After a lifetime career of serving the United States overseas as a federal employee and the spouse of a federal employee Foreign Service Officer, I’ve lived through fatal pandemics, lockdowns, and years of nothing on grocery store shelves. My family made it through, and you can too. Here’s what I’ve learned.
We served in Caracas, Venezuela a few years ago, spanning the transition from Chavez to Maduro. When we arrived, things were pretty bad – in fact, worse than we’d be led to believe – and we were now in a country facing deep shortages and gripped by fear, uncertainty, and anger. When we arrived, economic issues were at the root of the pervasive violence: carjackings were common, as were muggings, home break-ins, and kidnappings. And when I say “common” I mean it. Everyone knew someone who’d been the victim of at least one of these, despite security measures. By the time I left I knew multiple people, both Venezuelans and ex-pats, who’d been through one or more of these scenarios.
As a result, embassy personnel were on permanent lockdown. Our apartment overlooked the embassy, and we could freely move between those two places, between our apartment and other nearby embassy housing, and to the local store. The drive to the school was about the farthest away we could truly get (that school, man…I’ve seen prisons with less security). However, in reality, we were effectively restricted to our apartment and our walled neighborhood, which was 10 buildings around a half-mile oval road with a green space at one end.
Due to riots, tear gas, and carjackings, the school was often closed. That school was amazing and far better prepared to do online education than any US school, even with the limited bandwidth available in Venezuela. I can’t help you with that, but if your kids’ schools aren’t stepping up, do your own “home schooling.” We played lots of tabletop games with our son – every night was game night – and encouraged him to do any of the math he could, practice reading, etc. Read with your kids. Do imaginative and creative play. Make sure they get a chance to run around crazy, inside or out. We went on lots of walks. Look up! We would see parrots roosting on the sides of the apartment buildings and guans in the trees. You may see nesting hawks and squirrel dreys. Look down! We could harass those little plants that fold up their leaves when touched; you will see lots of new plants budding and blooming.
We did watch a lot of TV and play video games, but you don’t have to worry about setting up a VPN to look like you are in the US so that you can access US content. I am not a fan of screen time for developing brains, but I’m also not going to tell you how to parent. We limited it hard then and we limit it now, although somewhat less during this “social distancing” time.
You will also not have to train your kids how and when to use the panic room, or do weekly drills on using the radio to call Post 1 (the Marine on duty at the embassy). You will not have to train your kids how to behave when they are kidnapped, or how to give the kidnappers instructions, in English and Spanish, to call the US Embassy. You probably won’t have to teach them how to deal with exposure to tear gas.
My point is: when you are ready to tear your hair out, remember that it could be worse. You’ll get through this.
One last note on this: schedule “me” time so that everyone gets time away from everyone else. Depending on the size of your home and your ability to leave it, this might call for extreme measures…or as my son put it once “MOM!!! The bathroom does not count as a druid’s favored terrain!”
The Empty Shelves
This whole panic-buying thing is both insane and selfish. There is no reason for the runs on milk and toilet paper other than panic. BUT – since other people are panic-buying, we all get to deal with that.
At the store this weekend, my son noted that it’s starting to look like Caracas stores “but until there’s only Pringles and Sparkling Ice left, Caracas still wins.” He wasn’t born yet when we lived in Bucharest immediately post-Ceaucescu, but Caracas was pretty bad. Twice in my live I’ve made it through two-year periods with no grocery store options, no fresh milk, few fresh eggs, limited seasonal fresh produce, and limited meat. I am not particularly a vegetarian, but for tours in Romania, Yemen, and Venezuela I’ve gone for years without having meat more than about 4 times…and one of those was horse.
You will get through this.
Fresh milk and eggs are still a miracle and a delight to me. Buy them if you can, but don’t hoard them. I’ve seen people buying 10-20 gallons of fresh milk at a time – most of that will spoil before you can use it, and that’s just waste and ensuring that other children aren’t getting it. (If dairy products are limited, kids need them more than adults.) If you are buying that much you damn well better be contributing it to school replacement meals or to make things you are going to freeze…and I’m not sure ice cream counts as emergency rations.
Don’t be an asshole.
You should have a supply of shelf-stable milk and milk powder. If you don’t, buy some when you see it at the store. Shelf-stable works okay on cereal and you can use both in cooking and baking. We got used to the routine of making milk nightly from powder, reusing plastic water bottles, for cereal the next morning. I know it’s not ideal, but you don’t live in 2019’s America any more; for all intents and purposes you’ve now been stationed in a new country, and you need to accept that and adapt accordingly.
