I prefer to avoid you completely. I prefer to runaway too. Time is slow. But your stretch is deep. Unfriendly too. I tried to stay put. Wished this would all go away. I was a fool. The risks were plenty but being your fool was easy. I tried to give myself the maximum chance of survival. Even the minimum almost ruined me. So I preferred to runway. My own words were a trap. I dug a hole for myself. Moved up and down the hole and was still trapped. Even my spirits were drained. Survival too seemed far away. I thought to pray. I hoped it would give me the fuel to withstand the cold. Hoped the prayers would tide me through this period. For what we pray for can mean life or death. I prayed for life. Though death seemed to lead the way. 800,000 deaths today and it’s shadow still looms deep.

The walls of my throat are thick. Tears have stoped flowing. All we can do is defend our own. So our eyes are open. I pray you find more pair of eyes. The more pair of eyes there are to see, the more hearts there are to feel. We have lost our ways with seeing and feeling that death is now us. So I pray for more pair of eyes. Those bold enough to fight undetected. To single out those who prefer to die rather than protect themselves. So being with more pair of eyes, moving as a flock would represent real security for those of us prepared to live. Robins in the winter adopt a policy where the males and females, hold for a time, separate winter territories they defend. I pray you find your Robin, if male or female. And when you do, be as strong as a lion and run from nothing. Your clouds have no rain.

Langston Hughes has a poem of how a seed at the right time, produces flower, which goes on to become more than the seed ever imagined. ⁣

Imagine if the path out of the pandemic was like a seed. Imagine how we will blossom when we become flowers. All because we took the time to first plant the seed. ⁣

For people’s health, with this pandemic, we should be like seeds planted and watered by people (and not solely experts) who tell us which way to go.

Where there are no attention to the public, the path out of the pandemic is hopeless.

We have being fighting this virus for close to 2 years next year. It keeps winning. My opinion, physicians are to blame.

No, I do not hate physicians. I am married to one. We started to have a debate about this during Thanksgiving and let’s just say the physicians in the house proved my point.

My opinion again, the absence of public health people, not to be equated as presence of medically trained people only, are to blame.

As someone who calls themselves a public health expert, our absence in this pandemic is part of the problem. We are no where to be found. The physicians have taken up all the oxygen they can and will continue to use it while the path out of the pandemic remains hopeless.

Do you know who really vaccinated people, with small pox vaccination for example? You guessed it, not only physicians but community health workers.

Ooh, what about polio vaccines in many parts of the world, right again, community health workers were there too. Yet these same community health workers have no spokesperson at your nightly news forum, speaking precisely and with clarity about how they work to address a community’s health, people’s health, the public’s health. Even community health is nowhere to be found and behavior does not occur in a vacuum or in interactions with doctors and patients alone. They seldom do, and focusing on them alone is why the path out of this pandemic will remain hopeless.

The fact that we keep hearing only how great the vaccine adds to the problem. It is great, one of the best vaccines ever made. But how about hearing how great masks are? They are excellent, and an excellent protection for others and oneself with the virus. Even research show that face masks significantly reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection compared to social distancing. We find a very low risk of infection when everyone wears a face mask, even if it doesn’t fit perfectly on the face. Imagine that, you don’t want a COVID-19, wear a mask.

And don’t let me get started with at home or self-testing. I am just curious who in the right mind told the US government that asking your insurance company to reimburse the Binax kit you bought from Sams club for $14 will motivate you to want to test? Do you ask your insurance company to reimburse you for the pregnancy kit you both for your self, or even the blood pressure measuring devise you use at home?

Common sense is not even being used anyone and yes I blame it on the absence of public health experts. In fact it drove me to want to explore what went wrong with our field and why are we now where to be found. Truth is public health as a field, has been no where for a long time when all we do is speak to ourselves at conferences and publish papers in our journals for ourselves only. No member of the public talks to each other with introductions, methods, results and discussion. No one. We have also been no where when even the journal we publish all our work in are not even open access or accessible to the public we serve. And we have been no where when all we do is serve our resumes and impact factors and not center even the public in public health.

The time has come for change and changing how we speak to the public is key. Using words, creatively, for me is like air, true necessity for reaching the public today. With public health, I’ll rather use words to reach you, than teach you about grey skies you see with your eyes. Grey skies like the racist bans on African countries from flying to the US and other European countries. Truth is everything will always be nothing for people and places that treat us like the heart of darkness. So don’t waste time searching for water as if they don’t see Africa like a desert. Until the vaccine arrives, wear a mask. This is a public health message that is easy and should be shared widely. And for people’s health, we should be wide open and let people tell us which way to go.

