, Barrera helps Niko connect to his classroom on the iPad the school district sent home. When this school year started, the district gave parents the option for virtual learning or a hybrid model with kids in the classroom twice a week. Barrera chose the virtual option because Niko did well with it in the spring, plus Barrera has a rare blood condition that puts her at high risk for serious complications from the coronavirus.
Niko doesn’t love it.
Lauren Justice for NPR
“He was like, ‘This virtual learning is for the birds,'” Barrera said.
Barrera applied for unemployment benefits for the airport shuttle job but was initially denied regular and federal pandemic benefits by the state unemployment agency because of rules that bar regular aid to laid-off workers who also receive federal disability assistance. (The state subsequently granted her pandemic benefits.)
She started working again in June, before she was really comfortable with the idea. After a few months working in the marketing department of a home improvement chain, she found more meaningful work as a job coach for adults with special needs, three days a week.
On Sept. 21, the day of the interview, Barrera was home to help Niko count on his fingers to solve math problems as his school day wound to a close. By 2:30 p.m. class was done, and they walked their kindness rocks up to Niko’s school. They decorated some with an image of the school’s mascot — a panther.
The kids learning in-person were lined up outside, waiting to go home. Barrera saw the school’s longtime counselor and explained the rocks. He liked the idea and offered to arrange a scavenger hunt of the rocks for the other students.
Barrera knows it has been a tough start to fifth grade for Niko. He misses being around the other students. But she tries to reassure him.
“It’s a crappy situation all around,” Barrera said, “but it’s temporary. It’s going to get better.”
Photos by Lauren Justice. Text by Bram Sable-Smith
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Dee Dwyer for NPR
Sept. 22, Laurel, Md.
A Remote Teacher Worries About Her Students — And Herself
When 43-year-old Angel Marie Miles woke up that Tuesday, she peeked into the living room. A young member of her family was asleep on the couch, cuddled next to Dahlia, her cocker spaniel.
“It’s the first time in a long time we’ve known he’s safe and OK,” she said, savoring the moment of peace. Just before the pandemic he moved to another state to try living on his own. This was their first time together in months.
Miles has 15 kids to worry about — the fifth-graders in her class at Stanton Elementary, a public school in Washington, D.C. Although “Miss Miles” is 20 miles away in the Maryland suburbs, every morning she has been entering their homes through a tech setup that includes two laptops, a 32-inch TV monitor and a phone.
Dee Dwyer for NPR
“I feel like a DJ,” she joked, although her laughter faded as she thought about the conditions she regularly witnesses on screen. Some kids are crammed into closets to block out noise. Some frequently disappear. “I’ve had students say, ‘I have to make a bottle for the baby.’ They’re 11 and they’re on a feeding schedule,” Miles said.
Miles tries to exert influence by repeating daily affirmations, like the one that morning: “I am enough.” The motivational speaking is just as much for her as it is for the students, explained Miles, who hasn’t been sure what to do with herself since schools closed. For the first two months, she stayed locked inside her apartment, terrified to take Dahlia for a walk, dreading what would happen if she got sick without any family nearby. “I’m used to living alone, but I got lonely,” she said.
Her fear eventually gave way to recklessness. “Like a dog let off leash” is how Miles describes her subsequent burst of partying and drinking, which lasted until around July 4, when something inside told her to stop. “It feels like God put me in that place and said it was time to pull back,” said Miles. Now she has surrounded herself with “a positive circle” of accomplished Black women — like her, mostly teachers — who care and communicate.
From the windows of her apartment, Miles has a clear view of both a hospital and a high school. The former is busy. The latter sits eerily silent, a reminder of why her work matters. She started her teaching career in a high school but realized she was too late to help many of her students. She switched because what happens around fifth grade, Miles believes, determines what kind of student a kid will be.
