Spherical and crowned with tuft-like appendages, it resembles a creature from outer space or a poisonous flower. Seeking to attach itself to its animal or human host, it steals into the cells of the lungs and replicates itself endlessly, relying on us to propel it to its next victim when we cough, sneeze, or even breathe. It has no regard for age, race, religion or gender, although it’s especially dangerous to those with underlying health conditions and the elderly—14.8 percent of people over 80 die from COVID-19.
This new coronavirus is one of a family of viruses related to the common cold. It can live for up to three hours in the air, suspended in droplets of fluid, which could explain why the virus has become a pandemic, travelling the globe at unprecedented speed, causing devastation in Italy, Iran, North Korea.
And my 87-year old father’s care home in a quiet Vancouver suburb, thousands of miles from these places, and from my home in West Java, Indonesia. At first as I watched the news of the battle against COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, I registered only mild concern. It was January, early days yet, and while I felt for the people affected, the threat still seemed remote, like SARS, MERS, or any of the other previous coronaviruses that had not directly impacted me or anyone close to me. Avian flu had come closest, since I live near Jakarta and chickens are everywhere, even on city streets.
Then on February 7 I read that Li Wenliang, the doctor who had tried to warn officials of the new coronavirus in late 2019, had died after contracting it at Wuhan Central Hospital. Authorities had accused Dr. Li of spreading rumours, and the news of his death caused outrage and grief across Asia. Images of Dr. Li went viral online, his eyes registering, if not fear, then deep concern behind his wire-rim spectacles. I began to feel uneasy.
My unease intensified on March 2, when President Joko Widodo announced Indonesia’s first two cases of COVID-19—a 64-year-old woman and her 31-year old daughter, infected after they’d gone dancing in Jakarta with a Japanese friend who later tested positive.
That week, before my train home from what would be my last day of work in Jakarta, I wiped down my seat with disinfectant. People looked at me askance but I did it anyway. Better to be safe, I thought, even if any imminent danger seemed unlikely.
But while waiting for my online taxi home from the station, I saw a Facebook post from my 33-year-old daughter in rural British Columbia, and the remoteness of COVID-19 vanished.
“Praying for Nana and Grandad and everyone else in LVCC. I feel like I’m in a bad horror movie, this cannot be real life. It’s just too crazy.”
Below was the familiar image of my father’s care home, the Lynn Valley Care Centre, in my hometown of North Vancouver, Canada. I’d visited him there for three months over the past summer; my fiercely independent 85-year old mother, who still lives nearby, was only recently temporarily admitted to recover from a fall.
There in the photo was the familiar circular fountain in the centre of the drive, and on the right, where my parents stayed, were the large picture windows of modern side of the building called “the manor.” On the left, lined with wooden balconies, was the older side called “the lodge,” where I had worked as a caregiver in my first job at 17. The headline read:
COVID-19 outbreak at B.C. nursing home must be met with compassion and caution experts say
Cold fear gripped my stomach as I clicked on the link. Dr. Bonnie Henry, the health officer of B.C. Provincial Health, had announced six new cases of COVID-19, including two caregivers and two residents, at the Lynn Valley Care Centre.
I struggled to maintain my composure amid the throng of people on the street. Were my parents infected? The story didn’t identify the victims, and, since it was nigh time in Vancouver, it was too late to call home. I imagined my father, afflicted with Alzheimer’s, confined to a wheelchair in long-term care, confused by caregivers in hazmat suits while my mother, who would know exactly what was going on, but had the bad luck of just happening to be there for a few days. I’d planned to return home permanently this year to help care for them. My legs got weak at the thought that I might be too late.
The last time I saw my father was in September 2019. I’d left him in the main recreation area where the long-term residents, about 20 in all, had gathered their wheelchairs in a semi-circle around Sonia and her piano. Sonia came in twice a week for “Singalong with Sonia” as it was advertised on the bulletin board. She’d belt out golden oldies like “Roll Out the Barrel” while Dad and his pals sang along with the songbooks she provided.
