Doctors and nurses, among the first to bear witness to the horrors of the pandemic, are also the first to be inoculated.
A year ago, in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, a 61-year-old man became the first person to die from a mysterious new illness that had emerged in the city.
His was the first confirmed death from what became known as COVID-19; a virus that has now killed nearly two million people and continues to ravage communities across the world.
Victims of the contagious disease are often dying in isolation, without their families and friends by their side. And across the world, many of the bereaved are being robbed of the chance of a final goodbye and the comfort of a funeral.
The people we have profiled here are from all walks of life, representing just a few of the faces and names behind the staggering death toll.
They include a doctor in the Philippines who could have had a comfortable life in the capital but instead opted to work in one of the archipelago’s most remote provinces, a Melbourne bus driver with a passion for fun and cricket, an Indonesian tax consultant who sewed her daughter’s wedding dress, a former chef who defended workers’ rights in Italy, and “a legend” in the Pakistani community in the United States.
We would like to add more names to this list. If you know of anyone whose story you think we should tell, please get in touch with Kate Mayberry at the following email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“When you speak of him, please speak only of good words. Please do not remember him as someone who just died because of COVID-19. He did a lot for the country,” Maria Cielo wrote in a social media post honouring her father Dr Marcelo Jaochico.
As a top graduate from one of the country’s leading medical schools, the University of Santo Tomas and the University of the Philippines, Jaochico could have gone into lucrative practice in Manila and led a comfortable life.
Instead, he headed to Apayao, one of the most remote provinces in the Philippines, and served as a village doctor for the government, “crossing rivers and mountains” to tend to his impoverished patients and lead the community’s anti-malaria and anti-dengue efforts for nearly 16 years starting in the 1990s.
Even when he moved to Pampanga, where he served as the provincial health chief, he still continued to answer medical questions for his former patients in Apayao, showing his “untiring” dedication to his profession.
“He learned to take care of his patients, even with the limited medical resources he had,” daughter Cielo noted in her post.
In 2013, in the aftermath of the Typhoon Haiyan, which killed thousands of people in central Philippines, Jaochico volunteered to treat survivors and evacuees. In early 2020, he also helped treat those forced from their homes when Taal Volcano in Luzon island erupted.
As a government doctor, Jaochico had limited financial means so his wife worked as a nurse in the United Arab Emirates, to be able to support their children’s education.
Dr Jaochico passed away on March 24 last year, a week after developing pneumonia due to COVID-19.
What’s tragic, his daughter said, was that her father died alone without getting care from his family members.
His last message to her was a request to have his car washed and to take care of his dog.
In a statement, Pampanga Governor Dennis Pineda said that Dr Jaochico played a key role in the delivery of health and medical services to the province of more than two million people.
“Even if you did not win in your battle against COVID-19, rest assured that we will continue your mission,” Pineda said.
A mother of three, Sitti Basheera was well respected in her community for the love and care she showed to her 25-year-old daughter who is paralysed from the wait down.
“She was entirely dedicated to her daughter and wanted to make sure her child suffered no discomfort,” said NAM Farzan, a close family friend and a local councillor for the town of Polgahawela. “She loved her daughter and she never took [her child’s disability] as a burden. I meet a lot of people but I have only met a handful people who were this patient, kind and charitable.”
Basheera died while on her way to the hospital on December 17. She had complained of chest pains, and a test showed she had contracted COVID-19. Her body was cremated against her Muslim family’s wishes because of a government policy that rules out burials for COVID-19 victims. Cremation is prohibited in Islam and Sri Lanka’s Muslim community has decried the government policy as discriminatory.
“Her death is a great loss to us all, especially to her daughter who is devastated by this loss,” said Farzan. “Her family could not carry out the funeral rituals. That has made her death harder for her children, for her relatives and her community. This is why we hope that the government will revise this decision.”
Long recognised as one of the Philippines’ top scholars on China, Professor Aileen Baviera was among the experts sought by the Philippine government, as it challenged Beijing’s South China Sea claims before the International Tribunal at The Hague.
