Eyes wide with apprehension, she extends the tray of eggs gingerly towards me when I open the door, sliding them imperceptibly closer, while keeping her body as far as possible. I grasp the tray by the edge closest to me, careful not to touch her hands. As she starts to slowly slide her hands away, I realize the ancient tray is not strong enough to hold the weight of 30 eggs if I grasp it too close to one edge. I have to move my hands closer to hers to support the weight. “Careful! Don’t touch her!” goes through my mind as I gradually slide my hands forward and she slides her hands back. The delicate dance of the hands complete, I stand bearing the tray of eggs safely, glad that our hands never met. A small victory. “Thank you”, I murmur, as I catch her eyes briefly, hers still wide with apprehension. “I’ll M-pesa you the funds”. “Sure”, she replies as she begins backing away towards her car to make her escape. (M-pesa is the local phone banking system here in Kenya). As I close the door and set the eggs on the counter, I feel like a leper. This is such a weird feeling…I am not even sick!
This is only one of the myriad psychological effects of the current Covid19 crisis affecting the world right now, cabin fever, isolation, depression, boredom, panic, insomnia, being only a few. Chip had just returned from a nearly 3-week trip to Uganda, then the Democratic Republic of Congo. A lot sure can happen in 3 weeks! When he left Kenya, the corona virus was something that was happening to China, something people were keeping an eye on. Within 3 weeks panic had set in world-wide and Chip had considerable difficulty getting home, as Kenya had closed her borders to everyone except Kenyan citizens and legal residents (which is what we are). First Chip had to deal with flight cancelations, but then in Uganda, on his way back home, they insisted he had to either go back to Congo (no good, he had had only a single entry visa) or to the U.S. (What? Where? Kenya is home right now! He didn’t have a ticket to the U.S. nor the funds for it!). Well those who know my husband, know he can be quite persuasive. He kept smiling and persisting and waiting, finally being rewarded with clearance to return home…to new challenges.
While Chip was away, the Kenyan government had put out directives limiting people from meeting in groups, banning some forms of public transport, advising people to work from home as much as possible, strict hand washing/sanitizing regimens and social distancing – the same stuff people the world over have been facing in varying degrees. In addition, anyone returning from international travel was expected to self-quarantine for 14 days. Naturally, this effectively quarantined me as well, as I would have constant contact with him. It would render his own quarantine regimen useless if I went out.
Two weeks with hubby after he’s been away nearly three, and time to do stuff I normally don’t have time to do? Piece of cake. I’ve got this! How naïve. I had no idea the other fall out we would face with this corona virus pandemic and how it creates not only physical social distance but psychological. It changes how people see each other.
The first was an email I received from a dear friend… “Hope you both get better”, she says. Wait! We’re not sick! We have voluntarily quarantined ourselves as socially responsible adults for these 2 weeks just in case we were exposed – to protect others – not because we have the virus or are sick. Why is it people insist on putting us in the sick category in their minds? And of course, being put in that sick category, automatically makes you the bad guy, the one with ‘the virus which will kill me’, rendering you to almost enemy status. I feel like I need to wear a sign saying “Hey guys, we’re not sick! We’re not out to kill you!”
The second incident was the egg tray one described above. I have to give this friend credit. She was willing to bring the eggs to our home. Many would not even do that. Even phone calls from friends have stopped. What? Does this almighty virus even pass through the phone networks? What has happened to us all? We have neighbours who are also healthy but self-quarantined due to travel, who suffered worse than us. We may feel shunned, but they were actively persecuted by their near neighbours. Brothers, sisters, this ought not to be!
How is it that believers in the Christ who conquered death and who was “moved with compassion” for people, can’t show a little compassion for the quarantined and to at least continue to see them for who they are – normal, ordinary human beings who had decided to do the right and responsible thing…for the sakes of these same people who now shun them? I am curious as to how our social interactions will be after the quarantine. Will people still look at us askance, wondering if the 14 days were sufficient to make it safe to interact with us…even within the 6-foot designated safe social distance?
What will I do when my 14-day quarantine is over? I plan to go grocery shopping! And I plan to take 2 friends with me who have no other transport to our little town for their shopping. It will feel so good to be with other people again (even if only a small group of 3) and to do something so mundane as grocery shopping. I never particularly enjoyed grocery shopping before…until now. Our local church has initiated an emergency food program for families in the area desperately struggling because they cannot work, and they have no other source of income. People can donate funds to a local shop and the owner will account for food bought for these families. It occurred to me the other day that healthy produce for these same people is in short supply. We, at Ukarimu House, are expanding our garden to grow more fruits and vegetables so that we can have plenty to share with neighbours and to send to the shop for the needy families. I am excited about the initiative. It is a small contribution, but could have a positive impact on someone’s life, who might otherwise be despairing – someone who perhaps feels a bit like a leper.
I pray we will not let this pandemic kill community and our compassion for one another. Let’s instead see how we may continue to intentionally build community, even in the new restrictive environment. We are blessed in this age with wonderful technology that can help us with this. Though physical isolation may be necessary, we have no excuse for emotionally isolating anyone or making them feel like a leper. Let us reach out to our neighbours and friends in this difficult time and intentionally build community – for all our sakes.