Together through Corona – Abidjan

As a global community and a proponent of nations working together, Together for Development will be sharing pieces, videos, art, media from our prior participants and coordinators around the world to learn about the quarantine situations in each country. Our hope is share that although confined, we’re not alone. We can support each other, give each other ideas, or simply become an outlet of expression. 

Today we hear from our current Co-Lead Coordinator Olga Gormalova

25 March 2020

I am in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. I arrived here on 11th March 2020 – to start my new job and to make this my home. I came in from Lisbon, where I spent a bit more than a week before the virus was declared a global pandemic. I was lucky to spend those days with my father, now we are miles apart and on a complete lockdown –a family split into 3 – In Latvia, in Ghana (my sister) and I am here in Ivory Coast. It’s nothing new for us – but stripped of our privilege of just being able to buy a ticket and fly – seems quite strange, suddenly the gap between us seems so much wider. We try to fill in this distance with daily WhatsApp calls and messages: Are you okay? What are you doing? This is also a privilege some may not have – having access to regular means of communication.

Today was also a day when I can officially un-quarantine myself – 14 days since Lisbon and no symptoms.

Things in Abidjan were going on as normal until the day the first case was found on the 12th of March. Within 2 weeks we are under multiple movement restrictions, borders closed, flights cancelled, roads with army/police patrols, full on sensitisation campaign of how to stay safe, an indefinite curfew between 9pm and 5am and tomorrow they will also lock down Abidjan from the rest of the country – no unauthorised travel upcountry.

I wake up daily feeling grateful for my safety net, I can see just around the corner from my house that the impact of these measures on more vulnerable people is going to be much worse than the potential impact of the virus itself.

I tried to make a routine for myself, but being constantly distracted by a massive influx of questions into my head – they range from figuring out how to say simple things in French, to whether our search for our own individualistic empowerment is our biggest menace, to wondering how and why do we not have a preparedness plan for such things when multiple institutions within UN system spends billions on all sort of preparedness plans. This is not the first time we are getting a deadly virus, so why are we taken by surprise? Are the leaders saying the truth? Can we trust them?

I know that the African continent is already under a lot of stress, I worked in Liberia in the refugee camp and I know that once virus touches most vulnerable populations it turns into a disaster. And whilst we know that there is a growing middle class on this continent who zooms around in big cars and into supermarkets (even wearing masks in their air-conditioned cars), the reality for a big majority here is not just about surviving the virus now, but generally surviving anything at all. Whilst it seems that the privileged imported the disease by returning from their vacations, job trips etc – it is the most vulnerable who will be disproportionately affected.
I have never lived through such times, my parents haven’t lived through this either. My grandparents lived through World War II, it is now more than often I remember my grandmother’s stories of sitting in bunkers and going out in the cold to search for potatoes that might have been forgotten on the farmers fields. I don’t have to sit in a bunker or search for abandoned food, but they had hope then, and I also have hope that we will be able to tell these stories to our children at least one day.

For some reason on my way back from Lisbon I picked up this book by Viktor E. Frankl (who spent 3 years in Auschwitz and other concentration camps) “Man’s Search For Meaning” and this is the excerpt I have been re-reading again and again these days:

“What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way.
Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.For us, as prisoners, these thoughts were not speculations far removed from reality. They were the only thoughts that could be of help to us. They kept us from despair, even when there seemed to be no chance of coming out of it alive. Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn out backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, “Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!”(How much suffering there is to get through!) Rilke spoke of ‘getting through suffering’ as others would talk of ‘getting through work.’ There was plenty of suffering for us to get through. Therefore, it was necessary to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that. Shamefacedly some confessed occasionally that they had wept, like the comrade who answered my question of how he had gotten over his edema, by confessing, ‘I have wept it out of my system.’”