‘I don’t know how I survived’: Reflections on three years of the pandemic
Three years ago, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, then Michigan’s chief medical executive, made an announcement: The first two cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the state.
“We’re Michiganders; we’re tough; we will get through this,” Whitmer said on March 10, 2020, when she declared a state of emergency.
Three years later, we understand, at least in part, what it has meant to “get through this.” We know COVID-19 has killed 6,866,434 people around the globe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the United States, 1,117,856 individuals have died from the virus, including 42,205 people in Michigan.
We also know it’s not solely death that has defined the pandemic. In Michigan alone, there have been 3,064,123 confirmed cases of COVID-19 — sickness that has left people deeply struggling with long COVID among a litany of other health issues. We now live among layers of trauma rooted in the pandemic.
When the governor announced the state of emergency on March 10, 2020, we had yet to see the political polarization and deep-seated anger towards pandemic health measures that would soon erupt. Now, we have witnessed the armed protests filled with white nationalists waving signs emblazoned with swastikas and Confederate flags against the pandemic health orders; the violent plan to kidnap and kill the governor over her COVID policies; and an increasingly vicious portion of the population hurling threats at public health and education officials.
“I think in the very beginning I made a general assumption that if people were presented with the right information, and saw how this was impacting our society, we would come together and buckle down to prevent the spread of the virus,” Khaldun, who has since left her position with the state, told the Advance this week. “What I did not anticipate is just how political the pandemic response would become, and how that would hinder our response.”
Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, who replaced Khaldun as Michigan’s chief medical executive, felt similarly. When the pandemic began, Bagdasarian had been working as an infectious disease physician at National University Hospital in Singapore. When she returned to the U.S. in July of 2020, Bagdasarian said she “didn’t fully understand how political COVID had become in the U.S.”
“It was amazing to see the Singapore response to COVID,” Bagdasarian said in an interview with the Advance on Wednesday. “They were very well prepared. They had one of the best responses to COVID in the world.
“One of the things I noticed when I moved back to the U.S. was how the COVID response in Singapore had been apolitical,” said Bagdasarian.
It was that lack of politicization that played a pivotal role in Singapore being “so successful” in fighting COVID, Michigan’s chief medical executive said.
“There was no talk of, ‘You’re asking me to do things because of some political agenda,’” Bagdasarian said. “It was apolitical and there was a strong trust in government and public health.”
Amid this backdrop of upheaval have been the Americans and Michiganders who have been trying to live — figuratively and literally. As COVID-19 continues — 109 Michiganders died from it in the past week — those who have survived are beginning to peel back the layers of political unrest and trauma to determine how it is that they will navigate a future that Bagdasarian emphasized will certainly include other public health emergencies, if not another pandemic.
Those persisting among the layers of emotional fracture and ongoing sickness and hope for a different world are Michiganders leading health policy — people like Khaldun and Bagdasarian. There are others whose faces don’t regularly make it onto the front pages of newspapers, people like Ronnie Waters, who was incarcerated in the early days of COVID and now champions criminal justice reform, and Blake Mazurek, a teacher in Grandville who said far-right politics during the pandemic have left educators facing a barrage of attacks during school board meetings, as well as in the classroom, and “really pushed so many of us to the farthest reaches of our sanity in some way.”
These are stories that, woven together with those the Advance has told throughout the past three years, give us a glimpse into a state, country and world that has radically changed in the wake of COVID-19.
‘I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy’
In the days leading up to Michigan’s first COVID-19 cases being announced on March 10, 2020, Waters was glued to the news broadcasts emanating from a television inside Macomb Correctional Facility.
From within the walls of a place he was unable to leave, Waters and his friends inside the facility watched as the virus began to travel the globe, leaving a trail of sickness and death in places like China, France and Italy. He remembers the cruise ship floating off the coast of California while filled with people who had tested positive for a virus that was about to upend the lives of people across the United States.
And he vividly recalls the first case announced in the United States in January 2020.
“We got all the news channels: CNN, Fox News, all the major news channels,” said Waters, who has since left prison and now lives with his wife in Oakland County’s West Bloomfield. “I knew about COVID when the first cases were being reported out of the state of Washington. I remember when it was one or two people.”
At that time, when the first COVID case was announced in the U.S. on Jan. 21, 2020, the “mysterious respiratory infection” had killed “at least six people and sickened hundreds more in Asia,” the New York Times reported.
As Waters witnessed the virus spread from the glow of a television screen, he knew its arrival in Michigan was likely imminent. Khaldun echoed a similar sentiment.
“In early 2020, we were closely watching what was happening across the world and other parts of the country,” she told the Advance this week. “One thing we recognized very early, particularly because we did not have sufficient testing and surveillance for COVID-19, was that it was only a matter of when, not if, the virus would spread to Michigan.
“While we knew it could potentially be severe, I don’t think anyone predicted the magnitude of death, illness and disruption to our lives this virus would cause,” Khaldun continued.
When Whitmer and Khaldun filled television screens across Michigan on March 10, 2020, it was the moment Waters had been dreading. He had seen the virus erupt in Italian nursing homes. He knew that, like those in nursing homes, he was living in tight quarters. And he was unable to leave.