Baviera had just returned from a security conference in Paris, France last March when she contracted the coronavirus disease during the early part of the pandemic. She died on March 21, 2020.
Another Filipino foreign policy expert, Alan Ortiz, who travelled with her also died two days later.
With her years-long scholarship in China in the 1980s, Baviera was sought after by academic institutions, international think-tanks and the media, and her death “left a gaping hole in the academic community” at the University of the Philippines (UP), said her colleague, political science Professor Maria Ela Atienza.
Aside from teaching at UP, and serving as Dean of UP Asian Center from 2003 to 2009, she also served as the editor-in-chief of the international journal, Asian Politics and Policy. She published numerous articles on China-ASEAN relations as well as China-Philippine diplomacy.
Born in August 1959, Baviera earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Foreign Service, her master’s degree in Asian Studies (China), and her doctorate in political science all from UP. She also spent several years at the University of Beijing to study history as well as at the Beijing Language Institute, where she learned Mandarin.
As a student during Martial Law in the 1970s, she saw the excesses of the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and later joined the leftist Communist movement in opposition to his two-decades in power. But her years of experience in China also made her recognise “the shallowness of political propaganda” especially in the time of Mao Zedong, she wrote in an October 2019 Rappler article.
As a Sinologist, Baviera had urged recognition of China’s complexity and promoted active engagement and pragmatism by Manila towards Beijing, earning her respect in the foreign policy community.
She said that to understand China, it is important to recognise that “it is not unidimensional”, adding that while there is a Chinese state, there is also “1.4 billion thinking, breathing, living people.”
She advocated for an independent foreign policy, and called for the Philippines to balance its relationship with China and the US.
In one of her last published articles before her death, she called out President Rodrigo Duterte for creating “more instability” in Philippine security, when he threatened in 2020 to end the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, which allows the conduct of joint military exercises between American and Filipino troops.
In a tribute, Chito Santaromana, another China expert and the Philippine ambassador to China, called her a “friend and beloved colleague”, adding that he “will always cherish” Baviera’s “collegial advice, objective analysis and scholarly wisdom.”
Richard Heydarian, an Al Jazeera opinion columnist and Philippine foreign policy observer, also praised Baviera saying the UP professor “left behind an inimitable legacy of great scholarship and humility.”
Baviera’s husband, Jorge, died in 2018. They are survived by their three adult children.
Adam Naseer, father to five children and a “jewel of a man”, died from a heart attack on October 31, 2020, after contracting COVID-19 at Kandima, a luxury resort in the Maldives where he worked.
Naseer’s death caused an uproar after his family and co-workers accused Kandima’s management of failing to let the 60-year-old leave the premises for medical care despite his deteriorating condition. A health worker at the hotel, located on a private island, gave Naseer aspirin, but failed to refer him for a coronavirus test, despite symptoms such as a fever and loss of smell and taste.
He died four hours after he was brought to a hospital on a nearby island.
“I’ve lost a jewel of a man,” said Zunaira Mohamed, Naseer’s wife of 34 years. “He was so good to me and our children. Our sense of loss is indescribable.”
Mohamed described her husband as mild-mannered, kind and witty.
She added, “He was a man of many crafts – masonry, carpentry, boat building and many more.”
Naseer’s death led to the discovery of more than 40 COVID-19 infections on Kandima.
The police have opened an investigation into Kandima’s handling of Naseer’s illness, but the resort has denied allegations of negligence.
John Walter lived his entire life in Middle Village, Queens.
As a matter of fact, he recently got a certificate from his state senator for having the same zip code for 80 years.
“He was tied to this community, he didn’t want to be apart from his family,” said his son, Brian.
But he also loved to have fun.
“He was a very funny guy, he loved making other people laugh,” Brian said. “One of his favourite little things was he had a red rubber nose that he would carry in his pocket and pop on in the most unusual time, while not saying a word.”
Walter died on May 10, after an 18-day fight with COVID-19, leaving behind his wife of 57 years, Margaret (Peg) Killeen.
