W Power 2024

A flying elephant, a teacher's hugs: 12 tales of pandemic resilience

The virus has been crushing spirits around the world, but some people refuse to be bowed. Here are their stories

By New York Times
Published: Dec 26, 2020

A flying elephant, a teacher's hugs: 12 tales of pandemic resilienceMaura Cristina Silva, right, a teacher, comforts one of her students, in Rio de Janeiro, on Dec. 11, 2020. Silva came up with the idea of a pandemic “hugging kit” — disposable raincoats, surgical gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer. (Dado Galdieri/The New York Times)

The virus has been crushing spirits around the world, but some people refuse to be bowed. Here are their stories.


“I am yearning for your hug ...”

... wrote the third grader. A few months into quarantine, his teacher, Maura Cristina Silva, could tell that her vivacious students were starting to buckle.

They had become 57 tiny boxes on a computer screen, leaving her with shaky and poorly lit glimpses into the toll the pandemic was taking on a cluster of families in Padre Miguel, a working-class district in western Rio de Janeiro.

Students with learning disabilities were falling behind, as were those who did not have their own computers.

But the text from the unhugged student, which came four months after their public school had been abruptly shuttered, got to Silva. The child had used the word saudade, a Portuguese term that conveys feelings of longing and melancholy.

Silva wondered if she could find a way to safely embrace her students.

Her first idea was to use a transparent shower curtain fitted out with four plastic sleeves — but sanitizing it after each embrace seemed impractical.

Then she came up with the idea of a pandemic “hugging kit” — disposable raincoats, surgical gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer.

The response from parents was resounding: How soon could she drop by?

She rolled out the hugging operation in late July, renting a sound truck and driving from door to door, blasting a classroom playlist her students loved.

“Distance can’t destroy what we have built,” Silva, 47, said on a recent rainy afternoon after visiting three students. “I needed to show them that our bonds are still alive, even if I’m not able to hold them every morning.”

The kids beamed as Silva draped herself and each student in plastic with a surgeon’s precision. Then she wrapped her arms around each one and lifted them off the ground for a long, tender embrace.

Yasmim Vitória de Oliveira said she missed the museum outings and classroom pajama parties that Silva used to organize.

“She’s playful, and she lets us have fun,” the 9-year-old said.

Silva said that once the pandemic passes, she will hug her students with abandon, never again taking for granted the healing power of touch.

“In a moment of tragedy, we’ve been able to share moments of love,” Silva said. “That is very powerful."



When India’s lockdown hit ...

... Pradeep Sahu, a wealthy construction contractor, knew exactly what was going to happen.

For years, Sahu had worked closely with migrant laborers in Surat, an industrial city on India’s western coast, and he knew how tenuous their lives were. They lived 10 to a room, sleeping wall to wall, and toiled away in textile factories with zero savings. They barely had access to a toilet.

When all the factories closed in March, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers ran out of food. The state government was slow to help. Many workers were desperate to go back to their home state of Odisha, 1,000 miles away, but had no way of getting there.

So Sahu, 48, who also hails from Odisha, became a one-man aid organization.

Tapping his business contacts, he pressured the government and secured rations for thousands. He organized train tickets. He found a family living in a garage who hadn’t bathed in days and took them back to his home.

“My mental condition was one of a mad person,” Sahu said. “When I visited their habitats, my fellow men cried, ‘We have not eaten in days.’ It tore me up. It made me angry and frustrated.”

A spiritual man, Sahu works in an office that feels like a temple. In the background, Hindu chants run in an endless loop.

When asked why he felt so motivated to help, Sahu paused. The answer was so obvious.

“Who else would take care of them?” he said.



When an Italian bookstore appealed ...

... for volunteers to read stories or poems to elderly and homebound people locked in by the virus, they figured a few bookworms might heed the call.

“We wanted to reach people who are isolated in this moment and might be feeling alone,” said Samanta Romanese, who works at the Ubik bookstore, a local institution in the northeastern seaport city of Trieste.