“We lived stacked on top of each other; we lived in an eight-by-ten cell,” he said. “We used the same toilets and phones and water fountains. It’s almost impossible to do anything that would have prevented COVID from spreading when you’re in prison.”
Just after Whitmer declared a state of emergency on March 10, the prison locked down — meaning the only people going in and out of the building were staff. Those were days, Waters said, filled with a deep sense of dread and anxiety — in large part because of the virus, but also because he had been scheduled to go before the parole board for a resentencing hearing. At the age of 17, Waters was sentenced to life without parole in 1981. Waters, who is now 60 years old, was able to receive a resentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional.
“My wife and I tried to contact everyone in Lansing and asked if we could do it on Zoom, but everything was so new and there was no set policy on how to handle anything,” he said. “It was really stressful and confusing.”
Instead of leaving prison as he had once hoped, Waters was largely confined to the cell he shared with a roommate and watched as death permeated his world.
“COVID was so powerful and overwhelming,” he said. “I’ve seen people die in there [the prison]. I’ve seen people so sick they couldn’t move. It was so sad; I’ve seen people make a call home for the last time, telling their family they were about to go to health services and get help and they didn’t know when they’d call again. I’ve seen these people die.”
Nationwide, deaths in state and federal prisons soared by nearly 50% during the first year of the pandemic, according to the University of California, Los Angeles’ “Behind Bars Data Project.” In Michigan, there were about 70 fatalities per 10,000 people who were incarcerated in 2020 — an increase over the 30 the previous year.
With an aging population in the prison system — in part the result of the so-called “tough-on-crime” policies of the 1980s and 90s that left waves of juveniles facing life sentences — and an inability to practice social distancing, prisons were a tinderbox for COVID.
This, Waters said, transpired to never-ending waves of grief, stress and trauma that those living in the prison could not evade. They could only brace themselves for what often felt like inevitable sickness or death. Among those who died, Waters said he felt like some individuals didn’t fight to survive because “they thought, ‘If this takes me out, it takes me out; it’s my way out of prison.’”
“It was so sad and debilitating for people to have to go through that, wondering, ‘Am I going to be next?’” Waters said. “You’d hear so-and-so died, or this person is in the hospital on a ventilator. It was so traumatic, and there was nothing we could do. We couldn’t escape it. No human being should have to go through what we went through, and what people are still going through.
“I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy.”
As his world turned upside down, the prison lockdown meant Waters had to face limited contact with his wife, Felecia Tyson-Waters. Before the pandemic, he would speak to her every day on the phone and regularly saw her. But once COVID-19 arrived, he wasn’t able to see her in person at all and at times had to go weeks without being able to call her.
“So much time would pass by, and I wouldn’t hear from him,” said Tyson-Waters, who has known her husband for 50 years. “I had two family members die within a week, so I knew if it was really bad out here, it had to be horrific within the prison. Here, we were able to come and work from home, have social distancing. There was no such thing as social distancing in there.”
Eventually, Waters was able to go before the parole board, and he left the correctional facility in August 2020.
But the months while he remained incarcerated during COVID are ones that weigh heavy on his memory.
“I look back on it now, and I don’t know how I survived.” Waters said. “Maybe it was the grace of God. I know it was the grace of God.”
He contracted what seemed like a mild case of COVID in the early days of the pandemic, but, in the months that followed, he realized that the virus took a significant toll on his lungs. Once someone who could “run like a deer,” he could struggle to breathe making it a couple times around a track.
But, Waters said, he survived when so many others did not — and he credits much of that survival with his understanding that he was going to be leaving and returning to a world he had not seen for decades. As COVID took hold in the prison, he focused on seeing his wife again.
Finally, when Waters left the correctional facility in August 2020, his wife was overcome with relief.
“I was able to see him, put my hands on him, see he was OK,” Tyson-Waters said. “I was able to see for myself that he was OK — and know that even if he wasn’t OK, we have doctors and hospitals and more access than you do in prison. In prison, you don’t receive proper medical care.”
Following his release, Waters began working as a community engagement specialist for Safe & Just, a Lansing-based nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform. Now, Waters spends his days advocating for “commonsense and smart legislation that will be more effective, more humane towards prisoners.”
That includes legislation currently proposed by Democratic lawmakers in the state House and Senate to end juvenile life without parole in Michigan.
“Instead of spending all your money on warehousing people, use money in a smarter way and educate them or train them in vocational trades,” Waters said. “We advocate for all these kinds of changes through the system.”
‘The farthest reaches of our sanity’
It wasn’t until recently that Blake Mazurek, a Grand Rapids resident who has been an educator for 29 years and currently teaches U.S. history in Grandville Public Schools, began to realize just how much of a toll these past three years have taken on him.
“When I got into this year and I started breathing — like, wow, I’m focusing on regular things; I’m focusing on regular curriculum,” Mazurek said. “It’s like, hey, wait a minute; this feels good. That’s when I paused and thought, ‘Gosh, I didn’t realize how draining these years were.”