During that morning’s reading about westward expansion, several kids fixated on a line in the book about captured slaves. She pounced on the opportunity to dive deeper into African American history. “I can see their brains moving,” she said. There was soon another victory, in the form of a note she received from a grandparent of one of her former students. The girl is now in sixth grade, and just like “Miss Miles always told her,” she has been speaking up in class — even on the computer. “I imagine her using her voice, being heard. That lifted me up,” Miles said.
And then, as always, Dahlia padded over to her, holding a pumpkin-shaped chew toy. It was time for a walk outside before returning home to work on the next day’s lesson plan.
Photos by Dee Dwyer. Text by Vicky Hallett
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Lucia Buricelli for NPR
Sept. 23, Palermo, Italy
She Was Trafficked. Now She Helps Others In The Same Boat
At 4 p.m., Osas Egbon arrived at the Moltivolti cafe, in the heart of Palermo’s historic neighborhood of Ballarò, tired but relieved.
Egbon is the co-founder of a safe house for victims of sex trafficking. She’d spent much of the day sorting out the necessary paperwork to enroll the children of the residents in schools, which were reopening after Italy’s pandemic lockdown. The deadline was here — and one woman had nearly missed it.
Egbon, 46, came to Italy in 2003 from Lagos, Nigeria. Her hope was to earn money to pay for her daughter’s education. The child, 8, stayed in Lagos with Egbon’s mother.
But when she arrived, Egbon said, “the story changed,” and she was forced to work on the streets of Genoa, then Palermo, to repay a debt for her transportation costs running into the thousands of dollars.
Egbon found a way out. Red Cross workers approached her when she was working in a park known as a hub for prostitution.
“They saw me and asked me what is wrong with you, you’re not standing in the street with the others,” Egbon recalled. “I was afraid, I didn’t want to go with them. They continued coming, and one day I said yes.” She was taken to a shelter and later offered a job as a caregiver.
Egbon built a life for herself in Palermo. She is married and has two young children. Her husband works as a caregiver for the elderly. But she did not forget her own tragedy.
In 2015, Egbon and other women who’d been trafficked established Donne di Benin City — a reference to the city in Nigeria where trafficked women often begin their trip to Europe, with Sicily as the first port of entry. The organization’s goal is to help thousands of trafficking victims who arrive in Italy from Nigeria.
As volunteer president, she’s typically on call 24/7, offering support to trafficked women. The traffickers threaten women and their families back home, pressuring them to do sex work on the streets or in connection houses — where men can buy sex, booze and even Nigerian food — to repay their debts.
Four women currently live in her organization’s safe house for trafficked women. It used to run a drop-in center offering support and referrals for legal and health services, but it was shuttered last year for building safety issues. She now meets women and listens to their stories at the Moltivolti cafe.
Donne di Benin City also began running a monthly food bank in 2019, assisting about 60 families, including single mothers who escaped their traffickers and were trying to rebuild their lives. Requests for aid shot through the roof during Italy’s lockdown.
Egbon is frustrated that even women who have freed themselves from debt often see no other way to earn a living than sex work – and that they don’t always realize that, in her opinion, the exploitation they face means they are modern-day slaves.
“They will say, somebody [a trafficker] helps me. I say no somebody [en]slaves you,” she said. “It’s very difficult because of poverty.”
After a cup of coffee, Egbon stepped out into the cobbled, densely populated streets of Ballarò. Migrant communities and working-class locals live side by side in cramped apartments with shutters permanently closed to filter out the burning Sicilian sun — and prying eyes.
Recent events have left Egbon feeling uneasy as she walks the streets of Ballarò, where a series of arrests last year hit the Nigerian criminal groups that had turned the neighborhood into their headquarters.
Egbon’s life is busy. Alongside her work with the association, which she likes to stress remains voluntary — it gets scant funding from private donors, the European Union, local churches and ad-hoc collaborations with the municipality — she often travels to Rome for her job as a cultural mediator for trafficking victims for the women’s anti-violence nongovernmental organization Differenza Donna.
Her older daughter, who grew up with Egbon’s mother in Nigeria is now 20 and about to start university. Egbon is proud she was able to pay for the girl’s schooling.