I had a meeting today with a very dear friend and he introduced himself to the group as a storyteller. I was taken aback. This was the first time I have ever heard anyone introduce themselves so confidently as one. Not because it’s what I really love to do, but to describe yourself as one, to showcase how one can use it as a medium to impact people’s life is an amazing feat to me. I told him I will be borrowing that line from here on out because it is who I am. I am a storyteller. I use stories to guide the work I do for a living. I connect better with stories. They help make what I do in health easy to understand.

If you call me to speak to your class about my work or global health in general, I can connect it back to a story or two. My dissertation experience for example with using malaria rapid kits at a time when the kits were $25. I use stories to illustrate the economic side of malaria and how I called the company that made the kits. I really called Binax Now and told them it was insane that a malaria test kit cost $25 when the people that need it the most barely live on $1 a day. I remember distinctively being told but it was for the people like me who travel to those places. That when we return and we become sick and present at a hospital, the hospital would have a rapid kit to see if we tested positive for malaria. The distributor went on to even say they can send me kits set to expire as many hospitals weren’t seeing many patients with malaria. They did and so the story for my dissertation research began.

Telling that story never gets old. It’s the foundation for my passion on innovations and why I think we need to partner more with companies to promote innovative tools and kits in places that need them the most. That same company today now makes COVID-19 test kits. Of course I feel tempted to call them again as this time, their kits cost $20 and most people in places I work have no access to testing of any kind. It’s stories that help me make sense of why I need to really continue what I do in public health, especially in moments where nothing makes sense and there are many moments like this.

It’s stories that keep me grounded. Stories of the youths for example with my HIV self-testing project in Nigeria, passionate about making sure that all young people they know, get to know their status. I may not be a famous or well known public health researcher. It doesn’t matter to me to become one. But a storyteller in public health, especially one dedicated to centering people in their health, takes it all to another level. I am a storyteller and I use stories to put people first. I also use stories to make health programs last. Keep being storyteller in your field. The world needs more of us.

I have a friend in India. She needs your prayers. India is literally on fire. I asked how she was doing. Her parents are both in the hospital on ventilators. She is at home trying to breathe while remaining calm. Every thing is a mess and their is no help in sight. I asked what can I do, even though I know nothing I do may help. I said I’ll pray. I did. But to my prayer, I want to add that whoever is reading this should please keep India in mind. People are literally dying. There are no hospital beds, no ventilators, many are dying at home, gasping for air, a precious commodity there these days. According to NPR, there are also no tests. No one is doing coronavirus tests and if you do get tested, your results may come in five days later. By that time, people are dead, even cremated. The country reached a milestone this week: 402,000 cases per day, more than any country on any day since the pandemic started. Some suggest it may reach 1 million cases by mid-May. Deaths too will rise. And the light and the end of the tunnel seems uncertain. My friend asked that we pray for India. I ask that you do the same and keep them in mind. None of us are safe from the pandemic until we all are. What maybe happening in India may seem far away but understand that India has 1.4 billion people. Everything that happens in India affects us all. We will not be able to get rid of this pandemic if we don’t keep India in mind.

Lines of people waiting for coronavirus tests. Courtesy NPR.

Blue skies on a clear day. Trees, confident ones too, standing tall next to the sun. All glorious, all majestic, is the sun, blazing, on a glorious day where the blues skies are clear. I imagine these words whenever I see this picture painted by my daughter. It was from her girls scout meeting this past weekend with her troop. The last time our family met in person with her troop was over a year ago and today seeing this painting personifies the hope for me. Hope for a future free from a pandemic like the assurance that there will always be days where the skies are blue. I also imagine there will come a day where mask wearing isn’t the norm and social distancing is no longer in vogue. The CDC began to usher in such a day this week with their latest mandate that folks who are fully vaccinated can meet without masks with other folks that are equally vaccinated. It’s the kind of relief we have all been waiting for, hoping for, like blues skies on a clear day.

Blue skies on a clear day by Lotanna Ezepue.

Amidst the pain and toils of such a pandemic that spared no one, hoping for a day when the skies are blue, and the sun blazing, with trees standing confident and tall, is like my hope for a pandemic free life. One that I’m praying will come to fruition but just in the US but in India and Brazil and every where where the virus continues to tighten its grip. Such a day is possible. One can only hope it would arrive soon with every one doing their part to ensure that everyone they know is vaccinated. We all need to be vaccinated as it’s for the public’s good. I imagine that a day too will come when the vaccines are not just for those in high income countries but for people anywhere for one one is free unless we are all free. Where the skies are truly blue and trees truly confident may seem impossible even for a pandemic. But we can only dream and for today, I pray this too comes to pass. Keep blue skies and confident trees in mind for a post-pandemic phase where all of us are vaccinated and the pain and suffering and deaths end.