It wasn’t just that educators had to navigate teaching a classroom of children online or fearing getting sick as COVID spread like a wildfire through schools that had returned to in-person learning that caused immense stress, Mazurek said. It was the fact that teachers went from receiving the backing of the surrounding community to being demonized by right-wing activists and politicians for everything from mask requirements to teaching about race.
“At the beginning of the year , there seemed to be overall support from the community at large, but by the time we got midway through the year, we started seeing people showing up at board meetings and going after our district leaders about masks and all these protocols,” Mazurek said.
“It really pushed so many of us to the farthest reaches of our sanity in some ways,” he continued.
As someone heavily involved in the Michigan Education Association (MEA), a union that represents about 120,000 teachers and other education professionals in the state, Mazurek was increasingly targeted by individuals who were irate over health policies meant to curb the spread of COVID.
“They attacked me as an individual; they called me communist, socialist, you name it,” he said. “When the masks started fading from their forefront, they started going after CRT [critical race theory]. That’s when the attacks really started to fall on the shoulders of teachers and the administration.”
College educators who for decades have taught CRT emphasize that the graduate-level instruction is rooted in an exploration of the role race and racism played in the country’s history — such as white European settlers stealing land from Indigenous communities or hundreds of years of enslaving Black people — and how racism continues to shape inequities in society. But, years after it first started being taught at the college level, CRT has become a lightning rod on the right for what gets taught in public schools, including in Michigan.
Meanwhile, for teachers overwhelmed by the daily challenges that COVID-19 flung their way, they “were trying to assure families we’re doing what we’ve always been doing: caring for kids,” Mazurek said.
“It was a nightmare for over two years in so many ways.”
As culture wars wreaked havoc in school board meetings throughout the state and country, educators tried to focus on what has routinely been a source of inspiration, Mazurek said: the students.
“Kids are kids, and we still had a good relationship with students,” he said. “But there was always this shadow, this dark cloud that was pressing down.”
That dark shadow was “these groups that would come in huge numbers” to school board meetings and spread misinformation and disinformation about everything from the science behind masking to instruction about race. And then came the book bans from parents and Republican lawmakers angered over resources regarding gender and sexuality.
It is this atmosphere that leaves teachers feeling as though they are barely keeping their heads above water, Mazurek said.
“I really look at COVID and that experience of uncertainty to be unmooring of some kind of stability in people’s lives,” he said.
“Some people who lost that grounding have not yet recovered it — in the far-right circles but also individuals trying to deal with the new challenges,” Mazurek continued. “The world shifted.”
These days, classrooms are returning to something akin to normal, Mazurek said. But as COVID-19 persists, he’s concerned about the outbreak of another public health emergency and the damage it could do in a state and country deeply fractured by these past three years.
“I fear that it will result in more chaos than even this one,” Mazurek said of another pandemic. “As chaotic as this one was, I feel like these lines have become so distinct between political affiliations; there’s a whole segment of our society brazenly saying they will not do any efforts for public safety.”
Still, Mazurek said, there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic — perhaps the greatest of them all being the strength and perseverance of people.
“As a profession, we found solutions and worked hard through the challenges; we also learned a hell of a lot,” he said. “Those who lived through it [the pandemic], worked through it, they have a stronger sense of their abilities. That to me is hope.
“We’re still close enough to it that maybe there’s still some wounds we’re licking, but in general we’re a pretty resilient bunch, we humans.”
‘Always thinking about our next pandemic’
Bagdasarian’s thoughts, too, are often with the next pandemic, she said.
“I think as an infectious disease doctor, I was always thinking about our next pandemic,” she said. “This was something on my mind since medical school.”
To prepare for another emergency, Bagdasarian said there must be greater investment in public health and a rebuilt trust between public health officials and the general public.
“First, we need investment in public health data systems, infrastructure and staffing,” she said. “Second, we need to focus on our relationships with communities and public trust and making sure we are communicating in the right way.”
As lawmakers and other leaders continue to assess people’s needs in the wake of three years of COVID, Khaldun said there should be a focus on children’s mental health and addressing staffing shortages in hospitals.
“We need to focus on the long-term impacts of the pandemic, particularly on children,” Khaldun said. “Many children, disproportionately those in historically marginalized groups, lost caregivers. Many are struggling with mental health challenges. I think we should be focusing on the health and wellbeing of our children and assuring we are supporting them.”
Too, there are “significant challenges in hospitals,” said Khaldun, who works in Henry Ford Hospital’s emergency department in Detroit.
“There are ongoing staffing challenges, particularly with nursing,” Khaldun said, referring to the health care system at large.
“We also are seeing ongoing challenges with our behavioral health system,” she continued. “There simply aren’t enough community-based services that people are able to access and, for people who need it, there aren’t enough behavioral health inpatient beds. This was a problem prior to the pandemic that has been exacerbated.”
Ultimately, Bagdasarian said, we must remember what we’ve learned during COVID-19, from the need for health officials to build trust with the public to addressing racial disparities in health care — and we can’t assume that COVID-19 is the final pandemic we’ll see in our lifetime.
“The worst thing we could do is completely forget the lessons we learned during COVID,” Bagdasarian said. “We have to be able to take those with us. Only that will help us prepare for the next public health emergency or next pandemic.”