Dad sang the loudest and with the most enthusiasm, his tremulous voice on key as he tapped his toes on the footrests and bobbed his head in the tweed flat cap he always wore. His buddy Dean, a former airline pilot in his 90s who always greeted me with a waggle of eyebrows and a “Heyyy!” like a vaudeville entertainer, waved his hands as if he were conducting an orchestra. Betty refused to sing and looked unimpressed. (At dinner while Dad tucked into his food with characteristic gusto, she’d say, “Oh. Roast beef. Again.”) Doris, with her owlish glasses and hair neatly styled like a 1940s schoolgirl, often chastised Dad when he started talking during her favourite TV shows. Once while we were watching a Mash rerun, she said “Shush, Alan! I can’t hear the program.” She gave me a sly smile. “I love this show. It’s so well written.” Nonplussed, Dad would keep on chatting.
The residents of Dad’s floor had become like extended family. The caregivers, too, were always kind and good natured even when their charges got a little cantankerous or demanding. Most originally came from the Philippines, which comforted me when we first brought Dad to LVCC in 2017. My husband is Indonesian, and I’ve found that the cultures are similar in many ways, with strong generational family ties and a deep respect for elders. I knew Dad would be in good hands, especially with Jesse, who helps Dad call Mum on the phone before bed every night. Jesse doesn’t have to do this, but he does.
The day before I returned to Indonesia, I took Dad out in his wheelchair to the mall down the street. It was a sunny, cloudless day. We went to a coffee shop and had muffins and tea out in the square near the public library. Kids were playing the communal piano at the library entrance, and the locals were out enjoying the weather. An elderly Chinese lady and her daughter were walking past with their dog when Dad reached down to pet him, saying, “There’s a lovely fella.”
They stopped for a chat. Dad loves people, and I’d already learned that taking him out in his wheelchair engaged us with the entire community. When I took him to the beach or the neighbourhood pub, people often smiled at us and struck up conversations. When the lady said she was originally from Singapore, my father brightened. “I was born in Singapore! Before the war. My dad was stationed there in the British army.” He told her about his nanny who cared for him and taught him Chinese for the first five years of his life before the Japanese invaded and they narrowly escaped.
After the ladies left, I had to break the news to Dad that I was returning to Indonesia the next day. Seeing him hunched up in his wheelchair in his tweed cap and cardigan sweater, it just about killed me to do it. How long did we have before he would forget my name forever? Dad’s eyes grew red and watery. He reached out a gnarled old hand and held mine tight. In a raw, wavering voice, he said, “But I don’t know how long I’ve got.”
Something about Alzheimer’s had changed Dad in ways that I hadn’t expected. I knew about the memory loss and occasional paranoia (sometimes he thought the nurses and caregivers were secret agents in on some shadowy conspiracy). But I didn’t expect my father, once a civil engineer who raised me in the old-school Father Knows Best parenting style of his generation, to be so honest, so vulnerable. And I didn’t expect him to cry. “Dad, I promise I’ll come back as soon as possible to take care of you and Mum.” As I spoke, I knew that no matter what happened, I had to make good on that promise.
No matter what happened. I thought moving back to Canada would just take a little more time and careful planning, since I’d have to leave my job in Jakarta, and my husband’s immigration would involve some complicated and expensive paperwork. How could I have known that a global pandemic would soon turn the world into chaos?
To cheer Dad up, I took him grocery shopping for Mum, who was awaiting my return five minutes away at her seniors’ condo. Dad always likes to feel useful, so as we passed the produce aisle, he reached up and grabbed a pack of mushrooms off the shelf. “Mum will like these,” he said, popping them in the basket on his lap.
By the time we returned to the care centre, we felt like we’d completed an important mission. To make parting easier, I left him with Dean, Doris, and Betty during “Singalong with Sonia.” The caregivers smiled at me consolingly. We’d often talked about the difficulties of living and working abroad, far away from our families, so I knew they understood. We were all part of the modern globalized economy, travelling the world in pursuit of new career opportunities and better lives for ourselves and our families.
Now the economy as we once knew it is on the brink of collapse as businesses shut down and people lose their jobs, while others—doctors, nurses, caregivers, grocery store clerks, drivers—risk their health and their lives on the front lines. As my daughter said, it’s like a bad horror movie, except this is real life. And like so many other people with families scattered around the globe, all I want to do is to return home to them, especially my vulnerable parents. I want help Mum with the cooking and watch Jeopardy together with our feet up, eating ice cream—she says she has at least 20 episodes recorded from when she was in LVCC. And I want to enjoy simple things again with Dad like tea and muffins, going for walks, and singing “Sentimental Journey.” I want to fulfil the promise I made.