I got my second COVID-19 vaccination shot yesterday. I am elated to finally complete this process. So many unnecessary lives were lost just so I live. Something I don’t take for granted. That and the fact that racism was at the root cause of the inequities we all witnessed first hand with the pandemic. Racism meant that there were structural barriers, pervasive one that contributed to thousands of unnecessary deaths. Racism meant that individuals and families and communities of color were most impacted by the pandemic. Racism also meant that more healthcare workers of color, an estimated 3,600 health care workers in the USA died from the pandemic and two thirds were people of color. Let that sink it for a moment. An estimated 66% of the health care workers that died as a result of the pandemic were people of color. So yea, racism is a serious public health problem and I applaud bold leaders like the director of CDC for describing it as such. For me, I am alert, restless maybe, for light, for change. Something has to give.

Some types of silences help us remember. Like moments of silence. We make the request, ask others to join, and in total silence, remember. Moments of silence are full of purpose, full of intent, full of participation, and full of thought. Those that repeat themselves annually, are full of power. In stillness of mind and power, even time is stilled to strongly engage in remembrance. And we remember because we hear. We remember because we see. Our collective experience, becomes the cornerstone of memory, ushering reverence even in the absence of narrative. The dead of September 11 exemplifies these moments. At the exact hour the two twin towers were struck, those who remember, reflect on that day and join in silence to remember.

Some types of silence have no frame, no moments, no memory, no stillness. These types of silence are hidden, often without speech, without words, without witness, without thought. Even if witnesses for example existed, they may grow old or pass away with time. Even if memory, preserved time or space, amnesia is still inevitable, when the past was intentionally muted. This kind of total silence is thunderous, rooted in a desire to forget, and forgetting is pervasive. What happened to black populations during the pandemic of 1918 exemplifies this total silence. Even the collective memories of the pandemic, effectively silenced and muted black experiences. Names were left out and silenced, sidelined, ignored, and forgotten.

One example buried deep in the archives of the 1918 pandemic is a picture of a ‘colored man’ his two daughters and three Red cross nurses. The historical records say the nurses names are ‘Mrs. Ralph Van Landingham, Mrs. Camson Morrison, Miss Julia Baxter Scott.’ Historical records also etched the agenda of the nurses with their attempts at bringing food to the family, wearing mask while doing so, all to commemorate their empathy even in times of pandemics. But the individuals in need of sympathy, a father with his two daughters and their dead mother, now free, remained forgotten. Empathy is given for the kind act performed by the nurses and but not sympathy to the living or the dead. Our collective memories as with this image is a reflection of what we choose to value, choose to remember, choose to silence, choose to forget.

Original entry of the Dad and his two daughters at National Archives.

These unspoken, silenced aspects of the pandemic, with their absent narratives, for example of this family, has etched priorities for me around memories. What happens when we remember? What are the necessary details we should keep so that even in the stillness of time, memories of the moment lingers on, years after witnesses are long gone? Can there be survival even in silence. Perhaps, moments of silence being an example. And so how can we intentionally cultivate moments of silence so we never forget this covid19 pandemic. For where there is silence even with the dead, there can be survival for the living and future pandemics, when we choose to intentionally remember. And I choose to remember.

Keep this family in mind.

A dad in his dark pants, with a bright white shirt. His two daughters are dressed in white too. Crispy white dresses adorned their bodies. We were not told their names. Not their first, nor their last, or other names they probably had. Their mother had just died. Even in death, they forgot to say her name. And so we will never know who they are, what the did, and how they lived. For I imagined they lived. Even though we will never know her name, I imagine their mother fought vigorously to live. I imagine the pain in her eyes knowing her fight would be in vain. I imagine this pain in the eyes of her daughters, two of them who must now live without her. I also imagine the toll of her death on their dad. The sorrow he must feel with losing his partner, his wife and the mother of his children. Even with all the sorrow, I imagine freedom for the mother. Like birds flying high in the sky, I imagine white doves raised in the air to signal her freedom. Slavery, racism or whatever may have triggered the absence of their names during these times, tried to erase her existence, tried to make us forget. But I imagine her free now, all of them free, from the duress of these times.