A father of four children, and a grandfather of two, Walter was a Dodgers-turned-Mets fan, a historian and an author for most of his adult life. He loved old movies and was passionate about researching and teaching the history of New York. But he also loved to travel.
“He loved having good food and good wine, there are very few photos of my father without wine in his hand,” said his son.
Walter also ran a youth programme in his local parish for 28 years, which helped thousands of teenagers, many, his son said, now adults who have reached out to the family saying how he changed their lives.
More intimately, Brian, 46, said Walter was very empathetic to his grandson, who has severe autism.
“My father was his best friend.”
It is Walter’s sense of humour and ability to empathise with just about anyone, that will be most missed, his son said.
“Even if you walked into the house for the first time he treated you like he knew you forever, and his first comment to you was a joke, just to put you at ease and make you feel at home,” Brian said.
Robert “Bob” Freedman, 88, was a bit like Napoleon, according to his daughter Karen.
“He had the biggest personality, but was only 5’4 (163cm),” she said.
Freedman, a father of two, for decades worked in advertising in New York City, where he ran his own agency. He also loved playing tennis, travelling and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle.
“He would be so proud of himself when he could do the Saturday puzzle because that’s supposedly the hardest,” his daughter recalled.
He was creative, artistic, and had an operatic voice. While he was a student at Columbia University, he was a member of the Glee club, a vocal performance group.
“He would sing all the time,” Karen said.
But shortly after his wife of 47 years died in 2008, Freedman began suffering from dementia, and moved to an assisted living facility in New York City – a place he loved because it had a view of Central Park and where he had many friends.
“He was the mayor of his assisted living,” Karen said.
Freedman died on April 10, shortly after contracting the virus.
Shafqat Khan arrived in the United States with his family in 1982 expecting to start work.
But the promised job failed to materialise and Khan, his wife Saida and their three children spent 12 years undocumented, as they could not afford to return to Pakistan where he was born, or to Libya, where they had been living.
Despite being well-educated and highly-skilled, for years he worked at a general store in Brooklyn.
In the year 2000, two years after becoming a US citizen, Khan started a non-profit organisation in Jersey City called Pakistanis for America, aimed at increasing voter registration among the Pakistani community.
He helped Pakistani Americans with their drivers licence forms, “green card” applications, and access to benefits. He also encouraged members of his community to become more politically engaged.
“He was so interested in US politics and the political process,” his daughter, Sabila Khan said.
After the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, Sabila says her father pivoted his organisation’s mission and began holding discussion panels, bringing together Jersey City’s many diverse communities in search of common ground to find ways for people to connect with one another, and bridge their differences.
A decade ago, Khan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which had affected his mobility in recent years.
But despite being confined to a wheelchair, he continued to be active in a community that he loved, according to his daughter.
“He was a legend in the Pakistani-American community, and he meant the world to me,” his daughter said.
Khan was a voracious reader. He also loved baseball.
The 76-year-old died on April 14 after contracting COVID-19 at a rehab facility where he was receiving treatment.
He leaves behind 3 children, 7 grandchildren, and a wife of 50 years.
“He died alone in a hospital that was 3 blocks away,” Sabila said. “It’s unimaginable and it’s a nightmare that will haunt us as a family for the rest of our lives.”
Sabila has started a bereavement group to keep alive her father’s legacy of community service, and to provide people with a safe space to mourn and grieve.
Cheryl Burch would have celebrated her 36th wedding anniversary in August and the birth of her first grandson due in October.
The 61-year-old Michigan resident died on June 4 after a 51-day battle with COVID-19.
Burch had a number of pre-existing health conditions – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and was receiving treatment for Lupus – prior to contracting the new coronavirus.
As her health deteriorated, she received multiple experimental treatments, like convalescent plasma, Remdesivir, Hydroxychloroquine and Zinc, and steroids at the McLaren Regional Medical Center in Flint.
Burch was an auditor and a contract administrator for the state of Michigan at the Department of Transportation.
“I never got the chance to say goodbye to her and it’s still very, very upsetting to me,” her son Aaron Burch, said.