And to add to it all, Egbon is the subject of a documentary now being filmed.
So she looks for moments of calm amid the storm. “Tomorrow is for my children,” she said.
Photos by Lucia Buricelli. Text by Ylenia Gostoli
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Sept. 27, Wuhan, China
Back To (Almost) Normal Life — And Even Teasing Her Granddaughter
A blurry golden mass engulfed the screen during a video call as my Nainai’s voice chirped up from behind: “It’s a meat mooncake! I don’t think you have them in the U.S. I’ll freeze some for the next time you visit.”
My grandma, Zhou Nai, is more optimistic about our eventual reunion than I am — but for good reason. In Wuhan, everything has mostly returned to pre-pandemic life. For the Mid-Autumn Festival, she’s going to watch a dazzling light show over the Yangtze River with my uncles’ families and millions of other mask-clad Wuhanese locals. The countless mooncakes decorating her kitchen counter, a dessert eaten during this festival, were bought fresh from the neighborhood mart or gifted from various relatives. From this conversation, you’d never have guessed this city was in total lockdown just months ago.
Nainai proudly rotated the mooncake around the camera before setting it down and showing her face again. Not that it’s much easier to see her. She doesn’t understand how cameras work, so each of our calls captures only a third of her face.
Technical barriers like these are the main challenges nowadays for my 80-year-old grandparents. Right before the height of quarantine in Wuhan, when they were isolated from the outside world for months, my 12-year-old cousin, Bean, just managed to teach them how to join WeChat video calls for weekly family check-ins. But they felt left behind as activities they had always done in person, like grocery runs and health checks, migrated online.
“Thankfully, a community helper came each week to ask if we needed anything. Your uncle also dropped off food to us,” she explained.
When the quarantine lifted, they cautiously began venturing outside again — initially just to the apartment courtyard to stretch their legs, then on to bus rides to the grocery store and the clinic. At each stage they’d have their temperature checked before stepping inside.
“Have you gone to East Lake?” I asked, recalling Wuhan’s largest park and one of their favorites.
She sighed. “No, they [now] require reservations through WeChat to limit crowds. We haven’t bothered to figure out how to do that.”
Her son and grandson, Bean, visit often after work and school. Both of Bean’s parents work at a hospital, so they’re extremely careful each time they visit. They change their clothes before entering and spray so much disinfectant that Nainai has to crack open a window. My grandparents used to accompany Bean to school every morning and send him home-cooked meals. Now, they choose their battles wisely every time they go outside.
“Bean’s clothes permanently smell of chlorine now,” Nainai joked. “We’ve adopted many new hygiene habits, like washing our hands when we come home, steaming our bowls before eating and leaving chopsticks in the rice cooker to kill germs.”
Sounds of chopping and oil sizzling punctuate the background of our calls. My grandpa brings heaping dishes fresh from the wok — pan-fried noodles, fish and bok choy glazed in soy sauce, and a side of fermented tofu as a palate cleanser — as I watch enviously from the other side of the screen. He likes to chase down his meal with a shot of baijiu, a potent white rice liquor, while Nainai scolds him playfully. At night, they play a few rounds of the popular Chinese card game Dou Dizhu (“Fight the Landlord”) before going to bed by 10 p.m.
Nainai doesn’t like to talk much about her fears. I asked if she knew of any friends who got COVID-19, but she quickly brushed me off.
“When you’re my age, people die left and right! You find out when you realize they haven’t called in a while, and then you move on with your day.”
She waved her hand and looked away before smiling back at me. “I just hope I’ll live to see my grandkids get married. Anyways, are you seeing anyone?”
“During a pandemic, Nainai?” I scoffed.
We shared a sweet moment of laughter from opposite sides of the world. Despite this unfortunate year, I’m glad she still doesn’t hesitate to tease her granddaughter. Her bright spirit pushes the family forward.
