Three years later: Lives reshaped by COVID-19
Al Jazeera spoke to people from across the world on how the pandemic affected their and others’ lives.
Three years ago this day, the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, a once-in-a-lifetime event that tested the limits of humanity.
Societies in lockdown, untold numbers of people hospitalised, school closures, jobs lost and the death of loved ones became routine in the lives of billions of people.
While many may want to forget the horrors wrought by the pandemic, others continue to suffer its physical, emotional and financial consequences.
Al Jazeera spoke to five people from around the world to understand how COVID-19 affected their lives and continues to do so:
Farath Shba, Singapore
Zaheer was only 18 months old when he succumbed to COVID-19 in June 2022, becoming the first reported death from the virus of a child below 12 years in Singapore.
After recording a temperature of nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the first few days of catching COVID, Zaheer’s condition worsened.
He suffered from violent seizures and was diagnosed with meningoencephalitis – a condition that leads to an inflammation of the meninges membranes and brain tissues. Zaheer was eventually placed on life support after doctors pronounced his brain non-functional.
“In life sometimes you think you could have done better. I feel that when it comes to Zaheer’s passing. I still feel the anger,” Zaheer’s father Farath Shba, holding back tears, told Al Jazeera from Singapore.
“That was very traumatising … I was not ready to let him go. Everyone told me to give up or get prepared for the worst but I simply could not,” Shba said.
Zaheer’s older brother Zayan, who is still a toddler, would constantly ask about him, their father said.
“I did not know how to tell him his brother may not come home.”
Then on June 27, little Zaheer took his last breath.
“Nothing prepares you for the loss of a child,” Shba said.
“The first month or so was very difficult. My wife would wake up at night crying loudly … this happened for weeks,” he said.
Zayan too was overcome with sadness when he found out his little brother was not coming home.
“He was very protective of him … he thought we had done something bad to him. He would start hitting me and my wife.”
Nine months later, Shba says, the family has started to move on.
“We have not forgotten Zaheer. I still pray at his grave once a week,” the account manager revealed.
Moreover, Shba says he avoids talking to Zayan about Zaheer, whose memories of his young brother have started to fade somewhat.
“When he matures a bit, I will explain it to him. But for now, I avoid bringing up his brother’s name,” he said.
Ana Gruszynski, Brazil
Ana Gruszynski says her life changed forever from the moment her 87-year-old mother was hospitalised with COVID-19 in August 2020.
After her mother passed away from the virus, Gruszynski – who took care of her during that time – tested positive five days later, leading to pneumonia, neuropathy issues and skin rashes.
She is now one of the millions of people suffering from the condition known as long COVID, a set of illnesses that may last weeks, months or even years for those who have caught coronavirus.
While her pneumonia subsided a few weeks after she contracted COVID-19, Gruszynski said she soon started to develop vertigo – a condition defined as having “a sensation of feeling off balance”, and can lead to nausea, vomiting and eyesight issues.
“If I got on an online video session to teach or using my phone, I could not see properly … I would get very dizzy,” she said. “I thought maybe it was just stress since my mother just died, but the symptoms only got worse.”
A professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, Gruszynski said while she was battling vertigo, she was also diagnosed with polyneuropathy – a condition that affects a person’s peripheral nerves, skin and muscles.
“Taking a shower felt terrible,” she said.
“It hurt to put clothes on. I had to buy a special pillow and foam [to sleep]. It was really awful.”
Her condition became so bad that she was forced to take time off from teaching in 2021 as she sought medical attention.
Eventually, after more than a year of trying multiple remedies, Gruszynski was recommended medical marijuana to help with her symptoms, which she said made a huge difference.
But her symptoms have not gone away fully.
“If I walk too fast, or if the weather is too hot, I get tachycardia symptoms,” she said.
In July, the 56-year-old said she decided to take early retirement from her position at the university.
“I already had a desire to retire before COVID … but even [if] I wanted to continue, I couldn’t afford to,” she said. “I have difficulty concentrating and am slower to perform tasks, which is incompatible … with work demands of university professors.”
Nosipiwo Manona, South Africa
At the onset of the pandemic, former journalist Nosipiwo Manona was forced to quit her job for health reasons. Suffering from diabetes, Manona was susceptible to severe complications from COVID which was why she chose to leave the job and industry that she loved.
