Coming together, one meter apart

Casey McDermott is CARE Canada’s Manager of Emergency Operations & Country Office Programming. She’s been a humanitarian worker for the past six years and has spent most of her career working on the ground during emergencies.

I left Canada at 7 am on March 2. After more than 30 hours of travel, I arrived in gorgeous Lusaka where I was set to support our Zambia office team for the next month.

I am used to this kind of routine. I have spent most of my career traveling for on-location assignments while my partner – a medical student now working as a resident physician – has studied and worked in Canada.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on March 11th that up to 70 per cent of the German population will likely contract the coronavirus (COVID-19), I called my partner.

Imagining that number – for every 10 people in my family or circle of friends or colleagues, seven of them would get sick – made it sink in.

My partner picked up the phone and, in the weirdest role reversal we’ve ever experienced, he spent 10 minutes reassuring me, reminding me that the team had undergone training for this, that there was a contingency plan in place, and that we’d be using personal protective equipment.

The next day, our office called all employees who were abroad back to Canada. I was asked to resume work from home, along with the rest of our staff.

As someone who has taken more flights then I can count, travelling back to Canada was a surreal experience. You could tell, from one country to the next, how seriously each particular government was taking COVID-19.

Every airport was different. In some, every second person was wearing a mask. In others, there were none. In bathrooms where the “rinse-rinse-shake” was the name of the game in the past, there were now line-ups for the soap. Some countries were checking temperatures of passengers getting off planes; others were not. The flights themselves changed. Attendants wore masks, passengers wiped down their seats, tray tables, and arm rests. No amount of turbulence has ever wrought the tension that I felt on those planes (and I’ve been in one that was hit by lightning).

Working from home hasn’t been particularly different. CARE Canada has always had the option for employees to use flexible working arrangements (and most of the colleagues I work with regularly are in different continents), so this wasn’t the first time I needed to get very comfortable with technology.

However the focus of my days have changed. COVID-19 is my life.

I wake up checking the news to see what has changed overnight, I get on my email to check in with our country offices, I listen to our PM’s daily update to our country. I attend our virtual crisis management team meetings, spend the afternoon consolidating the information. I support our CARE country offices to prepare for and to respond to what is happening with their own friends, families, neighbours and the people we work to support with our programming. I finish my day late, planning the next, making sure the way we are communicating and coordinating enables our teams to move forward quickly, efficiently, and with the information they need.

This is my job. It’s not the first time I’ve worked in an emergency response and it won’t be the last. But like many others, I’m also trying to handle the personal side, which hasn’t been as easy.

Having been called home from an international deployment, I’m in a 14-day period of self-isolation. The tough part isn’t so much the staying home. Coming back from Southern Africa, I was quite keen to avoid going outside in the cold! But the tough part is that self-isolation includes isolation from my partner.

In our house, “flatten the curve” isn’t just about not getting sick or infecting someone else, but specifically about keeping my partner healthy and able to continue going to the hospital.

Keeping the medical system from overloading has become very personal. I’ll be honest, the hardest bit isn’t the separate sleeping arrangements, disinfecting common spaces, or that we can no longer share a bag of chips, it’s that I’m living with a human who is on the front lines. My biggest job right now is to stay at least one metre away, despite every day being tougher than the last.

I wake up every morning in a bed by myself while my partner sleeps in the other room. I wipe down surfaces three or more times a day and wash my hands constantly.

I call my parents who are also in self-isolation 1500 km away after returning from their road trip to the States. And, one time a day, right before bed, my partner and I stand back-to-back for five seconds and wish each other goodnight.

Health care workers are on the front line of this response. We know that women represent 70 per cent of the global health care workforce. We also know society puts a heavy care-giving burden on women and girls, placing their physical and mental health at risk and impeding their access to education, livelihoods, and other critical support.

I also see the human side. My partner and I have been self-isolating for five days now, and with him treating patients, there is no end in sight. Things are different from just last week when I called him from Zambia. When he’s not on a 30 hour shift at the hospital, he comes home exhausted and goes straight to bed. As I stand across the room and tell him I love him, I might as well be back in Southern Africa.

I know how overwhelming it is to take in all this information. I’ve worked in emergency responses for years and handling the onslaught of information coming at you takes practice. But we can take a strange measure of comfort in that we each have an important role to play in stopping the spread.

The physical distance may seem insurmountable. My partner and I have missed holding hands, sitting on the couch with our dog, watching TV. But in staying apart, we are so much closer to the communities we serve. For him, it’s those who need medical support. For me, it’s the most vulnerable populations around the world.

More than ever, we are all truly together.


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