Photos and text by Laura Gao
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Nadia Bseiso for NPR
Sept. 27, Amman, Jordan
Expecting A Baby In Isolation
Sawsan al-Ramemi, 32, is due to have a baby girl in November. But unlike her previous two pregnancies, which she recalls as happy events, this one fills the Jordanian mother with worry.
She got pregnant in March just as the pandemic hit Jordan. Ramemi said she wasn’t concerned at first because of the low number of cases in the country, which in March imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. But in September, infections climbed dramatically to a high of almost 2,000 a day in a population of about 10 million.
“I’ve started being afraid as I’m visiting the hospital for pregnancy follow-up,” said the former electrical engineer. “I take precautions like wearing gloves and a mask, but I am still afraid when I’m in a taxi going to the hospital.”
And she has a long list of other concerns. Her husband, also an engineer, is working in the United States and is unable to travel home for the delivery. With such high coronavirus rates in the U.S., she worries about her husband contracting it there.
While her own extended family would normally help her through the pregnancy, because of social distancing measures she has been left without that help.
“My family supports me,” she said. “But now that support is mostly through phone calls.”
Ramemi, dressed in a polka-dot top and leggings with her hair covered with a dusty rose-pink hijab, adjusted the Velcro on the plastic sandals of her 18-month-old son, Zain, as she talked. She thinks about what she will do when the baby is born. She has resolved to keep the infant isolated – a difficult prospect in the effusive Arab culture.
“Usually people come to see the baby and they bring gifts,” she said. “Suppose they are infected? How can I let them kiss her?”
Ramemi said she is lucky to have a ground-floor apartment with a garden and pavement for Zain and her 5-year-old son, Omer, to run around in. These days, because of the pandemic, they rarely venture beyond the garden with its fig and olive trees and high stone walls.
“Now I don’t feel comfortable taking my children to visit public parks and gardens. They are young and I am afraid if they get the virus, they might transmit it to my family,” she said. When she does see relatives, it’s for very brief visits. She worries in particular about her elderly mother, who has cancer. “Because of that I really limit my movement outside the house.”
Ramemi said neither her physician nor the clinic she goes to provided information about the effects of COVID-19 on pregnancy, so she scoured the internet. While the Centers for Disease Control says pregnant women might be at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, she said the studies she has read have reassured her.
“2020 is full of surprises,” she said, laughing. “I wish that I hadn’t gotten pregnant during these times.”
Still, she said, she thanks God.
Photos by Nadia Bseiso. Text by Shereen Nanish and Jane Arraf
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Sept. 28, Bataan, Philippines
Wishing That More Women Were In Charge
Congresswoman Geraldine Roman arrived at a lush backyard garden with her mask on and a flowered paper parasol tipped against her shoulder, shielding her from the blazing midday sun. Green tomatoes clung to their stalks, a raised bed was crowded with broad-leaved pechay, a type of cabbage, and bitter gourds wrapped in brown paper cones to protect against insects hung from vines.
Geraldine Roman, 53, is the first openly transgender person to be elected into the Philippine Congress, a seat she has held since 2016. At the halls of the House of Representatives, Roman has pushed for legislation to support the country’s LGBTQ+ community, among other initiatives. But it’s the people of Bataan, this rural district 90 miles from the capital, Manila, who voted her in.
Roman is now trying to help her constituents cope with the hunger and uncertainty that have come in the wake of the pandemic. Part of that effort is the gardening program, called Oh My Gulay, a pun using the Filipino word for “vegetable.” So far, Roman says, OMG has distributed more than 1,000 gardening kits to her constituents, who have planted the seeds in whatever outdoor space they have. Some have gardens as big as 500 square feet; others are growing vegetables in rows of small pots.
The beneficiaries of OMG at the garden that day, all of them women, most of them grandmotherly, greeted Roman with giddy banter. They made bawdy jokes about the variously sized, nearly ripe eggplants and told Roman it was a shame she had a mask on. “We can’t see how beautiful you are!” one of the women said.
