A billboard as part of a campaign to stop the spread of Covid-19 in Lagos, Nigeria, on April 20. | Pius Utomi Ekpe/AFP via Getty Images
People in Nigeria, Spain, Iran, England, Italy, and New Jersey describe hospitalization in the pandemic.
A chaplain who helped a dying mother say goodbye to her incarcerated son over FaceTime. A woman who coughed on the floor until she gasped for breath, certain she was going to die there alone. A doctor who was forced to reuse her mask for weeks, terrified that she might infect her family.
Since March, I’ve interviewed people around the world about the new disease sweeping across the world. As Covid-19 spread, I’ve spoken to epidemiologists, politicians, and sent many unanswered queries to health departments.
Horrors at such a scale can be difficult to put in perspective. Psychologists call this effect psychic numbing. People feel compassion when they see one person suffer, but when over 125,000 die (the latest US milestone), we can become numb. So much pain is hard to comprehend.
Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, studies human judgment, decision making, and psychic numbing after mass human tragedies. He says psychic numbing is enabling leaders to “give up the fight against this still raging pandemic, in order to open up the economy.”
To help combat the numbing, here are a few people’s stories of surviving Covid-19, in their own words. These patients live in Nigeria, Spain, Iran, England, Italy, and New Jersey, and they each had different experiences with their medical systems. Some health institutions have clearly responded better than others.
These stories, edited and condensed for clarity, are not meant to be representative. Rather, they’re a reminder that behind every Covid-19 statistic there’s a person with loved ones — someone who wants the world to do better in the fight against the virus.
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, 29, Lagos, Nigeria
I started feeling sick in early March. I had just arrived back in Nigeria from the UK. I self-isolated — I wasn’t sure it was Covid-19, but I wanted to protect other people — and called the Nigeria Center for Disease Control. It took 24 hours before I was tested, and my test result confirmed I had contracted Covid-19.
I was the third case in Nigeria. It was really scary. They came with an ambulance and took me to the female isolation unit. It was quiet; I was literally the first person there. I was like, ‘Oh my god. They haven’t had any other female cases, what is the guarantee they will be able to handle my case?’ It was just a ward with a lot of empty beds. Being alone in that space could drive you crazy.
I was coughing, nauseous, vomiting, and had diarrhea. I lost my sense of taste, and couldn’t drink water. Being sick away from my family was really tough. I had my cellphone, but also I didn’t want to get in touch with people, to make them worried. I felt alone.
But my outlook is what will be, will be. I could get run over by a bus tomorrow. I don’t want to spend any more time self-isolating than I have to. Staring at my walls is doing my mental health no good. But when I walk my dog, I see people out all together, not social distancing, and part of me wants to go, ‘What are you doing?’
My daughter came home the first weekend in April, with a persistent cough. But I thought it doesn’t matter now, you’re self-isolating. You’re at home, you’re with me. So she wasn’t tested, but I have my suspicions.
None of the people that I socialized with in America got sick. They were doctors, nurses, medics. We’re in a Facebook group chat, so I just said, “Look guys, came back and tested positive last week, sorry.” I think I picked it up in my last couple of days, where it was just me sightseeing around Washington, DC — where you get into the back of a Lyft, and then you use the Metro.
I may have thought I was invincible. Now, if my government is telling me I have to buckle down and stay at home for eight weeks, I’ll do it.
I’m very lucky. I’m paid by the government. I can load a laptop up from my house. I feel sorry for the people that can’t, and for the families and the children stuck at home. I think being sick did change me: I liked to be optimistic before, but I’m probably more of a pragmatist now.
Sergio, 60, Milan, Italy
As told by his sister, who requested his last name not be used for privacy reasons.
Unfortunately, my brother passed away a month ago. He lived in Milan. He got Covid-19 at the end of March from his wife, who is a general practitioner. She had a high fever and a strong cough. He didn’t have the usual Covid symptoms — no fever at all, just low oxygen saturation, but all of his organs suffered. He already had major health issues.
They did what they could. In Italy, there is free health care, so everything was covered. After a couple weeks, he seemed like he was getting better. We saw him in video calls with WhatsApp, never in person. But his poor heart couldn’t handle it anymore. He eventually died from cardiac arrest, at the age of 60.
Only a few people were allowed at the funeral in May, but that’s only because we were entering the second phase of the Italian lockdown. Now we’re grieving, and trying to live with Covid-19, wearing masks and social distancing.
He was a good man, he loved his family and his mom, like every good Italian man.
Kathleen Ronan, 51, Lehigh Valley, New Jersey
My symptoms started on March 27 with a mild cough and a low temperature. My family doctor sent me to the ER on April 1. I was running fevers of 103, while using ice packs on my underarms, groin, and neck. I went by ambulance to a nearby university hospital, but I was sent home by the ER doctor. I begged him not to send me home, and told him he had no idea how sick I was. He said he did, because “that’s what he gets paid for.”
On April 3, my fever went up to 104.5. My 16-year-old daughter was caring for me, and at one point, she took the Tylenol away from me because I tried to take 2,000 mg in one dose. (Smart kid!) She called the doctor because I was so delirious — and did the talking, because I was making no sense.
I remember the tent outside the hospital, but not much more. I had to ask for a lot of what I wanted. I’m a nurse, so once I was a bit more coherent, I could do that. After I was transferred out of the ICU, I discovered by accident that I had an inhaler. It was ordered “as needed,” but I was told doses were never given because I never asked for it. I didn’t know because it was never offered. For a respiratory patient with low oxygen levels receiving supplemental oxygen, it should have been given every four hours. I filed an incident report for that. A layperson would never have uncovered the mistake at all.
When I was finally home, it took about two weeks to get around without a walker. It took another two weeks to try the stairs. At first, it was a good day when I could sit up all day.
Ali Mollasalehi and Dayo Aiyetan contributed reporting.