The idea was that Romanese and her three co-workers — and with luck a few volunteers — would read to people for around 20 minutes over the phone during breaks and on days off. “We were thinking small,” she said.

But the response was overwhelming.

After the bookstore issued its appeal late last month, more than 150 volunteers signed up. Some were Italians living as far away as the Netherlands and England. Some were members of a theater company that itself has been sidelined by the virus.

Romanese said she reached out to local health authorities, parishes, social services and the Red Cross to identify potential people to read to. Volunteers and listeners chat a little, read a little.

Romanese said she had been inspired by a story she’d read on social media about a Madrid librarian who was reading to the elderly during the pandemic.

In France, Paméla Boittiaux, a librarian in the northern city of Douai, had a similar idea. She set up surprise phone readings of book excerpts, poems and short stories over several lockdowns this year. “We managed to stay connected to our readers but more importantly to keep a sense of purpose,” Boittiaux said.

Romanese’s initiative in Trieste was timed to coincide with Christmas but is now open-ended.

“In a world that is becoming increasingly inhumane and dehumanizing, in a moment made more difficult by this virus, I believe that it is fundamental to remain human, to reach out, to really look out for one another,” she said.



When I first met Dr. Andrei Vitushka ...

... it was in a Minsk hospital courtyard in August, and he had just gotten out of jail.

How he had ended up there, stuffed into a six-man cell with as many as 31 other people for three days, spoke to the arbitrary terror faced by the country’s pro-democracy protesters. Vitushka, 42, and his wife had come to a police station hoping to find their detained teenage son; instead, they were locked up themselves.

In November, Vitushka, one of Minsk’s best-known neonatologists, was told he would lose his job at a state hospital, a move widely seen as retribution for his openly anti-government stance.

But when I checked in with him a few weeks later by text, he was upbeat. “All in all, I’m healthy, and I’m free, which by today’s standards is quite something,” he said.

The doctor is just one of many Belarusians who remain optimistic after perhaps the most trying year of their lives.

Their authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, dismissed the coronavirus as a bug to be cured by a daily glass of vodka, refusing to enact any social-distancing measures. Then he declared himself the winner of a blatantly falsified election and cracked down on protests in the most intense wave of police violence Belarus had seen in three decades of post-Soviet independence.

But even as the president wouldn’t act to check the spread of the virus, community groups sprung up and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help equip hospitals. A grassroots movement, from tech workers to soccer fans, came together to push for voluntary social distancing — a “people’s quarantine,” some called it.

One tech company, on Vitushka’s advice, bought about 30 coffee machines to equip intensive care units.

After the August election, some of these groups raised millions of dollars for the victims of police violence and state repression, further energizing the protests and helping build a sense of community.

“All these authoritarian, totalitarian regimes rely on everyone being on their own,” Vitushka told me. “And here we all came together in the face of a threat.”

For now, Lukashenko remains in power. But Vitushka is convinced that this year’s pain — both for him and for his country — has been worth it. Sooner or later, he says, political change will come.

“We’re living through an intense coming-of-age period,” he said. “If I had the choice to go through all of this again or not, I would say that we had to go through it. We had to get on this path.”



He has fostered more than 100 stray cats ...

... over 14 years in his home in Wuhan, China. But never has Shuai Lihua’s love for the creatures been put to the test as it was earlier this year, when the pandemic broke out in his hometown.

On Jan. 23, Shuai, 43, watched with alarm as a flood of messages poured into his phone from panicked cat owners.

Earlier that day, the Chinese government had locked down Wuhan, where the pandemic began, in a desperate push to stop the spread of the virus. Millions of residents who had left for what they thought would be a short trip suddenly found themselves stranded outside the city. Many had left only a week’s worth of food and water for their cats at home.

Please, they begged, could he help?

