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  • Writer's pictureTamara Harris

Surviving Pandemics - Lessons I Learned While Living In Asia

Updated: Jul 27, 2021


I distinctly remember the first time I had to look up the word. It was 1994; I was in my late 20s and was relocating to Hong Kong during an active cholera outbreak. Bird flu soon followed and then SARS emerged a few years later after that when I lived in Beijing.

To say I was terrified was an understatement. Simple adjustments such as giving up seafood and chicken were subsequently replaced by temperature checks at the airport. Reality aggressively set in when I became pregnant and traveled to another country in Asia. I came down with a very high fever and had to postpone my trip home until my temperature had returned to safe levels. These successive outbreaks forced lifestyle changes and the confrontation of my mortality.

The first lesson I learned was that survival meant sacrifice.

During a pandemic, we all have to step up the role we play in valuing human life. I had to accept the fact that even after containment of the current outbreak, it could happen again and the new virus could potentially extract new demands on my daily habits and my movement. I became more grateful for life and accepted the new baseline responses that would be required of my family and me as members of a greater community. 

The second lesson I learned is that while life will at some point will return to normal, the stories we tell during the current outbreak will influence our readiness; both physically and psychologically, for the next one.

Testing, tracking, and tangible solutions such as vaccines always drove the recovery after each successive outbreak. Life does at some point, return to "normal." Living with the unknown had become my new way of life and I was able to move forward by adjusting my mindset to one of preparation and prevention versus eradication.

While I lived in Asia, I also observed that with each successive outbreak, narratives from leaders and health professionals emphasized food distribution channels, sanitation and hygiene, and public safety. The narratives never stigmatized the bodies and health of Asian citizens when describing the devastating impact to their families and communities.

More than twenty years later, the levels of resilience that I established during my time in Asia have been severely tested. As COVID-19 made its way across the United States, I have craved hope and inspiration. I have found it while reading “We Fed An Island” which chronicles Chef Jose Andres’ efforts to help to restore the community of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Chef Andres believed that in this time of suffering, food, more specifically sancocho, a hearty stew made with meat corn and other ingredients, was something he could provide to fill the bodies and touch the hearts of those who were suffering and feeling pretty hopeless.

What struck me was his ability to step in without judging the health or bodies of people he fed – he just knew food was part of the answer to sustaining a citizenry who had just had their way of life destroyed.

“Food is what binds us; it's how we build community.” (Andres, p.4) However, recent narratives about the devastation in the African American community during this pandemic exponentially stigmatize black and brown bodies. In the African American community we are facing another wave of disproportionate losses that will span multiple generations in its devastation. Adding insult to injury, we will not have the luxury of grieving without enduring the recurring narrative that our own bodies are weapons in and of themselves, and that somehow we are at fault because of what we do with the food that binds us.

As the mother of two adult daughters and as a daughter who has lost two parents to diabetes and seen countless relatives suffer the ravages of diabetes, I absolutely reject that narrative. Leaders and health professionals who respond daily to the needs of African American communities fully appreciate the myriad of systemic challenges black and brown people oftentimes from birth, face everyday in this country including the limited access to healthy food, safe water, places to exercise, and health care resources. Additionally, the economic impact of stay at home orders have been felt acutely by these communities where individuals do not have the same financial cushion or choices in the face of job losses.

As small businesses, after school programs, churches, shelters and other spaces such as libraries and parks have been closed and access to extended families has been diminished, stress levels have been through the roof in communities already prone to higher levels of neglect, abuse and trauma. We should not talk about comorbidity and COVID-19 without acknowledging the stress that structures and bias, both conscious and unconscious, with regards to race, engenders in this country.

The waves of loss and grief that envelop the African American community will impact our ability to “feed” each other emotionally for times to come. A decision to hug a loved one, shop in a store with a homemade mask, or gather to grieve the loss of a loved one can be a decision between life and death.

COVID-19 is unprecedented in its acceleration of profound levels of trauma in this country and around the world. As we navigate this transition and gather more information on this virus, healthcare professionals, organizations, and the media have enormous influence on how suffering is framed both universally and among various communities. They must have the courage not to scapegoat or shame anyone. They must have the courage to tell the stories behind the top-line data because this will impact the tangible solutions available to our community such as access to food, vaccines, housing, employment and mental health. This will be crucial for maintaining stability post COVID-19 and fortifying resilience for future outbreaks.

Ultimately, one of the most important lessons I learned from navigating multiple pandemics in Asia is that we all are the answer to rebuilding our communities during the crisis. We can practice what I call “Courageous Grief” – a grief that is underpinned by empathy, advocacy, and truth even when we are all feeling our most fragile and frightened. The origins of the word “courage” are “heart as the seat of emotions,” and that is what should drive how we treat communities of color during this crisis and beyond.

We urgently need a new baseline because we are all in this together. “Courageous Grief” demands we stay vigilant and vocal in using heart and truth based narratives that strengthen our self-esteem and agency over our beautiful black and brown bodies when it feels like our world, as we know it is falling apart. Challenging and rejecting public shaming and these false narratives are the continuous sacrifices we must make not only for the survival of our communities, but also for our country.

Tamara Harris, CEO of Tamara Harris LLC is an accomplished transition expert, motivational speaker, entrepreneur, educator and advocate.

Serving clients internationally through her coaching practice, she has a proven track record of helping others in crisis to successfully navigate extremely challenging circumstances including prolonged and high-conflict transitions.

Quote Attribution: Andres, Jose; Wolfe, Richard; (2018) We fed an island. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers

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