When you talk to my dad about 9/11, he has a hard time relating to the raw emotion that most of us experienced on that day. That’s because when you ask him, “where were you when you heard about the attack on the twin towers?”, he says, “Haiti.” In fact, he was in a remote area of Haiti and was told by a Haitian national that “your country was attacked today.” But there was no television, no watching people fall out of buildings from the 40thfloor, no live plane crashes. So, while he is able to relate to the sorrow the day brought, it’s not really the same.
Many of us Africa missionaries, I think, have felt this way about Coronavirus. No matter how many news updates I read or numbers I see ticking across the screen, we have been, up to this point, quite removed from the impact of it all. Africa, until very recently, had been quite spared from the pandemic and we’ve been feeling as though Mango, Togo was the safest place in the world.
Our hospital is no stranger to epidemics and the fear they cause. As the site of Togo’s first ever Viral Hemorrhagic Fever outbreak, we have spent many hours in PPE with hands cracking from chlorine. So, it’s been quite surreal for the last 2 months or so, as we’ve watched Americans experience things that, in many ways, are norms for us here: a lack of finding food items, lack of personnel and equipment, distance from friends and relatives, and even medical workers doing jobs they weren’t trained for. In no way did this bring any feelings of “it’s about time!” or “what’s the big deal?!” In many ways, it made it easy to empathize with all the emotions that our friends and families were and are going through. But it was also all through a looking-glass, as we were still unaffected by the chaos going around the world. In fact, if internet hadn’t improved so much in the last few years, we would likely still be largely unaware of the COVID pandemic ravaging the world. (I still have Togolese friends here that don’t know that World War II happened or that any wars are taking place right now!)
Form March 7th— March 18, Togo only had 1 imported case of COVID—a Togolese national returning from Belgium and France. We held our breath to see if she had been isolated quickly enough. Slowing more cases came, imported cases mostly from travelers returning to Togo from abroad. More than half our medical team had plans and tickets to go to a medical conference in Greece that circles around every 2 years. It was a much-anticipated time where we would get both training, reunion time with friends serving around the world, and much needed vacation time as well. But as the virus continued to spread around the world, our hopes of travel faded away. Even after the conference was cancelled, I adjusted my ticket to fly direct from Togo to the U.S for a 3-month furlough that had been planned prior to COVID.
But finally, on March 28ththere was case in Togo that couldn’t be traced back to a known contact with the disease. In the world of epidemiology, this is the sign of an outbreak that is now un-controlled. Not only was this new case a marker of things to come, the case was a woman that was from right here in Mango. Suddenly, our corner of the world wasn’t so immune anymore. As we are someone used to epidemics here, I still thought I wouldn’t be affected the way I had seen on news and social media. I would watch the U.S make more and more restrictions to keep the virus from spreading and try and encourage stateside friends that the quarantines were truly necessary. I made the hard decision to postpone by furlough time for a month since Togo had stopped all incoming flights which meant no volunteers could come to cover my absence. Meanwhile, I still felt immune to the stress and fear of it all.
In the week before our case in Mango, though, my great-aunt passed away. A few days after, my grandmother passed away. She was my last living grandparent and there was no sweeter soul on this earth. I had spent time with her on my last furlough and asked her to stay alive for 2 more years so I could see her again. She thought about it for a second and said, “2 years?! Maybe you can just write me a letter.” Both woman dearly loved the Lord and were ready to see Him face to face. I couldn’t admire either woman more. I knew I would likely not see my grandmother again, but suddenly she was gone and my solace was that I would be home in time to at least be at the funeral. Postponing my furlough time was necessary for many reasons, but as the days went on, I now could feel the stress and frustration this virus was causing in my own heart:
missed family during a time of need,
when will I finally be able to leave Togo?
what will cases do in Togo?
where will our supplies come from?
how will our cancer kids get to the hospital with border and road closures?
I finally wrote an e-mail to my roommate here. Why couldn’t we just talk? It was almost as if saying things out loud would both make them real and unleash a never-ending list of complaints! I couldn’t really put a word to what I was feeling—anger? Frustration? Fear?
Disappointment. I was feeling disappointment and grief. There are two types of grief at play. One is over things you had but are now gone, like the loss of loved ones. This is probably the most standard/familiar form of grief. It feels as though something has been taken, or stolen, from us. The loss is an experience we had that we can’t have anymore, and we miss it. The other type of grief is the loss of things that will never be, a hope deferred. You can’t miss the experience but you never had it. Instead, you’ve missed out on the experience. There are no memories to rest on or be grateful for time you had, because it never happened. Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick”, which is what I think many of us are feeling.
There is a beautiful article that came out in TIME this last week. “Christianity offers no answers about the Coronavirus. It’s not Supposed to.” It’s a beautifully written article about lament and the season we are in as Christ-followers. It explains, better than I could, how the Bible rarely gives an answer to “why” for our suffering, but instead offers the “how”. Our answers are not in how to distract ourselves by finding new series on Netflix or looking for the end of the internet. Instead we are meant to stare straight into the eyes of lost-expectations and disappointments and lament before a Savior who both directed and demonstrated the practice in his own time here on Earth.
I am clearly not in control. I don’t know when I will get to go home. If I’m able to fly out of Togo, it is also risking not being able to return to Togo for an unforeseeable time given travel bans. I know I will never see my grandma again on this Earth, but I know we will be together again before the Lord one day. I don’t know when this outbreak will end, but I know in Togo, it is only just beginning.
So, redeem the time, with what time there is. Redeem it for lamenting or redeem it for joy, redeem it for reconciliation or redeem it for solitude. Redeem it for spreading the gospel or redeem it for learning the gospel. The Lord will redeem this Earth one day and all the illness in it, of that I am sure.
In the meantime, please go wash your hands, and stop touching your face. :-)