With the charm of a natural politician, Roman bantered back, “Are you wearing lipstick under your mask? I put on lipstick!” And she peeled back her mask, delighting the women with a quick peek.
“In the middle of the pandemic, you feel that nothing is in your control,” Roman said. The Philippines’ strict national lockdown brought the economy to a near halt, and thousands of her constituents — day laborers and small-business owners — lost their livelihoods and quickly ran out of money to buy food. COVID-19 — which has sickened at least 300,000 people in the Philippines, killed more than 5,000 and continues to spread — is maintaining a baseline of high-key stress among Filipinos.
Hannah Reyes Morales for NPR
The garden, Roman said, has helped the women “regain a sense of control by planting vegetables and seeing the fruits of their labor.” Some who had never grown vegetables before pulled in harvests with upward of 40 pounds of produce, enough to eat and take the surplus to market.
In the Philippines, Roman said, “the concept of public service includes direct service.” Her constituents, struggling under the pressures of the pandemic, petition her for help. Roman’s phone buzzes with requests on Facebook Messenger or Viber well into the night, and each day, a couple of dozen people show up at the Roman family’s ancestral home, which doubles as her office. They wait among life-size statues of Catholic saints and reception desks fitted with plastic barriers to protect her staff from infection.
Their requests paint a picture of how the pandemic is rippling through the lives of Filipinos. Roman has donated money for kidney dialysis and chemotherapy. With public hospitals restricted to treating COVID-19 patients, everyone else has to get treatment at private hospitals, which many can’t afford. Using government funds allocated to her office, she bought laptops for students who had no way of attending online classes. And she petitioned the Department of Foreign Affairs to bring home 80 Filipino migrant workers, originally from Bataan, who lost their jobs and were stranded in countries as far-flung as Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. When government funds for COVID-19 aid were released to the district, she handed out thousand-peso ($20) bills to grateful recipients.
About 80 members of Congress have contracted COVID-19, and two have died, so the current debates over the 2021 budget are mostly conducted over Zoom. The budget will shape how Philippine society recovers, and Roman hopes that her fellow lawmakers will look at the country’s failures and the institutional weakness the pandemic revealed — no established pandemic protocols, crumbling health facilities, a lack of a fund for workers and business owners who have lost their incomes, insufficient tech infrastructure to move classes online, an underdeveloped agricultural industry that threatened the national food supply when borders closed — and direct the money to build something better.
“If you do not learn from the lessons the pandemic is teaching us, you’re just plain stupid. Or willfully ignorant,” Roman said.
The times have been hard for everyone, but Roman has seen the women of her district rise to the challenges with more resolve than the men. “Women are naturally driven; they just fight,” she said. “Women, they lose their jobs, they just find ways to earn money and provide food for their families.”
It’s a dynamic she’d like to see play out on the national stage. “I wish this country was run by more women,” Roman said.
Photos by Hannah Reyes Morales. Text by Aurora Almendral
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Sept. 30, Hong Kong
Facing Cancer Far From Home — And Looking For Silver Linings
It was her father’s birthday, and K. Hamill missed him dearly. She hadn’t seen him since the beginning of the year – he lives in Australia – and playing his guitar while sitting on the floor of her living room made Hamill feel closer to him. An accomplished viola, piano and drum player, she’s still learning to play the guitar and uses it to write songs.
But her voice isn’t what it used to be. She had her thyroid removed less than two weeks ago after doctors unexpectedly discovered a cancerous tumor, and her doctor said she wouldn’t be recovered enough to sing properly for another six months.
Hamill, who asked that her full name not be used because she has not shared her diagnosis with some family members and colleagues, has been living and working in Hong Kong with her husband and two children for almost two years. Luckily, the city of 7.5 million has largely kept the virus in check, with only 105 related deaths since its first case in January. But the pandemic has prevented her, like thousands of Australians, from being able to go home and see her loved ones.
In an effort to control the spread of COVID-19, Australia is enforcing strict travel restrictions: Citizens are forbidden from leaving the country, and only a limited number of people are allowed to enter; Sydney is accepting 350 international arrivals per day, while Melbourne, where Hamill is from, is accepting none at all.
