By Ishmael Dzigbordi Aziati, PhD
Postdoc Research Associate, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases
Global Health Mentoring Program, Global Health Center
The year 2019 was a near perfect one for me. I graduated in September with a PhD in virology having lived in Tokyo for years. It is the same year I got my appointment letter to start a postdoc in the U.S., the first step towards “living the American dream”.
The news of my sister having a baby (my first niece) coupled with approval of my U.S. visa put me in a state of unrestrained joy. Within a month after graduation, I had relocated to St. Louis from Tokyo, transiting in my home country Ghana, to start my life as a trainee at the Washington University School of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases.
Living in Japan, one naturally acquires the habit of planning many months ahead of time and in my little 2020 planner, I had listed my plans, from getting a driver’s license to inviting my significant other and family for a visit with tentative dates. A good support system received from my lab, made it possible for me to feel less out of place and better integrated.
Everything was going as planned and 2020 promised to be even a better year, until in late December, news started circulating about a strange pneumonia in a cluster of patients that were associated with a seafood market in China. This new disease, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) would later be declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The first case of Coronavirus reported in the U.S. was on January 20th. By March 8th, Missouri recorded its first case. Fueled by anxiety and what I call “justified paranoia”, my family became my personal Coronavirus task force bringing me up to date on what was going on around the world and here in the states. Annoying as it was, I more than ever before, could understand their feeling.
On March 12 however, when Ghana reported its first case, there was an immediate and unsettling reversal of roles. What some weeks back had been a distant thought in my mind was now becoming a reality. I wondered: If developed countries are struggling with PPEs and ventilators, what must it be like for Ghana, where most of my family lives? Ironically, we do our best as humans when faced with imminent danger.
As weeks went by, it was clear to all parties that we had entered uncharted territory where “lock down”, “shelter in place”, “quarantine”, and “self-isolation” all meant one thing: restriction. I could only help loved ones from a distance. It was at that point that I realized if you take “dem” out of “pandemic”, all that remains is “panic”. If we didn’t have experts doing what it takes to fight this disease, we would be left with chaos.
Now, more than ever, it is my goal to support the efforts of Washington University’s Division of infectious Diseases to fight this common enemy. Although the science around COVID-19 continues to evolve, as a student of disease prevention, I would love to see governments and other stakeholders commit more money to making vaccines for animals like bats, wild birds and other known reservoirs; rather than “waiting” for a spill-over to occur leading to the next pandemic.