It was the height of the epidemic in Wuhan, when very little was known about a virus that would later go on to infect tens of millions around the world. The normally bustling metropolis had suddenly gone quiet. Most of the city’s residents had barricaded themselves inside their homes out of fear.

But Shuai, who goes by the nickname Lao Mao, or “Old Cat,” did not hesitate.

“I just knew that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t do anything,” he recalled. “It’s not every day that loving cats becomes a life-or-death matter.”

Almost every day for nearly three months, Shuai crisscrossed the city from morning to night.

He wore a protective suit, goggles and a mask, and carried bags of cat food and a list of addresses. When there were no spare keys or digital locks, Shuai had no choice but to get creative and, well, catlike, climb over walls, scale fire escapes, shimmy up rusty pipes and crawl through windows.

Over 10 weeks, he and other volunteers made around 2,000 house calls to feed and care for hundreds of cats — and one rabbit. In April, when the lockdown was lifted, many of the cat owners came by the animal shelter where Shuai works to drop off small gifts and say thank you.

“It was worth it, not just for the cats, but also so that the owners could have some peace of mind,” Shuai said. “Looking back at that time now, it all just feels like a dream.”



The teacher had inherited $300,000 ...

... and was planning to buy a new car. But when the virus came, and with it remote learning, he made a U-turn, instead deciding to buy 343 tablets for elementary school students shut out of class because their families could not afford the equipment.

For good measure, the teacher, Hoseein Asadi, also bought the children 30,000 masks to protect them from infection.

Some of his friends and family members thought he had lost his mind.

But Asadi, 50, has dedicated 28 years to educating elementary school children from villages and nomadic tribes around Khuzestan province. A father of five who lives in Andimeshk, he said his conscience would not allow him to buy a car when hundreds of students were at the risk of losing an academic year.

“They told me, ‘You will never be able to buy a new car or house on a teacher’s salary,’ ” Asadi said in a telephone interview. “But for me seeing the sweet smile on the children’s faces and knowing I had given them the gift of education is enough.”

Overnight, Asadi became a national hero, appearing on state television and written about in local media outlets. The minister of education telephoned him to personally express his gratitude.

He has also inspired others to act.

State-owned industries, the private sector and ordinary Iranians have mobilized to raise money for tablets. Iranians in the diaspora as far away as Australia have also offered to help. So far, Asadi, said the education department has received and distributed 12,000 tablets to low-income school districts in several provinces.

“Creating happiness for kids who have nothing is the most rewarding feeling,” Asadi said.



The women were about to give birth, but were terrified ...

... of the virus and of the hospitals where infected people were being treated. And so from across central Bolivia, they called for help. Justina Calle Flores responded.

For months, Calle Flores, a midwife in the city of Cochabamba, traveled to the women’s homes to attend to them, risking infection so her patients wouldn’t have to. She traveled for hours by car, motorbike and foot, arriving with her face mask and gloves, as well as bunches of rosemary she used to make teas to ease labor.

In all, Calle Flores, 57, has helped more than 200 women give birth during the pandemic, far more than she delivers in a normal year.

Sometimes they cried and pulled at her braids, she said. And almost always, a new child in their arms, they thanked her profusely, telling her they would have had to do it alone if she had not arrived.

The death toll from the coronavirus in Bolivia has been particularly high. But Calle Flores, a midwife for 25 years and a devout Christian, said she continued her work out of a sense of duty.

“I wasn’t afraid to die,” she said. “Dying for me is a blessing, because I’m on the Lord’s path.”



When an elephant has to travel by plane .. .

... a lot of preparation is required.

It is not just the hundreds of pounds of snacks needed for the flight. Elephants have to be crate-trained. And even a little expertise in fluid dynamics comes in handy if you don’t want the plane flooded with elephant urine.

Now try doing all this during a pandemic that has halted much of global travel.