“I had to tell her while she was on a ventilator and under a great deal of medication and under sedation that she was going to have her first grandson,” the 32-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Burch said her mother will be remembered as a kind, thoughtful, intelligent and loving woman.
David Cheng was the first person in Malaysia to die from COVID-19.
Born in Kuching in Malaysian Borneo, Cheng started his career in financial services, but his deeply held belief in God led him to the priesthood, and in 1999 he became a full-time pastor at the city’s Emmanuel Baptist Church.
His son, Anders, remembers his father was a man with a mission to help others.
“When he passed on our family got so many messages from around the world from all the people that he had helped and impacted,” Anders said. “That really touched me.”
Cheng, who was married with three children, led the English language services at the Emmanuel Baptist Church and his easy-going nature made him a natural fit for its music section where he played the guitar, composed new songs and uploaded them to YouTube and Spotify.
In January, Cheng held a joint birthday celebration with his daughter to mark his 60th and her 21st. It was a special day and Anders made a speech to the guests in tribute to his father.
It was in the early days of the pandemic that the pastor fell ill with suspected pneumonia. He was admitted to hospital in Kuching on March 13.
Anders – working as a teacher in another city in the state – flew back to be with his father but was unable to see him because of the COVID-19 protocols.
Cheng died just four days later.
“We all want to be just like him,” Anders said. “Not necessarily a pastor, but to do good, to bring hope. As a family our hearts go out to all those who are suffering through the coronavirus pandemic.”
Richard Proia, a retired accountant from Rochester, New York, died on April 16 after 10 days on a ventilator. The father of two was 66 years old.
His daughter, Angelina Proia, said she started a support group on Facebook for people who had lost their loved ones to COVID-19, to help cope with the loss.
“Losing someone to COVID is so different – you have to deal with people calling it fake or not believing that so many people are dying,” the 34-year-old told Al Jazeera. “We all kind of get it, we get the frustration, the collective anger.”
With limitations on large gatherings, the family held a small physically distanced funeral that was arranged on video-conferencing app Zoom and attended in-person by around 10 people.
Proia said it was tough not being able to grieve properly because of the restrictions.
“Even hugging my mother and my brother was a really big risk around the grave,” she said.
When asked about her fondest memory of her late father, Proia recalled their trips to the amusement parks and the zoo when he came to visit her in New York City.
“My father was like an 8-year-old in a 66-year-old man’s body,” she remembered fondly. “He loved life … Even when he was sad, he was happy, he had a smile on his face.”
Ramash Quasba moved to the United States from India at the age of 26.
The 67-year-old retired engineer and father of two suffered a cardiac arrest as a result of COVID-19 complications and died on September 22 after being intubated for almost three weeks.
According to Hindu custom, he was cremated.
“It was a very difficult experience because I knew every single detail of what my dad was going through,” his daughter, Naeha Quasba, who is a primary care physician, said.
“My dad was very hardworking,” she told Al Jazeera. “He always pushed us hard to study and he was very proud of the achievements that me and my sister made academically and career-wise.”
Hailing from a cricket-loving nation, Ramash enjoyed watching the sport and spending time with his grandchildren.
“He loved food. We would always joke that he would be the first in the buffet line,” his 33-year-old daughter, Naeha, added, laughing.
“I’m just trying to focus on keeping his memory alive for my children. I’ve printed out some photographs of him with my kids and we keep his name in our prayers at night.”
Neville Vaughan died on August 16, after contracting COVID-19 in an aged care facility in Melbourne, Australia. He was 80 years old and only one week away from his 81st birthday.
He had been married to his wife Margaret for 61 years, who his granddaughter Rebecca said “he adored.”
“He was a very family-oriented person,” Rebecca told Al Jazeera. “He always somehow made you laugh no matter what. He was a very happy and easy-go-lucky man who was always supportive and always proud of you no matter what.”
Rebecca described Neville as “the life of the party” and despite his age, even attended her 18th birthday party in February.
“That was the last time I saw him,” Rebecca said. “He was very happy and a little bit confused because of the dementia, but he was having a laugh and a joke with my family and my friends.”
