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COVID-19 did not discriminate, but the response does

May 19,2020 - Last updated at May 19,2020

Landing in Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport on a sunny Tuesday morning, I rushed out excited to take a cab to my parents’ home. I had just traveled from London, planning a short trip back to visit my mother. As a public health student and researcher at the University of Cambridge, I had spent the past few months trying to understand the coronavirus pandemic and its dangers before it even broke out across the world. Those models, with their mathematical complexity and analytical rigor, can provide you with an abundance of information. They give you a scientific blueprint to chart spread, fatality rate, and infectiousness. Shortly after landing in Amman, however, I realised that no epidemiological model prepared me to meet my mother during a global pandemic, to meet a warrior who is battling cancer with all of their energy, and for whom the current situation hits particularly hard. 

My mother, a renowned scientist, and a mother of four, entered her 15th month of the cancer battle when the first case of coronavirus was identified in Jordan. With persistent dreams of returning to her chemistry lab to mentor students and to continue contributing to the research, she had never lost faith in beating her cancer. Growing up, I rarely saw fear or worry in my mother’s eyes. But worrying takes a different shape for a cancer patient when the new enemy is hidden, a virus that cannot be seen. As the coronavirus pandemic started breaking out across the world, my mother’s battle became two-fold. She is no longer merely fighting the known enemy, an illness that has put her life and dreams on hold, but she is now also running away from an invisible foe, one that her compromised immune system may not be able to stave off. 

As I spent more time with my mother, I realised her battle took a different turn with the pandemic. In a fight that is already so psychological, beyond the obvious physical toll, everything has become so much harder: constant fear of a virus invading her weak immune system paired with a lockdown that is confining for anyone in the best of circumstances. At the time a lock-down became a reality, my mother had already completed over thirty sessions of rigorous chemotherapy and two sessions of radiotherapy. Her body handled it all, in the hope of being ready for a surgery by May of this year. But a pandemic had a different say in her treatment trajectory. My mother’s hope of a surgery – a way out of this merciless cancer – disappeared in thin air for the foreseen future.

My mother used to go for a daily walk around the University of Jordan, her workplace, to distract herself from the pain of cancer and pass time. She also used May of this year as a benchmark for hope, a month where she finally gets the surgery and fights off cancer for good. In the past two months, everything has changed. She had been locked at home with her thoughts and the bleak reminder of a surgery indefinitely postponed. With the lockdown, she struggles to get to her weekly chemotherapy sessions. She is constantly worried about any foreign object entering our home, whether it is a grocery bag or remains on my slippers after a walk in the backyard, potentially carrying viral particles. She does not have the privilege of a functioning immune system, a privilege many of us take for granted these days. She can no longer take her mind off the pain and there is no longer a surgery set date to provide some light at the end of the tunnel.

My mother is just one of millions of people who are disproportionally suffering from the hidden effects of this pandemic. Besides from the physical threat of Coronavirus to immunocompromised people, there is also a harsh psychological and emotional toll. Those living with cancer or chronic illnesses around the world are terrified of an enemy they cannot see, a microscopic virus that can easily beat their weak immune system. With strict lockdowns in many countries, their ability to access healthcare or simply distract themselves from their daily pain is limited. Studying public health provided me with tools to understand the dimensions of this pandemic, but it failed to warn me of the human aspect: of how the same policies that fight the spread of Coronavirus continue to disadvantage those with chronic illnesses. 

The media continues to quantify the direct effects of the coronavirus in mere numbers every day. But beyond the number of daily cases and deaths around the world, this pandemic is changing life for many people, especially those with chronic illnesses, regardless of whether they contract the virus or not. 

Many of us now understand that we are bound to live with this unwelcomed guest, the virus. As life eases down, we need to continue reminding ourselves that this pandemic brings about huge disparities with its response. If we are to co-exist with the coronavirus, and it seems that this will be our reality globally over the next months, we need an inclusive approach. One that leaves no one behind. There is a strong urge to normalize conversations about things that are scary to many of us, including the new care approach for those with serious chronic illnesses and their experiences living in the age of a pandemic. More importantly, there is a strong urge to acknowledge our privilege if we do not suffer from chronic illnesses, and to use that privilege in any capacity possible to support our community and those most at-risk from such lifestyle changes. If we stand together, we will live no one behind in our new reality. 


Yazan Ahmad Al-Ajlouni is a Public Health Researcher at The University of Cambridge in the UK and at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. He has over a dozen peer-reviewed publications in the field of public health, in addition to co-authoring four book chapters focusing on Neighborhood and Geo-Spatial Health. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times


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