But Nov. 30, Kavaan, an Asian bull elephant who had been confined to an Islamabad zoo for 35 years, was flown in a Russian cargo plane from Pakistan to Cambodia to start a new life in a wildlife sanctuary.

Sent to Pakistan as a gift by Sri Lanka, Kavaan lived in the capital in a zoo so decrepit that the Islamabad High Court ordered it closed.

Elephants are social creatures, and Kavaan’s mate died eight years ago. When she was buried in their cramped enclosure, Kavaan spent months tending to the grave, caressing the ground with his trunk.

The trip to Cambodia was organized by Free the Wild, an animal charity, along with Four Paws International, another animal welfare group. It took nearly five years of planning, and required 180 kilograms (397 pounds) of sugar cane, 20 watermelons and a military escort to the airport, to say nothing of all the urgent tweeting by Hollywood entertainer Cher, who is a co-founder of Free the Wild.

Days before the journey, there was a snag: Kavaan unexpectedly went into musth, a period characterized by raging male hormones. Bull elephants in musth can be aggressive and attack. They are also plagued by prolonged erections, not the ideal state for air travel.

Luckily, Kavaan’s testosterone levels waned on the eve of the flight. His COVID test was negative, too. And so the air passage went without a hitch.

“2020 has been a really awful year for so many people,” said Mark Cowne, another co-founder of Free the Wild, “and releasing Kaavan in the middle of this pandemic was really uplifting.”



The calls and messages just kept coming ...

... in the weeks after the pandemic hit Kibera, Nairobi’s largest informal settlement. From friends and neighbors, Asha Jaffar kept hearing the same stories of need.

For many in the sprawling settlement, the lockdowns and other restrictions had meant the loss of their daily-wage jobs. Now, they could not afford to buy food — or much of anything, really.

For many, government support or aid from humanitarian agencies had yet to materialize, so Jaffar, a writer and filmmaker, decided to take things into her own hands: She established the Kibera Food Drive to help struggling families, buying them items like rice, sugar, oil and flour.

Since it began, the project has raised more than $33,000 through crowdfunding from across Kenya and globally, and has helped feed up to 3,000 households in Kibera.

Jaffar said that after she started the project, many people in the community also approached her to volunteer or even made a donation themselves.

“It changed my whole perception about the place where I grew up,” Jaffar, 27, said in a phone interview. “There was a change of narratives. I saw more collaborations.”

But some parts of the story have been slower to change.

In April, she says, Jaffar was beaten by police while working on the project after curfew. Kenyan police have been accused of killing and wounding civilians while enforcing lockdown, and on this evening an officer started hitting her with a baton.

“They didn’t stop until I said we were actually giving out food — ‘I am a community worker,’ ” she recalled.

Jaffar sustained bruises in her hand and leg but says nothing would have stopped her from making sure people in her community had a meal on their table.

“We learned that we have to stand up for ourselves,” she said.



She moved to Wuhan shortly before lockdown ...

... and the loneliness and confusion of the long months that followed at times felt overwhelming.

In late January, not long after Guo Jing, a 29-year-old social worker and feminist activist, moved there from the southern city of Guangzhou, the Chinese government sealed off Wuhan as a stunned world looked on from afar.

Thousands were dying. Guo felt alone, scared and powerless, scrubbing her hands 20 to 30 times a day and video chatting friends in faraway cities for company.

Then, in late February, Guo began seeing news reports about a spike in domestic violence under lockdown. A friend said she had heard what sounded like abuse in a neighbor’s apartment. Unsure what to do, the friend wrote a letter describing resources against domestic violence and slipped it under the neighbor’s door.

That gave Guo an idea.

With friends, she wrote and posted to social media a letter drawing attention to widespread domestic violence in China. And she offered suggestions on how to intervene.

She named her fledgling campaign “little vaccines against domestic violence” and urged others to share the letter and themselves become buffers against abuse.

Within hours, thousands of people visited the page where she had posted the letter. The hashtag “little vaccines against domestic violence” has been viewed more than 800,000 times on Weibo, a Chinese platform similar to Twitter.