Neville had five sons, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, and was known as a star cricketer in his younger days.
His love of cricket continued after his playing career ended, volunteering at local cricket clubs and encouraging his sons in the game. He was also a bus driver in Melbourne for many years.
Neville remained in community work in his old age, singing and performing in nursing homes. After being admitted to an aged care facility in October last year, he became popular with staff and other residents. He was a “social butterfly,” Rebecca said.
Due to the lockdown and restrictions that were imposed in Melbourne to combat the spread of COVID-19, Rebecca and other family members did not get the chance to see Neville before he passed away.
Rebecca is left with fond memories of her grandfather.
“He’d always take her to the park and push me on the equipment and always come to your soccer game.”
“He was always your first fan. Such a lovely guy.”
Piano teacher Du Shengchang died on February 15 from complications related to COVID-19. He was 67.
A Wuhan local, Du taught the piano his entire life. Among his students was his son, Du Qin.
Qin remembers his father as a strict man, who would pin him down by the piano every day after school. Du would then sit next to his son to make sure he hit every key correctly.
“I owe him a lifetime of gratitude for introducing me to music, and he is forever my first and my last piano teacher,” said Qin.
Du was also a loving father, Qin said, sending him homemade food during his time away at college in Shanghai. The well-sealed packages would often come with a note reminding Qin to stay healthy and keep practising the piano.
Du met his wife at the age of 19, while at college.
“According to the love story they told me, I’d call myself lucky if I could encounter half of the romance they did,” said Qin.
Then, last year, Du sold the piano that he had been using to teach piano and got a new Steinway & Sons, specifically for his son. Du wanted him to come back home and play a “mini-concert” for him. But the coronavirus meant Qin never got the chance.
Ali Behzad, a prominent Iranian journalist, died of COVID-19 after fighting the illness for 45 days. He was 66 years old.
“Uncle Moustache”, as he was called by some close friends, was known for an easy smile, his kindness and willingness to help others.
The veteran journalist began his career at the Kayhan newspaper in 1977. Considered the most conservative Iranian daily, Kayhan has been headed by a representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader since the country’s 1979 revolution. Behzad worked at the paper’s culture desk for 17 years, rejecting several offers to head its current affairs section.
After leaving Kayhan, Behzad worked as the public relations manager of Behrouz, a large food industry company for 20 years. He wrote several books including the popular, Pioneers of Food Industries.
Ismy Latifah, 68, died from COVID-19 in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, on March 19.
Latifah is believed to have contracted the virus from her son, after he came into contact with Indonesia’s first confirmed local case at a dance in southern Jakarta.
A tax consultant, Latifah continued to advise her clients even after she retired, according to her daughter Eva Rahmi Salama. She also sewed her daughter’s wedding dress and was a good cook, said Salama, adding that she would miss her mother’s traditional dishes of “soto ayam” (a herbal chicken soup) and “nasi goreng” (fried rice).
Latifah’s parting words to her daughter were to look after the youngest of her two brothers, who is 25 years of age. She then kissed Salama’s hand and wished her success.
Salama also lost her father, 70-year-old Taten Syamsir to COVID-19. He died in Jakarta on March 21, only a few hours after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Salama said Syamsir, who had been separated from Latifah for about 20 years, apologised for “leaving us all at that time” and gripped her hand tightly during their last moments together.
She cried and said she “already forgave” him.
Giovanna Sigali, known as Gianna, died from COVID-19 on March 27.
The 71-year-old died at a nursing home in the northern town of Chiari, half an hour away from Brescia and Bergamo, among two Italian towns most hard hit in the coronavirus outbreak.
The nursing home had closed doors to visitors in February to reduce the risk of infections, but “the coronavirus found its own way to get through taking away her life and the ones of many others,” said her niece, Elisa Arcari.
“Be it your birthday, name-day, or some sort of anniversary, I knew she would be the very first one to call,” said Arcari, her voice imbued with tenderness.
Sigali, born with cognitive disabilities, lived most of her life in Milan.