Hamill, who is 42, said she desperately tried to return to Australia for the surgery. “I debated long and hard” about doing it in Hong Kong, she said. The doctors she encountered were competent but didn’t take the time to fully explain her diagnosis and answer her questions. “I just want to be home where I know the system,” she said.
Hamill also missed key moments in her family’s lives because of Australia’s travel restrictions.
She was unable to go home for the funeral of her aunt, who died from breast cancer two months ago.
“The thing I hate about COVID the most is that you can’t get home to see people that you love when they really need you, like my auntie,” she said. She was close to her aunt and often sent her pictures of “silly things” she encountered, like dogs being pushed in prams. Though Hamill knew her aunt was ill, it wasn’t until a video call that she realized the severity of her disease.
“When we next FaceTimed, she had no hair,” Hamill recounted. “Her face was all bloated from the steroids, she was really weak, and because of COVID, no one could visit her.”
And she wasn’t there to photograph her nephew’s birth as planned a month ago. “[COVID] means I’ve missed celebrating the joy in life, like the birth of my nephew,” she said.
“It also means feeling very alone at one of the loneliest times in your life, facing your own mortality at a cancer diagnosis,” she added.
Still, she remains positive. “In other ways COVID has been good,” she said. Her company is now comfortable with employees working from home, for example — and her introverted daughter prefers online classes. “I’m always looking for silver linings.”
Photos and text by Laurel Chor
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Meghan Dhaliwal for NPR
Oct. 1, Mexico City
Soul-Searching Artist Holds ‘Bartender Hours’
Eva Vale is a visual artist who expresses herself on cardboard, wood, acrylic, cement — even napkins. “Textures are very important because they influence design,” says Vale, who lives and works in the same space in the western part of Mexico City.
“I’m happy being in my four walls,” she said, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, “everything else outside was upended.” Plans to show her work in public spaces, she said, suddenly shattered.
The 36-year-old artist said she felt thrown into a black hole, forcing her to soul-search.
“The pandemic has challenged me to reflect on what I want to create and how I want to express myself,” she said.
Her contemporary art is largely representational — it’s filled with bright colors and an urban spirit, but often she takes on her Mexican roots. In 2019, she painted “The Nature of the Divine,” a huge mural celebrating Mayan culture in the port city of Campeche. Vale’s work has been showcased nationally and internationally at various galleries and museums. Other works have been shown at expositions in Milan, Atlanta and Taipei.
Vale has a vibrant personality and an easy laugh. “I love being awake,” she says.
During the coronavirus quarantine, she decided to set up something she calls “bartender hours” on Instagram. Followers can book an hour with the artist. She listens to total strangers’ unload “their pandemic struggles,” she says. It’s a one-hour, one-time hit. She doesn’t offer solutions, just an ear. She’s not a psychologist, she said, but her easygoing personality helps people open up to her.
“Most of the callers are fragile and feel a deep sense of loss,” she said. They’re home ruminating on decisions made long before the pandemic hit about such things as relationships and professional journeys.
Though the stories are different, there are constants, she said: “anxiety, vulnerability and a deep sense of loss.”
She didn’t anticipate how this exercise would impact her. Often Vale hears herself in the callers — for instance, a young woman who insisted on portraying herself as a victim, “but she’s not a victim, she’s just gotten that in her head.” Vale said the woman’s novela sounded familiar: “I sometimes allow myself to think that I’m a victim.” Then she wonders, why does she think that?
Bartender hours will shape her art, she said, because these stories have become a lifeline for her “and a coping mechanism in this pandemic.” She sees them as “unforeseen beautiful gifts.”
She said this pandemic has taught her to dial back toxicity in her life, to love herself more.
Pre-pandemic, she found it hard “to say no.” She said she was eager to “please” and would juggle multiple projects while planning for the next ones.
