I could have been ten years old when our neighbours went to the village to celebrate the festive season. They had a big family but among them was a girl, Rhoda. She was of the same age as me and we were friends; playing hide and seek, tap game and skipping together. To our shock and horror, Rhoda died of a snake bite a week later. Our parents had found it terribly difficult to explain to us what dying meant. They chose to spare us the agony of the funeral. I missed Rhoda and her face is forever etched in my mind.
Fast-forward to 2021; we are in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and people are dying in big numbers in many countries of the world.
Yesterday, 10th February 2021, South Africa, the worst hit country in Africa, recorded 3159 new cases and 276 deaths in 24 hours! South Africa has a new strain of COVID -19 which is so quickly transmitted that the million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine that had been ordered for the health workers were put on hold. This is because the in vitro tests done on the approved vaccine had shown a 22% efficacy on the South African variant of COVID-19.
From the official page of the Ministry of Health-Uganda: https://covid-19.gou.go.ug, on the 10th February 2021, Uganda had reported 39,942 cumulative confirmed cases and a total of 328 deaths.
I for one have lost relatives, friends and colleagues here at home and abroad. I even fear to imagine what is next. A combination of my being a medical doctor for four decades, a senior citizen and having a wide network of friends is causing a big disruption in my life.
My colleagues are among the health workers on the COVID-19 frontline- they are exposed to the virus and other bacteria as a biological occupational hazard. Alex, a high school classmate, is working in the Rouder Bush VA hospital in Indianapolis, USA. Thankfully, she has not caught the virus but many times she sounds tired and overwhelmed when I talk to her. I pray every day that she continues to protect herself as she offers this vital service to her community.
She is among the exception, many have not been so lucky in South Africa. Yesterday I attended a virtual funeral service followed by a cremation of one member of our graduate class. He had worked as a paediatrician in Durban, South Africa for over 35 years! Many nurses have succumbed to the disease in the line of duty though they are invisible because not many people talk about them.
A senior citizen is by definition anyone aged 65 and above. By this age, many things conspire against us to rob us of good health:
- Many of us are already on treatment for underlying medical conditions like High Blood Pressure and heart disease, Diabetes and cancer.
- Our immune function diminishes with each year lived beyond 65.The immune cells known as B and T-lymphocytes, do not work as quickly as they used to.
- We carry the highest risk of developing cancer in any given population- the immune system is fully developed and functional by the age of eight and will continue to function at its best till the age of 65. Thereafter, the immune function diminishes with advancing age. This explains why cancers and recurrent infections are common in our age group.
These factors combine to make our age group the highest at risk of catching the new virus and going on to develop the severe form of the disease which requires us to be admitted and carry the highest risk of death.
The cdc.gov website has co-related age with the risk of hospitalization and the
risk of death:
40-49 years of age run a 3 times risk of hospitalization and 10 times the risk of death.
50-64 years of age run a 4 times risk of hospitalization and 30 times high risk for death.
65-74 years of age run a 5 times high risk of hospitalization and 90 times high risk of death.
75-84 years of age run an 8 times high risk of hospitalization and a 220 times high risk of death.
Senior citizens , we have to brace ourselves for the loss of loved ones; my mother who is close to 90 has just a few peers around. It is the natural progress of life except that the multiple COVID -19 – related deaths at this moment in time are almost throwing us off- balance. It is a huge disruption that has left us living on the edge fearing that any of us can fall off any time. We are living in a state of increased vulnerability but we cannot allow ourselves to be totally defeated by it. We have to take back some form of control.
George Bernard Shaw rightly said: “We don’t stop playing because we are old, we grow old because we stop playing.”
It is mandatory that we take the responsibility of reducing the risk of getting sick- first from COVID and the other common diseases in the environment like Malaria fever which could demand for hospitalization. We have to continue with our regular medical check -ups and regular cancer screening tests.
For COVID-19, we have to continue practicing the proved safety measures laid out by the Ministry of Health.
It is essential that each one of us considers the level of risk before deciding to go out of home.
It is also vital that we keep up to date with available scientifically – proven information about COVID- 19 disease.
We have to stay healthy- a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being not merely the absence of disease of infirmity by:
- Eating a healthy and balanced diet
- Living a healthy lifestyle- no smoking, avoid alcohol and drug abuse.
- Being physically active- regular exercise at least for 30 minutes every day.
- Regular medical check- ups
- Adequate sleep- 7-8 hours of sleep to allow the body to repair and restore itself and to allow the immune system to function at its best.
- Mental well-being- your thoughts and feelings and how you cope with the ups and downs of everyday life. We have to learn how to reduce stress in our lives.
Writing about being in a state of good health is easier than putting it into practice. I have been moving on a rough sea, waves breaking over me and feeling as if drowning due to the many deaths of relatives, friends and colleagues in a short space of time. Many times I have been left feeling helpless since I could neither control or prevent what was going on around me.
I would receive the news of death with a stab of fear and withdrawal into myself. I just stayed where I was; isolated and cut off. The total digital black out from the 12 th January before the general elections of 14 January to the 10th February 2021 forced me to hold things in. I became less motivated to do the most important things in life
as I became consciously aware of my own mortality. Then I remembered to read through the basic coping skills needed to manage a difficult situation:
- Do not blame yourself for the deaths.
- Feeling sad, fear anxiety was a completely normal response to a tragedy.
Allow yourself to grieve, acknowledge the loss and mourn.
- Mourn for a season and move on otherwise you lose yourself and the motivation to do important things in your life.
- Do something positive for yourself and others- toward making a change in your community.
At my age I have suffered many deaths of loved ones including brothers, a sister, my father , my husband , nephews and friends but the COVID- related deaths are following one after another. It hardly gives you time to feel the hurt, pain and grief. At the same time, it drains your well of empathy and compassion without giving you enough time to refill it. This could lead to burn out. The COVID-19 guidelines about funerals have introduced new ways of mourning. For our safety, we can no longer gather, cry together or touch one another for comfort. Virtual funerals, cremations and memorial services are the new normal.
However, one thing stands out to me with absolute clarity: I am yet to fulfill my highest potential in life. This has to continue to direct my life.
Gradually, I am willing myself not to be defeated by the virus, I have to find a lifeline through all these random deaths and events that life is throwing at me. I need to create warmth and love once again.
I can do this by making the most of what I am left with: family, friends and social support systems.
I have to reach out for help from my trusted friends and to pick up my pursuits like Creative writing, gardening and voluntary work in my community. This is what has always kept me alive and fully engaged with life. I am daring to take back some control in my life. I have started feeling safe enough to easily fall asleep and wake up at my usual time despite living on the edge.
Saltos Altos Vermeltos said: “We are all a little broken. But the last time I checked, broken crayons still colour the same.”
And Aldos Huxley said: “ The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.”
QUESTION: Are you resilient enough to brave the rain and get up for the eighth time?