“My workplace expected me to go work actively in the field during the height of the pandemic. But I simply could not take the chance,” Manona, a mother of four, told Al Jazeera.
“Losing my job was a bludgeoning. Journalism has always been my first love and great passion.”
In November 2020, then aged 50, Manona lost eight family members due to the virus within weeks. Those who died included her parents and the father of her children.
“It was six weeks of pure horror,” she said exasperatingly.
“When we arrange … events like weddings or funerals, you need your family members there, your aunts and uncles included. Today, we are the family that now has to look for relatives to make that happen,” she said.
Manona explained how her former employer let go hundreds of staff when the coronavirus struck, and that companies across South Africa downsized and have been reluctant to rehire people until today.
Apart from a few reporting opportunities, Manona revealed she has become reliant on the generosity of her friends and relatives to make ends meet. She does not have the money to pay her children’s school fees or buy food.
“What really kills is being a donor-recipient when you’ve lived so many years being able to cater for yourself,” she said.
Often the pressure of providing for her family and the grief of losing loved ones leaves her “overwhelmed”, she added.
“I just go into corner or for a walk to let it all out … I have cried a lot in the past three years.”
Biboara Yinikere, Nigeria
“She’s very close to my heart,” Biboara Yinikere says of Mimi, her 11-year-old daughter with Down syndrome.
So, naturally, when the pandemic hit, the 50-year-old said she was “really worried”, knowing that children with Down syndrome were more prone to severe respiratory illnesses.
While being concerned about her daughter’s health, Yinkere said she was also bothered by the disruption to Mimi’s education. When schools closed during the lockdown, Yinkere had to become Mimi’s primary educator.
“I did it for the first two months. It was not easy,” said Yinkere, the founder of the NGO Engraced Ones.
Nevertheless, Yinkere concedes she was eventually able to get better at teaching Mimi, employing “lots of learning resources” to make sure she did not fall behind.
“She started to enjoy the lessons more. At some point, she would even remind me it was time to learn.”
Once Yinkere went back to work, Mimi resumed her education online, presenting her mother with a new challenge.
“Because of her condition and education level, she could not just sit on her own during Zoom classes,” Yinkere explained.
While her siblings helped out for a short while, she was eventually forced to hire an external educator to help her daughter get through the online classes. And that presented more concerns during the pandemic, she said.
“Of course I was terrified. With my children, I can control the [home] environment. But now I had someone who was coming from the outside, using public transportation.”
Yinkere’s advice to other parents who have a special needs child is that everyone needs to extend a hand during a pandemic-like situation.
“Every family member needs to be involved at a certain level,” she said.
Mona Masood, USA
When US-based psychiatrist Mona Masood first pitched the idea of starting an emotional support hotline for doctors on her Facebook page, she was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response.
Encouraged by the feedback, in April 2020, Masood and four others launched Physicians Support Line – where doctors, trainees and medical students can anonymously reach out for help.
The experience of the hotline, she said, gave her an “unparalleled window” into the mental and emotional turmoil faced by front-line workers during the pandemic.
A “buzzword being thrown around everywhere was ‘burnout’,” she said, recounting how the pressure faced by front-line staff during the pandemic was being described.
“But it was not that, because that is very much ‘oh, you’re not cut out to do this job’,” the 37-year-old explained to Al Jazeera.
According to Masood, moral injury was the more accurate term to describe what health workers faced. A term first used when war veterans would come home.
“It wasn’t just that they were feeling post-traumatic stress disorder, but were also questioning their morality – what they did in war zones like decisions related to collateral damage, civilian deaths,” said Masood, who is based in Pennsylvania.
The same moral injury was happening to physicians during the pandemic, she observed.
“We have to decide who got to live and die, who a [medical] resource will go to. We had limited medication. Who were we to decide who got what,” she recalled physicians saying at the time.
“People were really struggling with what it meant to be a physician – someone who took an oath to do no harm, but was inevitably doing harm because we did not have a system [that] gave us enough resources.”
Describing her own wellbeing in the three years since the outbreak, Masood said while she could relate to her fellow doctors to some extent, she had come to “accept her own humanity”.
“It means I don’t have to have all the answers. I can accept that to be human is to be imperfect,” she said.
“Embracing the imperfections allowed me to be there for others,” she added.
“I’m going to try my best, and sometimes, my best is going to look different every single day.”