Vale said predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but she and her wife, Lucila Garcia Lourdes, who is also Vale’s manager, feel positive about a post-COVID world. They are currently involved in the baby steps of planning an art expo that will show in D.F. and in the central city of San Miguel de Allende. Vale is excited about the possibilities of showing her art again and engaging with the world — even if it has to be done virtually.
Photos by Meghan Dhaliwal. Text by Marisa Peñaloza
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Yuri Hasegawa for NPR
Oct. 5, Las Vegas, Nevada
A Writer Strikes Back With Poetry — And Hopeless Dancing
Here’s how the writer Sally Wen Mao has been spending the pandemic.
She’s teaching a virtual poetry workshop. Working on her new book. Twice a week she goes to the swimming pool at her Las Vegas apartment building. And she likes to “dance hopelessly,” she said — most recently to Spanish versions of songs from the ’90s anime TV show Sailor Moon.
“It’s embarrassing,” she said. “But I’m obsessed.”
Mao, 33, author of the critically acclaimed poetry collections Oculus: Poems and Mad Honey Symposium, was born in Wuhan, China, and moved to the U.S. when she was 5. She said she’s been “plugged into” the pandemic since January, watching for news out of Wuhan where family members still live.
“I’ve had this year to think about the pandemic and see the ways in which it revitalizes this narrative of Chinese people being agents of disease,” she said in a Zoom call from Vegas (where she moved in March in advance of a literary fellowship at Black Mountain Institute). A lime-green aurora swirled above her head in her virtual background.
Writing, she said, has been a way for her to make sense of COVID-19 and “transmute all those feelings into something that other people can connect to.”
In March, she wrote the poem “Wet Market,” published in Literary Hub. In the early days of the pandemic, these markets were blamed as the source of COVID-19. “It got me thinking about the ways we frame certain places when they are racialized. People wouldn’t be blaming farmers markets in Berkeley,” she said.
She recalls visiting a wet market in Wuhan at age 12 on her first trip back to China since she and her family left. “A lot of them were selling fruits and vegetables,” said Mao. In her poem she wrote:
“Wet markets are diverse — they’re like any other market,” she says. “Some markets sell certain types of meat, but not all of them.”
She’s also found great comfort in reading — mostly women authors: Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan, Luster by Raven Leilani and a lot of Toni Morrison. “Other people’s art is a source of strength,” said Mao.
While Mao said she’s been lucky during the pandemic — she has a place to live, a book to write — she’s been struck by “how difficult it is to find intimacy.”
“I might see myself as accomplished in some ways, but if I’m not in a romantic relationship, then that’s seen as a failure [by society],” she said.
In many cultures, women are more defined by their roles as wives, mothers and caregivers than themselves, she explained. It’s a theme she’s been pushing back against in the book she’s now writing, a collection of fictional stories about the nine-tailed fox, a ubiquitous female spirit in Chinese folklore.
Yuri Hasegawa for NPR
“Young female ghosts are the most tragic figures in Chinese culture,” she said. “They don’t have children to pray for them or give them offerings. So they are cut off from the world.”
“But the only thing that’s tragic about them is that they’re unmarried,” she added.
Mao admits that she’s been struggling with loneliness and isolation. But lately she’s been more perturbed by current events. They’ve filled her with a sense of hopelessness — an absence of “a sense of future.”
So she’s been turning over this line of poetry in her head, from “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton:
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Photos by Yuri Hasegawa. Text by Malaka Gharib
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Visuals edited by Ben de la Cruz, Maxwell Posner, Nicole Werbeck and Xueying Chang. Design and development by Jess Eng and Alyson Hurt. Text edited by Marc Silver and Malaka Gharib. Copy editing by Preeti Aroon, Patricia Cole, Arielle Retting, Lee Smith and Pam Webster. Special thanks to global health supervising editor Vikki Valentine; senior associate general counsel Ashley Messenger; digital trainer Holly J. Morris; chief international editor Didrik Schanche; and Caroline Drees, senior director for field safety and security at NPR.
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