But of all the things that stood out to me with this image (sympathy for their loss being the greatest), three other things keep haunting my imagination; house, food, and masks. Who owned the house? Why bring them food? Why didn’t they wear masks? These missing accounts of this black family, alongside lack of information on who they are or what they loved is the central metaphor of what happens when we forget pandemics. Even key characters are silenced. They call the 1918 influenza pandemic, a forgotten pandemic for numerous reasons, including a shockingly sparse account of what happened to black families, black populations. It is critical to repeat that buried deep in the archives are the names of the Red Cross nurses that carried food to the family. But not of the family or their dead mother. This glaring omission is central to why we must not forget pandemics. If forgetting is easy, then remembering has to intentionally become hard. If silencing the living was the intent, then voicing their stories has to be purposeful, like with moments of silence. If erasing their meaningful place in history was willful, then ensuring we never forget their presence becomes critical. For we have been here before.

We have been erased, whether unintentional or not from pandemics though our presence and our loss was seething long enough for us to deserve nourishment. Their willful oblivion of our names, our stories, our lives, kept us unprepared and continues to keep us unprepared for pandemics not just of the body, but of the mind and it’s intent to keep us permanently locked in duress. Though they tried to keep our place in history immobile, static, even at the depths of our sorrow, the eyes of the dad and his daughters tell a story of a moment when someone will rise and eloquently write back to demand their place in history. That day has arrived.

It may have taken 100 years, but we write back to history to never forget this family. It may have taken another pandemic, still we write back to include our story. They may have failed to prolong their gaze, so we extend it as a moment of silence. They may have failed to even touch, see, or hear their pain, their sorrow, so we see it for ourselves. Through their eyes, we see our eyes. Through their pain, we know ours. Through their posture, we know where we stand. Through words unspoken, we know the power, and deeper meaning of their lives. The absence of their presence is instructive. But even today, we bow our heads down, in a moment of silence to extend our deepest condolences for the loss of their mother. It may have taken over 100 years and another pandemic, but for this family, keep moments of silence in mind so we never forget.

I am compelled to write. Not often for myself, but for others. The mistakes I have made with life in academia, life as a mother, can be avoided. The lessons I have learned as a black woman in academia, a black mother, including mothering a child society labels as not being neurotypical, can be shared. For what is typical anymore? That a child would rather paint in pictures than regurgitate the same mundane lesson plans over and over. That a woman, myself, can have children and still be in academia. That I can love my job, love that it helps me interact with students, love that it forces me to keep learning, love that it enables me to continue to question the questions. The roads we all must take through life are ours to take. My journey has not been smooth. But it’s mine. And so I am compelled to write about it so you know that I am human. With flaws and imperfections, hopes and impediments. I am also a storyteller. My vehicle through life was never really about the spaces I occupy, but the stories I tell. I am learning that now. It has taken a pandemic for me to wake up to my potentials. It has taken a pandemic for me to wake up and start telling the stories that matter. Our best weapon for future pandemics is not to marshall facts but stories. Stories can be our hope and strength. A very present help for future pandemics, without which we are blind.

So I am compelled now, in this phase of my life, to write stories so we never forget people like Jazz Dixon, the first person to die from COVID in Saint Louis City where I live. She was only 31 years old and loved to bake. I am compelled to write about Jacob Plange-Rhule, my mentor and principal investigator on our ongoing research in Ghana. Covid may have robbed us of his gentle warm smile, but I am compelled to write so we never forget him. I am compelled to write about the times we forgot, 1918 to be precise. I am compelled to write about this picture below of a man and his two children. By the time Red Cross stopped by his home with food, their mother had just died. They lived in Charlotte, North Carolina. I am compelled to write about them because our history books did not even think to include their names.

From the National Archives. Red Cross brought food to this family, but for they arrived, their mother had just died. They lived in North Carolina. I’m digging to learn what I can about them. History forgot them.

I am compelled to write because we have been here before with pandemics and the shockingly sparse data on what black populations did to mobile resources, to engage in activism, to survive the pandemic. I am compelled write because unlike today, we knew back then that masks worked, social distancing too. I am compelled to write about what went wrong then with the pandemic we find ourselves in. I am compelled to write because over 500,000 deaths in the US alone, over 2 million globally, demand that we never forget that they lived. For them, I am compelled to write so we never fall into amnesia, another forgotten pandemic, another forgotten experience of racism, or inequities and their contributions to pandemics or silence, or survival with being black and female in academia. I am compelled to write so we never forget. Keep writing.

