COVID-19 and the Expatriate

Twelve years ago, I started writing a novel. I’m terrible at fiction and the novel didn’t get very far. But now, I wish I written the darn thing anyway.

The world faced a massive and unstoppable disease. Borders closed. Flights stopped. The economy crashed. 

Seemingly overnight, Americans like myself found themselves as refugees in the countries in which they have moved to live, work, and serve. The tables had turned. The wealthy, dominant, ruling group of people were suddenly needy, desperate, vulnerable, foreign, and unwanted.

What do we do when the world has gone mad?

What do we do when we face an uncertain future?

What do we do when we cannot reach the people we love and a big, scary, what-if looms?

We, expatriates, who have made the voluntary decision to move to a foreign country for so many reasons: work, education, service, love, faith, dreams, find ourselves feeling extra far away, extra vulnerable. Or maybe we feel safer, maybe we shake our heads in disbelief at the panic of populations who thought they were safe, who have been spared relentless diseases for generations and aren’t sure how to face one. Maybe we’re thankful that we’ve learned how to wipe without toilet paper. Maybe we are confused and disturbed by our swirling emotions that swing from fear to skepticism and back, in mere seconds.

What you decide to do with your fear own is ultimately up to you.

But what you do with your body and how it might impact someone more vulnerable than you isn’t really up to you. Or at least, it shouldn’t be if you love people.

Many of us live in the developing world where things like medical care aren’t really a thing. People can’t afford it, they don’t have vehicles to access it, the electricity goes out, there aren’t enough trained professionals.

The best thing to think about here is prevention.

But how do you wash your hands if you don’t have running water? If you can’t afford soap? How do you practice social distancing if you live a cramped section of town, people right on top of each other? How do you stock up when you don’t own a refrigerator or can barely afford your day-to-day food needs? How do you financially brace yourself for the impact of this when you work as a daily wage earner and there is no such thing as health insurance or paid sick leave?

For people who live among and care about the poor, sick, and vulnerable, COVID-19 simply emphasizes the importance of that work. 

The fight for clean water and steady electricity, the fight for access to health care and for quality health care, the fight for a living wage, for affordable housing, for interactions that are not racist, all of this has always, always mattered.

Now it is clearer to the world just why it is so vital.

The questions we need to be asking ourselves are not, “What will happen?” or “How to save myself (full stop)?” The questions need to be, “How can I be safe and still serve my community?” and, “Who will I be in this crisis? How will I choose to live?” That last question is really asking, “how will I choose to love?”

As Eula Biss asks, “What will we do with our fear?”

We can turn inward, hoard, and hide. Or we can turn outward, with love-in-action. We can:

Bring food to the elderly so they don’t need to go out

Do you know someone who has gotten stuck? Donate to a ticket, as prices rise. Host them if they need a place to stay. Mail supplies if they have run out.

Does someone you love need medications? Check in and ask if they have enough. Help them get it.

Stand against racist comments and fear-mongering.

Check your own spirit and preparedness. Are you being greedy? Unnecessarily hoarding? Contributing to panic?

Pray breath prayers:

Inhale a prayer or piece of Scripture

Exhale a prayer or piece of Scripture

For me during cancer treatment this was:

Inhale: Healer

Exhale: Be with me

Over and over and over until it becomes the air you breathe

The world has always been broken and damaged and vulnerable. It grows increasingly so. How, then, will we live?

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Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel writes about life at the crossroads of faith and culture. Her work is influenced by living as a foreigner in the Horn of Africa, raising three Third Culture Kids, and adventurous exploration of the natural world. She has been published in the New York Times, Runners World, the Big Roundtable, and more. Check out her latest book, Stronger than Death: Get all her stories and updates in the Stories from the Horn newsletter

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