The only fruit that keeps is apples. Eat other fresh fruit right away, or can or freeze it. Same with veggies. Potatoes will keep for a while before sprouting and you can prep and freeze them.
Learn to prepare and store food. Unlike all the time I was learning and doing it, you have access to the internet for tips and instructions.
Learn to make your own bread – you don’t need a bread making machine, just yeast and a pan. I actually miss baking my own bread and making my own tortillas.
I’ve never stopped stockpiling toilet paper. About 6 weeks ago, my husband dropped the latest large box from Amazon on the table and said “Cancel the subscription! We’ve got more boxes stacked up than we can use this year!” Well…who looks like a freaking futurist genius now?!?! Seriously, we’ve known that we’re going to see more pandemics due to global climate change. I don’t understand why everyone hasn’t been stocking up on some shelter-in-place basics…but I digress.
Stock up on toothpaste. Deodorant and shampoo/conditioner are your call, but I find that being clean and not smelly helps my outlook. Napkins turn out to be pretty optional.
You can survive for months on MREs and freeze-dried emergency rations, but you will be constipated. Augment with fresh produce as much as you can, and maybe keep a can of Metamucil around.
I personally recommend ordering take-out from your local eateries as much as you can; I am much more worried about the downstream financial and economic effects of this shutdown than I am about the virus (and yes, I do have at-risk family members and friends). If you pick up the food yourself and wear latex gloves (you should have already had a box on hand) and wipe down the containers, or order from one of the many places offering no-touch delivery it’s fairly safe. This isn’t a food-borne illness.
The reason for this is that helping out your community financially will save lives down the line. As much as you are trying to save lives in the short term, stopping the economy puts many many more lives at risk. If people can’t afford to keep their home, if they can’t keep paying for prescriptions that keep them out of the medical system, they’ll be competing for those same health care resources that we are trying to “flatten the curve” to manage. After the virus runs its course, they will continue to be at-risk and dying.
Restaurants are already shutting down, though, which means that some wholesalers of the raw materials have stock on hand and need money, so you might be able to find someone selling fresh meat, dairy, carbs, and produce “out the back door.” This isn’t exactly legal, but the rules of the game have changed. You don’t live in the same country you lived in back in February. This is how we kept our families fed overseas.
First, please take a deep breath and do a real, factual risk assessment. That means splitting out “uncertainty” from “impact.” I’ve heard a number of people, in my life and in the media, who are equating getting covid-19 with a death sentence. Please pay attention to the actual data on risk demographics rather than giving in to fear. You may very well be in one or more of the high-risk categories…but even if you are, you’re much more likely to survive it than not. You may require hospitalization, though, and that’s what the “flatten the curve” approach is about.
If you or a family member gets it, and gets it seriously enough that they start losing the ability to breathe and to get enough oxygen to their body, you are going to have to decide whether to get them to a treatment location and fight for care, or care for them yourself. Unless you have a ventilator at home and are comfortable intubating someone, you are likely to choose professional help. You will probably need to drive them to the treatment center, because ambulance service will be taxed (and needs to stay clean of the virus), so plan ahead of time where to go and when. By ahead of time I mean now. What are your tripwires for deciding to go? Where are the treatment centers in your area? If there aren’t any clearly designated yet, where are they likely to be? How are you going to get the patient to your car? Pack a go bag for them and for yourself now, preparing for a hospital stay.
Again, I don’t think you’ll get a serious case of it, because over 95% of you won’t…but “hope for the best and prepare for the worst” is just good sense. Once you are prepared you can stop panicking because you know you’ve got this. You know you won’t be reacting out of fear. Panic kills.
I’m saying this from personal experience.
My husband and I have both come within moments of dying, multiple times, mostly in government service…but the single scariest time for me was when he came down with a virulent strain of flu that was a pandemic back in 1994. It was called the “Beijing Flu” and affected Asia, Eurasia, and Europe. You probably don’t even remember it, because that was before the internet (basically) and before 24/7 news cycles. The major outlets carried a couple stories about it (Chicago Trib here and New York Times here); in 1994 Romania the only notice we got about it came from a couple cables from Washington. Nobody seemed to really give a shit…but afterwards I learned that one of my friends who’d been stationed elsewhere in Eastern Europe had died from it, and another was medically evacuated (medevaced) but paralyzed for life.