Today marks the first anniversary death of Jazz Dixon. Not only was her life cut too short at 31 years of age, but she became the first known death due to COVID-19 in Saint Louis City where I live. I remember her today, because she lived. For all of us living, our monumental task has just begun. We cannot forget people like Jazz. We cannot forget how even with her death, she lives on. She brought the best to life as an employee of American Red Cross so we never forget her humanity. Her true life’s story is that she lives on to soothe us, even in death; to help us remember, if we are lucky to live; to tell the fundamental truth of disparities, racism, and their underlying conditions, if only our minds will open; to bring healing, if only we we let her story guide us, let her story extend our horizon, let her story be our escort through life.

May her soul Rest In Peace.

Over 579,000 in the US have died from COVID. Let us not forget them. Let us instead remember their beauty as best as we can. Remember their being, who they were, what they did, how they touched lives, how the lived. They may all be gone, but their deaths are not in vain, not when the next pandemic is inevitable. I hope their deaths remain a reminder and dialogue and an opportunity to enrich our lives. Jazz drifts about quietly in my soul, as a reminder to listen, to learn, to never stop living, on this journey through life. The shape of my life makes sense because of the pandemic, because of people like Jazz. And for her, I still say to keep the dead of COVID in mind. They all have stories to tell, one that will remain, long after this pandemic ends.

There were days of silence. Not because I had no words, but because they won’t do. There were days of screaming. Not because I had no control, but because my mind needed to hear myself say Ahhhhhhhhh from the depths of my soul. There were days of tears. Not because I still had no control, but because what is control anymore. So I cried. I screamed a lot. I cried some more. I broke down and when I could, I pulled myself back up. I gave myself permission to accept not being okay. On those days, I hugged myself more, laid in bed and looked at old photos and videos with my children. Something about recollecting a pre-phase, helped. Especially for days where I gave myself permission to run. 12 miles a week, my highest on record. I gave myself stillness, a silent one, to just look and stare at the clouds or trees. Trees with their mysterious ways, especially icy trees, became my friend. That and nests. I gave myself permission to learn about nests, why birds build them, how they secure them, even how they discard them when done. I learnt a lot about nests. Hummingbirds for example build their nests with silk. Imagine that. I gave myself permission to ask questions. Beautiful ones too especially with my children. I told them to do the same and they have been non stop. I gave myself permission to radiate kindness or dream big, all words across my son’s shirt. That and happiness. That there could be happiness in moments like this was an anomaly. But with my children, I gave myself the permission to choose joy.

I also gave myself permission to listen to poetry. Pinke Gordon Lane for example dedicated to a woman poet or my dear friend Ritamae Hyde’s a mother’s love. My daughter did most of the reading and I simply listened so the words could reach the depth of my soul where screaming, and tears remained. I gave myself permission to imagine. Our imagination took us to the dinosaur park, the looking up statue, and everything Forest Park had to offer. The park itself was a constant ray of hope through all the struggles. Finally, I gave myself permission to read. Also sorts of books became my friend. All Toni Morrison books and Bell Hooks, and Audre Lorde and Patricia Bell Scott. There were also all the books by Chinua Achebe, Ifi Amadiume, Chinelo Oparanta who became my friend though on social media, and Ben Okri. Toni Cade Bambara’s Black Woman made me feel seen. Also Ta-Nehisi Coates Beautiful Struggle. He helped me give myself the permission to struggle beautifully all while keeping what matters. Between the world and me was a constant reminder that I mattered.

Ultimately I gave myself the grace to accept this experience. The grace to see it like a famished road, a crawling baby, an invisible ink, even a deer, my post on the mere sighting of a deer being a favorite for me. This was a pandemic of a lifetime. We were living through unprecedented times. That word was everywhere, though it never fully meant much to many people. So I accepted that people are never going to understand. I accepted that that those who cared, well, cared. In their own ways, they reached out and saw me and touched the silence, heard the screams and the tears, and did their part to fill the gaps that remained with love. Those that did, helped on those days when the burden was unbearable. Those that demanded, well I know their place in my life. For them, I gave myself permission to be like small axes.

But through it all, I fully know why my keep list matters. It has been like a space for therapy through this pandemic. A space for self-discovery. Like an eagle flying in the sky, it has become as space where I soar on my own unique terms. Like a root buried deep in the soil, it has become a space where I unearth the hidden, invisible parts of my life as a mother, including telling the stories of my children, one on spectrum that I never ever intended to tell. That I have been dealing with his beautiful struggles the past 6 years was supposed to be for me and my family. But the pandemic made me uncover it so others may understand why some mothers are screaming. I screamed too. I also cried. I was silent. And I survived. And such is the ramifications of the COVID19 pandemic one year later. To which I say keep all mothers and all caregivers in mind.