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What covering catastrophes taught me about this age of coronavirus

By Paul Grondahl

By the time we reached the tiny village of Madisi in southwestern Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa, a cholera outbreak had struck on a Sunday with punishing force.

This is how I began my story: “Splayed on dusty red clay, stricken villagers are curled up in fetal positions, immobile as the fallen fruit in the shade of a mango tree, which shields the sick from a searing midday sun.”

The 110 beds at Madisi Hospital were already all full, with patients suffering from AIDS-related illnesses, malaria, malnutrition, tuberculosis and other maladies. Nearly 100 more cholera patients arrived on this day, carried by relatives or shuffling on weakened legs until they collapsed in the dirt to wait.

A few dozen of the newly arrived patients were carried into the hospital’s overflowing waiting area and crowded hallways and lifted onto “cholera beds,” sheets of plywood propped up on bricks. A hubcap-sized hole was cut in the middle of the wood. A bucket sat under the hole. Another bucket rested on the cement floor next to the person’s head to assist victims of the acute diarrheal disease usually spread by drinking water or eating food tainted by an infected person.

The Times Union sent photographer Steve Jacobs and myself to sub-Saharan Africa in the spring of 2003 to report on the HIV/AIDS crisis in the small and impoverished country of Malawi – which has deep ties to Albany and the Capital Region – while most newspapers sent their staff to report on the Iraq War. We told an important story that had been overlooked in our multi-media series, “Fourth World/Our World: Lifelines at the Edge of Survival,” an examination of the HIV/AIDS global pandemic, which has killed 36 million people since 1981, one of the deadliest in human history. The hardest-hit area was sub-Saharan Africa, with 70 percent of the AIDS cases. In Malawi, AIDS fatalities cut average life expectancy to 37 years old in 2003, while annual health care spending in the country was $7 per person, all from foreign donations. 

I learned valuable lessons in Madisi on that terrible day that might shed light on how to think about navigating the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. During three decades as a reporter I covered everyday disasters nearby and large-scale catastrophes afield -- from Ground Zero on 9/11, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Haiti after its massive earthquake and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Time and again, I observed quick and decisive action, heroic leadership, individual sacrifice for the common good, extraordinary resilience and the best of human nature during the darkest hours.

A central takeaway is this: first responders are ordinary people who perform extraordinarily brave and courageous acts under fire. I have seen them protect and rescue citizens at great personal risk to themselves. The same goes for doctors, nurses and EMTs on the front lines of calamity. They do the dangerous work and view their jobs as a calling. I consider them unsung heroes. We must trust them, support them and honor them. Emergency management leaders and public health and safety officials also do critical planning behind the scenes and warrant major acknowledgement for mitigating disasters once they occur. Journalists, too, deserve some credit as witnesses to history trained to head toward a trouble zone while others flee, in order to send out dispatches to keep the public informed.   

I arrived on the last train into Penn Station in Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 to report a feature story and spent the next six days covering the World Trade Center terrorist attacks from Ground Zero. On day two, Jacobs managed to get himself on the single PATH train allowed to travel from New Jersey into Lower Manhattan. We covered the stories that others had bypassed in the rush for breaking news. We talked with a platoon of ironworkers who combed through the smoldering pile of Ground Zero, searching for survivors. We interviewed families desperately looking for missing loved ones. We spent time with exhausted first responders who found refuge in St. Paul’s Chapel, where volunteers cooked them meals and pews became places to sleep. We spent time with people waiting in long lines to give blood and joined hundreds of mourners at a candlelight vigil in Union Square Park. Everyone pulled together.

I worked with a lot of great photographers over the years at the Times Union. Nobody was better than Jacobs in a crisis. He was street-savvy, unflappable and put himself in position to capture the decisive moment. Jacobs and I had each other’s back. We developed an unspoken language of trust that kept us safe. We shared whatever we had: hand sanitizer, bottled water, granola, aspirin, vitamins, disinfectant wipes and a cold beer when we got lucky.

In Madisi, the outbreak of cholera in the village of 2,000 was caused by steady rains that seemed like a godsend for parched maize fields. But heavy runoff carried human waste from the fields, where farmers squat and defecate, and contaminated the stream that fed Madisi’s water-intake pipes. “It’s like they’re drinking poison being piped up from the river,” a cholera consultant with UNICEF told me. 

Suzi Stephens, a retired registered nurse from Indianapolis, and her husband, Dick, who   established a hospital as part of the Malawi Project in nearby Lilongwe, rushed to Madisi with boxes of IV bags and antibiotics provided by American donors. UNICEF workers set up a temporary supply of clean water and re-routed the water-intake pipes to a pond on a nearby hillside. We helped unload an emergency supply of medical supplies and food from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Volunteers began distributing food, water and antibiotics and nurses started IVs.

We saw one young girl, weak and malnourished, who died under the mango tree shortly after we arrived on Sunday afternoon. It turned out she was the only casualty. The emergency medical intervention worked. Two days later, we returned to Madisi and found half of the hospital’s 110 beds were empty and most of the cholera patients had recovered. It felt like a miracle. 

In this time of coronavirus, we need to locate small miracles, interludes of joy like when people in quarantine step out onto their balconies in Rome and Naples to sing together in an act of solidarity. “Andra tutto bene,” they sing. Everything will be fine.

I call Jacobs on each anniversary of 9/11. We talk of the heroes we met at Ground Zero, in Malawi and New Orleans. 

“Later, brotha,” he says.

“Later, brotha,” I answer.

Until the fire next time.


Note: This article was previously published in the Albany Times Union, where Paul Grondahl publishes a weekly column. It is reprinted with permission. 

Paul Grondahl is director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany, the author of several books and a weekly columnist for the Albany Times Union, where he spent 33 years as a reporter. He is a UAlbany distinguished alumnus in arts and letters.

Paul Grondahl
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