It didn’t make it to the US, because viruses are hard to predict, so I bet you never heard about it. In fact, the New York Times sarcastically dismissed it as a non-event. My husband almost died from it.
This has, of course, affected my emotional response to the way Americans are currently reacting to Covid-19. I am trying to forgive you for it, because I know how insidiously effective social media and 24/7 media is…and I’m going to share my story in the hope that it will help you count the blessings you have right now. (Also, if a 25yo woman who didnt know shit about shit could make it through while in a foreign country and with access to much in the way of resources, you can make it through this.)
My husband and I were in our early twenties and had been in Romania for not quite a year. My Romanian was shaky – while the US government graded me as “fluent” that was classroom-fluent, not “I’m terrified out of my mind and need specific medical terms” fluent. We had to have a standard transmission car there, but I didn’t know how to drive one. My husband worked in the consular section which was housed in an old mansion with no glass or plastic barrier between the staff and the customers, so of course he came down with the Beijing Flu (side note: pretty much every flu, including the annual ones you get vaccinated for, originates in or near China. This is not because viruses can read maps and care about political nations…it’s due to environmental reasons as well as Chinese population densities. This pattern is an effect of a large, complex, global ecosystem; calling covid-19 the “kung-flu” or chest-pounding about punishing China displays ignorance and racism and is fully unhelpful.).
My husband’s fever was intense – his skin was hot to the touch and dry like dead leaves or paper. I did what I could to get him to drink fluids but he really couldn’t eat or drink much. He had terrible cramping. And then the cramping became seizures. We were at home – it was about 8:00 pm – and he was on the couch with cool compresses when the seizures started, so I called Post 1 for help. The Marine on duty advised me that the embassy nurse was at a “welcome to the country” function at the ambassador’s residence, and that I should call an ambulance.
I already had had some experience with Romanian health care at that time. Months earlier, an embassy employee had gotten spinal meningitis and I’d taken her to the local clinic for a blood test to confirm it. We watched the doctor get blood from one patient after another by slashing open their fingertip with an x-acto knife, then washing it off under tap water (which was not approved for drinking) and going to the next patient…then we looked at each other and left.
But I called the number the embassy gave me for the ambulance service and explained my situation as best I could in Romanian. The dispatcher said that they didn’t service my address, and gave me a different number.
My husband’s elbows started seizing up, drawing behind him to touch in back.
I called the second number and they told me their one ambulance was out, and it would be like 30 minutes.
My husband’s knees started drawing up to his chest and he fell off the couch onto the floor like a rock, unable to move to protect himself. I dropped the phone and ran to him and found he wasn’t breathing. I started rescue breathing on him, which was hard because his face was drawn back into a Joker-like rictus. I couldn’t be with him and on the phone (1994: landlines only, not even wireless headsets) but he managed enough muscle control to get some air.
I called Post 1 back and demanded the nurse, almost sobbing.
As young childless officers, we were friends with the Marines, which probably saved my husband’s life (although really I’m sure any Marine would do this for any American at post). Post 1 called the ambassador’s residence and asked the nurse to report to the embassy.
She refused to leave the party.
Post 1 called me back and asked if I could get my husband to the embassy. I said yes. I have no memory of the next 20 minutes. I apparently hauled him into the tiny tiny Eastern European elevator and got him into our car, which was parked a bit away across the street. I somehow drove it to the embassy and he somehow kept breathing. The only thing I remember is Post 1 opening the gate for the ambassador’s driveway so I could pull up right to the building, and one of the other Marines being there to help carry my husband into Post 1. I followed and we waited inside the small space with all the CCTV monitors and radios and gate controls.
That’s when I learned that the nurse had refused to leave the party twice, so Post 1 had radioed the Marine driver, who was at the Residence because the new gunnery sergeant was at the same event. The Marine driver went in and told the Gunny what was going on, and the two of them physically escorted the nurse from the party and brought her to the embassy.
She was PISSED…but had the Marines carry my husband to the med unit. After they left, Post 1, a Desert Storm vet, looked me straight in the face and said “Raq, he’s dying. You need to prepare for that.”
That was the single worst moment of my life, before or after. Worse than the 3 times I’ve known I was dying. Worse than the time he was kidnapped.
Then the phone in Post 1 rang – the nurse needed to draw his blood to test for things, and didn’t want to touch him, and being new in country didn’t know where the gloves were. AIDS was still a big issue in Romania. She wanted me to draw his blood because “if he’s got AIDS you already do too.”
Note that this story does not end with me punching her in the face.