People across China began sharing photos of themselves pasting the letter in elevator banks, on bulletin boards or in any other public areas that they could still visit.

The outpouring was particularly remarkable, Guo said, because of the suspicion with which the Chinese government views any forms of activism, including feminism.

“Many people were nervous not only because of the pandemic,” Guo said, “but also because we’re not accustomed to using our own public spaces.”

Wuhan is no longer locked down, but Guo is still reflecting on that period. A friend is working on a documentary about the pandemic, and Guo and other friends have interviewed low-income workers and others hit hard by its economic fallout.

“It’s very hard for individuals to fundamentally change some problems,” she said. “So the key question is, what can I do under these circumstances?”



2020 was looking pretty bad ...

... for Lucía Riojas Martínez, a Mexican congresswoman, even before the coronavirus arrived in her country.

An outspoken feminist and one of the only openly gay politicians in Congress, Riojas, 32, has faced online abuse and even death threats since she took office in 2018. Then in February, her father died of a heart attack, and it almost pushed her over the edge.

But then she thought about how much pride her father had taken in her work and decided to carry on. “Remember what you have to do tomorrow,” she told herself.

At the end of March, the Mexican government declared a health emergency. Like people around the world, Riojas found herself working from home.

But lockdown was not a simple matter for many others in the conservative country’s LGBTQ community. Endless days at home with homophobic family members often became untenable, and Riojas began hearing stories of people ending up on the street.

And so the congresswoman converted the headquarters of her political organization, Ahora, into a homeless shelter for young LGBTQ people, the first of its kind in Mexico City. With support from activists and others in the community, it took in its first two residents May 13. Since then, the shelter now known as Casa Frida has had more than 60 people pass through its doors.

Riojas soon realized that providing shelter wasn’t enough, that there was a “mental and emotional health crisis in the community,” she said.

Casa Frida now offers residents psychological counseling and help gaining access to health care, housing and stable work. On average, most people stay between a month and a half to three months before getting back on their feet.

“More than a shelter, we want to build a house of community,” Riojas said.

Run largely through donations and volunteers, Casa Frida moved in September, from the Ahora offices to a more permanent home in the neighborhood of Iztapalapa.

“Every day we know that the road gets harder, but we can’t take a step backward,” she said. “It’s forward — and it’s together.”



At age 90, John Pollard excels at resilience ...

... but now comes the reward.

In recent summers, Pollard had come to enjoy the small pleasure of taking the local bus from his home in Brighton the short journey to the seaside nearby. He liked to spend the afternoon walking by the beach and breathing in the fresh salt air.

Then, the coronavirus came to Britain.

With older people advised to self-isolate, Pollard’s outings came to an end, and he has passed most days since then at home.

For a man determined to remain active, the year was hard.

“It is frustrating because I live alone,” he said. “And you get fed up with your own company.”

Pollard has also spent much of the year in pain. He was due for a shoulder surgery, but it had to be postponed as hospitals dealt with an influx of patients.

Then, in early December, Pollard was among the first people in Britain to be vaccinated against the virus. And while he is still waiting for his second dose in early January, things are already looking brighter.

“I was most surprised,” he said, when he received a phone call that he would be vaccinated on Day 1 of Britain’s mass inoculation program. “I’ve never given it any thought really. All I thought was that I would like to not get COVID.”

Pollard’s daughter Lynda Hayden drove him to a hospital for the shot. “Honestly, he’s my hero; nobody believes he’s 90,” she said. “He’s just genuinely so kindhearted.”

Now, for Pollard, there is finally some hope of a return to normalcy — to his bus trips to the beach and celebrations surrounded by family.

“The worst thing was wondering when it was ever going to end,” Pollard said.

Now, at least for him, it has.


©2019 New York Times News Service

Post Your Comment
Required, will not be published
All comments are moderated