But instead, here I am on the other side of the world as it goes into lockdown, feeling helpless as I read daily updates of the virus spreading in Dad’s care home. Today is March 22. Lynn Valley Care Centre has just announced that no visitors are permitted except family members visiting relatives in hospice care, and investigations are underway to determine how the virus was introduced. So far 18 caregivers linked to the centre and 36 residents have tested positive for COVID-19. Eight residents have died. Thinking of them and their grieving families, my heart feels so heavy.
When the first resident died, becoming Canada’s first COVID-19 fatality, my brother brought Mum home to her condo. She’s doing fine with her feet up in fuzzy slippers, plenty of provisions stocked and a close friend staying with her. My daughter wanted to come down and take care of her, but we urged her to stay home with her kids, tucked away in the relative safety and isolation of BC’s Kootenay Mountains.
Dad and the other residents of the manor are still asymptomatic. So far all the COVID-19 cases have been in the lodge, and the provincial health authorities assure us that they’re doing everything in their power to contain the virus. With the centre so short-staffed, the caregivers who are coming in are exhausted, often working double shifts. Still they work to foster a sense of normalcy for the residents. “Singalong with Sonia” is cancelled, but Dad and his friends still gather to watch MASH. Dad’s pretty aware of what’s going on. Doctors in hazmat suits have come to check on them, and he knows that the centre has a “bad bug” but he’s in good spirits.
While I hope for the best, my stomach constantly feels unsettled, like I’m teetering on the edge of a precipice, as I check the latest news. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has urged Canadians to return and provided emergency funds to do so, but the virus is moving so fast that getting on a plane in Jakarta, the epicentre of Indonesia’s outbreak, would be risky, especially considering I’m 51, which is getting up there a bit, and I’m prone to lung problems—I’ve spent two weeks in ICU with viral pneumonia before and don’t want a repeat. On arrival in Vancouver I’d have to self quarantine for 14 days, and would have nowhere to stay without putting family and friends at risk.
So I self isolate with my husband at our house in the mountains near Jakarta. To pass the time we cook, read, spend time with our cats in the garden, and try to ignore the rasping coughs of our neighbours. For the first time, my husband didn’t join Friday prayers at the mosque. He’s had a bad cough and a low-grade fever while I’ve got a sore throat. It could be just a cold—it’s rainy season and they’re common at this time of year, but we can’t be sure and we don’t want to burden the already overwhelmed health care system when the symptoms aren’t serious. As of today, the number of Indonesians who have tested positive for COVID-19 is climbing rapidly, at 514 with 48 fatalities, mostly in Jakarta and West Java. For reasons not yet clear, Indonesia’s fatality rate of more than 8% is the highest in the world—higher than the global average of 3.9%.
My family and I continue our group chats on Messenger to sustain each other and share the latest news at the Lynn Valley Care Centre. Every day the caregivers who aren’t sick come in and continue their heroic work caring for beloved family members. Every night, Jesse still helps Dad call Mum on the phone.
In this time of crisis that is stretching hospitals and human resources to the limit, each and every one of us is now called upon to care for our elders and our most vulnerable, to check on them if they’re alone, to ensure they’ve got enough food, and, most important of all, to stay home so we can keep them as safe as possible. As the meme goes: “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on a couch. You can do this.”
I called my mother this morning to make sure she was okay, but to be honest it’s really Mum who’s making me feel better. Just hearing her voice is reassuring. She told me, in her usual cheerful and stoic manner, that this crisis is not so different from the Second World War—rationing food to ensure it lasts, stockpiling supplies, digging survival gardens, and, perhaps most important, working together to defeat a common enemy. “It’s the feeling that we’re all in this together,” she said.
Mum was five when the London Blitz started in 1940 and the Nazis saturation bombed the city every night for months. One bomb exploded in their garden, blowing in the side of the house and trapping my Uncle Roy under the stairs. Everyone survived, and they managed to dig out Uncle Roy, but to this day Mum still has shrapnel scars in her neck. I think the fact that they’ve been through much worse keeps my parents even keeled during this new war against the coronavirus. “We had a slogan then that I’ve been hearing a lot lately,” Mum said. “Keep calm and carry on.”