She moved back to Chiari in 2017, but continued to miss the big city. She was a great fan of AC Milan and had a special place for the team’s red-and-black scarf in her bedroom, among the many photos and teacups she kept there.
Always wearing a hat and a myriad of colourful bracelets, Sigali rigorously followed her daily routine, including breakfast at 9am, an unmissable date with the TV at 2pm to watch Il Segreto, her favourite Spanish soap opera, and endless card games of Gin Rummy.
“What I will miss the most? Her smile. I can’t remember her without a smile,” Arcari said.
Muhammad Ali was a trader, travelling from Pakistan to Iran every few weeks to procure household goods that he would then sell in his home city of Quetta. He contracted the coronavirus following a trip to Iran and died of COVID-19 on March 22. He was 64.
He is survived by seven children. His wife died from a heart attack just a few days after his death, according to Ali’s 20-year-old son Ali Asghar.
“He was a straightforward person. He would go to work and come home. When he was in the hospital, he had no idea what coronavirus was. He just wanted to go home,” said Asghar.
“He was a softhearted man. When he would go to Iran, he’d be there for 15 days or so, and then in Pakistan, he’d spend most of his time at home.”
Traditionally, Muslim funeral prayers are offered in conjunction with one of the five daily prayers. For coronavirus patients in Pakistan, however, this is not the case. So Asghar said he drove his father’s body to a graveyard in the dead of night and buried him within hours.
Zhang Lifa was born in the final days of World War II, just five years before the Chinese Civil War ended in the eastern province of Shandong.
The young Zhang grew up to become a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army where he worked in nuclear weapons development. He left the army in 1968 as the Cultural Revolution raged across China, but his service left him deaf in one ear and in poor health due to exposure to radiation.
After leaving the military, Zhang moved to Wuhan where he worked as a clerk at a local college and retired in 2000. The army veteran died on February 1 at the age of 76.
His son, Zhang Hai, thinks his father contracted the coronavirus while he was in hospital for surgery on a broken leg after having a fall in January.
Asked about his favourite memory of his father, Zhang Hai said it was a fairly recent one.
On October 1 last year, when China was celebrating its 70th anniversary, Zhang Lifa got to his feet to salute the flag during the playing of the country’s national anthem.
“The most important thing I learned from him is that he taught me to maintain my moral integrity, to always show love to others and to treasure life,” Zhang Hai said.
An unstoppable worker, devoted to his family and “a real socialist” – this is how Claudio Musa’s niece remembers her uncle, who died of COVID-19 at a retirement home in Italy’s Cremona on March 17. He was 79 years old.
Musa had been a chef at Cremona’s hospital for his entire career. If needed, he would always go the extra mile by taking part-time jobs to be sure nothing was missing at home for his wife Rina and three children, Tiziana, Roberto and Nadia, the latter who died from cancer in 1999.
“He was firmly convinced that working was people’s expression of dignity,” said Bartoletti. And while he was mild-mannered, he was a fierce proponent of worker’s rights which he defended as a leading representative of the hospital’s union.
After his wife’s death in 2007, Musa dedicated his time to helping his son, Roberto, with his duties as a priest in San Daniele Po’s diocese, including cooking almost every summer for the children of the parish.
His career in kitchens and restaurants made him a great organiser, a skill he would use to turn his own family celebrations into festive events, said Bartoletti.
In his last years, Musa, who suffered from diabetes, moved into a nursing home. He was active and social at the Cremona home, quickly establishing a new entourage of friends, especially of women whose company he greatly enjoyed, his niece said.
Reporting by Ali MC in Australia, Saba Aziz in Canada, Shawn Yuan and Michael Standaert in China, Randy Mulyanto in Indonesia, Kate Mayberry in Malaysia, Asad Hashim in Pakistan, Ted Regencia in the Philippines, Maysam Bizaer in Turkey, Jihan Abdalla in the United States, Zaheena Rasheed in the Maldives, Rathindra Kuruwita in Sri Lanka and Virginia Pietromarchi in Qatar.