I basically took over the med unit and drew a couple vials of blood from my needle-phobic spouse, then found and started the centrifuge. He could just breathe a very little and was still in the same contorted paralysis. (I learned later that this paralysis was the main reason people were dying from this flu.) The nurse wanted to try a muscle relaxant, so she handed me the syringe and I administered it, hoping I wasn’t killing him. At that point, the Gunny came to get me to take a phone call in Post 1 so I missed what happened next: the muscle relaxant worked, all the cramping and seizure let go – and he vomited prodigiously, projectile vomit that swept everything off of her desk in a tidal wave. I suspect he was pretty OK with that.
The phone call was from the ambassador. He had not failed to notice the manner of the nurse’s departure from the Residence, and had had the butler fill him in. He’d gotten the rest of the story from the Marines. He wanted me to know that he’d already contacted the Regional Medical Officer (RMO) in Geneva, who was on his way here, and that they’d started the process of arranging a medevac to Switzerland, then London. Flights to Western Europe only left Bucharest twice a week, so the Life Flight plane would come in from Switzerland and this whole thing would cost about $30,000, but they were going to do it to save my husband’s life. The RMO knew, but I didn’t, that other embassies had been evacuating victims of this coronavirus.
However, it turned out that after barfing all over the nurse’s desk, my husband didn’t get the paralysis again and was able to breathe, and started feeling better. We moved him across the hall to the couch in my office while the nurse cleaned hers up. I moved my car out of the ambo’s parking spot, and we stayed there through the night. I installed an IV for saline and hung the bag off the painting over the couch and kept cool compresses on and generally tried not to think.
Please know that until that night I’d had no medical training. I’d been a primary caregiver for my mother when I was a child and teen, which included hauling her from bed to chair to toilet to wheelchair, and giving her shots in the butt, but I’d never had to find and hit a vein before or use a centrifuge or stethoscope. I was able to step up, and you are too.
I also spent the night working with the Management Counselor about the evac plans and went home for 30 minutes to pack our go-bags. My husband really didn’t want to be evac’d but also wasn’t fully coherent- the fever was affecting his reasoning.
The RMO arrived the next morning and took over care of my husband, so I let them fight out whether he would go on the Life Flight or not…I went home to grab a shower and some sleep. Within minutes, the ambassador’s wife called me to let me know two important things. First, she’d found one of the best Romanian doctors and he was willing to provide personal care of my husband if we didn’t want to evacuate, and second, that the nurse was being re-assigned and removed from post.
This ambassador and his wife were lovely and tough and amazing…old school career Foreign Service and I am eternally grateful to them for this event and so much more.
It took days, but my husband made a full recovery. The embassy was fine, if not better, without that nurse. I paid the Romanian doctor $100, which was almost double his monthly income, and we didn’t take the Life Flight and cost the taxpayers $30,000. And I could now fully speak Romanian and drive a stick shift.
Of course, during our next tour in Malaysia, my husband got cholera…
I know you are scared. I know that this situation, while “oh this again” for me is probably novel and once-in-a-lifetime for you. That is, in fact, why I did the job I did for 30 years: so that shortages and lockdowns and shutdowns and uncertainty aren’t life-as-usual for you. But we’re Americans; we’ve been through worse.
You might lose someone. Most of us have, and all of us will. Death is not optional. It’s also natural to not want to die, and to not want to lose your loved ones, but all people need to balance their personal stuff against the needs of the many. I can’t do that math for you…all I can say is that it sucks, but you will get through it, and you have people who love you and will be there for you.
Your handsome-ass grandpa stormed the beaches at Normandy. Your ancestors took up arms to free people from slavery, knowing they might never see their wives and children again. Your ancestors fled Nazis, fled the Cultural Revolution, and escaped slavers. They sheltered Jews, they sheltered fleeing slaves, and took in hobos during the Depression. They got on ships for a new country with nothing to their name. They let themselves be infected with smallpox so they could fight in Washington’s army.
You are going to cowboy the heck up. You are going to look this in the face and know that you are stronger than it. You might not have the luxuries of modern life for a while. You might not have a predictable schedule. You might get sick, have to nurse sick family members, or change everything to quarantine the most at-risk. People do this every day – you can too. You might lose your entire retirement and savings and kids’ college fund in the stock market. That’s because you, and hundreds of people like you, are scared. Don’t be scared. Look after your neighbors. Use this time to learn what your values really are, and what you are really capable of.
Step up, Americans.