Two years in: Pandemic resilience propels renewed action

Ginnette Riquelme/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Obdulia Montealegre Guzmán and her husband own Antojitos Mexicanos Manolo (Manolo's Mexican Snacks), a street food stall in Mexico City. She says her pandemic experiences have given her a new sense of self-confidence.
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Two years ago tomorrow, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and one year on from that announcement the Monitor asked ordinary people in five countries around the world, “How are you doing?”

Now we’ve gone back to those same people and asked the same question. Last year, the mood that emerged, with the pandemic in full flow, was one of resilience. Today, with the end apparently in sight for a few countries, but by no means all, our interviewees display a new sense of agency, as they begin to take back control over their lives.

Why We Wrote This

A year ago, one year after the pandemic began, the Monitor found people showing resilience. Today the mood is more one of agency, as some begin to take back control of their lives.

From Mexico, where Obdulia Montealegre has given her street food stall a facelift and a WhatsApp ordering system, to Berlin, where young actor Hugo Tiedje has survived the closure of Germany’s theater sector and landed himself a job in Switzerland, people are putting pandemic lessons to work as they “relearn the world,” in the words of one expert on loss and transition.

“The pandemic brought really tough times,” says Ms. Montealegre. “But then it brought beautiful ones, too.”

By most measures, Obdulia Montealegre Guzmán shouldn’t be OK.

For the past 20 years, the taco vendor has joined the din of informal work in Mexico’s bustling capital – organ grinders reaching out their hats for tips, vendors weaving through busy intersections hawking bubblegum, and cooks crowding sidewalks with their mobile food stalls.

When the pandemic arrived, the streets went silent. And as clients holed up at home, informal workers like Ms. Montealegre had no source of income and little or no safety net. More than 40% of the Mexican population already lived in poverty pre-pandemic. COVID-19 landed informal workers in a “double situation of vulnerability,” according to the United Nations.

Why We Wrote This

A year ago, one year after the pandemic began, the Monitor found people showing resilience. Today the mood is more one of agency, as some begin to take back control of their lives.

But inside a narrow market that spans three city blocks in a working-class neighborhood, where the snip-snip-snip of poultry shears competes with slow-tempo ranchero ballads from a distant boombox, Ms. Montealegre has re-imagined her makeshift stall selling prepared food and drinks at open-air markets with a slick, new business model.

Today, her team of six dresses in matching face masks, aprons, and baseball caps. Each item is emblazoned with their new brand: a mustachioed man in a sombrero, holding a taco and giving an enthusiastic thumbs-up. And while she serves up steak huaraches smothered in cheese and crispy flautas to hungry shoppers, she’s keeping track of orders coming in over a new WhatsApp ordering system, and advertising on Facebook.

Ginnette Riquelme/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
On the menu at Obdulia Montealegre's street food stall in Mexico City: pambazo. Ms. Montealegre has used the second year of the pandemic to give her stall a facelift and a high-tech ordering system.

It’s a situation she hardly imagined at the outset of the pandemic, when she worried everything she and her husband had worked for might be undone. “I’m now able to say I feel capable. I feel prepared to confront problems and overcome them within my family and my business,” she says. “And above all, I feel empowered because I know I’m part of a team.”

Relearning the world, relearning yourself

A year ago, Monitor reporters across five countries met five individuals – average people like you or me – and asked them a simple question just before the first anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of the coronavirus pandemic: How are you doing?

During that first year, a surprising resilience emerged amid a global crisis with no end in sight. We decided to check in with the same five people at the two-year mark as the pandemic grinds on. And while reflecting on the loss of loved ones, regretting polarization within families and society, and suffering a dulling weariness, many also speak of a new sense of agency, whether through opportunities or through changing perspectives.

The transition out of the pandemic, when the “assumptive world” has been turned upside down, is full of challenges and positive change, says Robert Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition in Oregon. “We need to relearn the world, relearn ourselves in that world,” he says. “And that process is continuing for people. We are revising our personal and collective realities. And that’s a big job that’s not accomplished in two years. It’s one that is ongoing.”

Few understand adaptation like Hanen Nanaa. She and her family of nine arrived in Canada as Syrian refugees in 2016, an experience she leaned on to get her through the first year of COVID-19. But driven and dynamic, she took every opportunity the pandemic provided, going online with her nonprofit that helps other newcomers to Canada, continuing her university courses behind a computer, and networking in a suddenly limitless virtual world.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Hanen Nanaa, a Syrian refugee in Canada, says her life was starting to return to normal, with the end of the pandemic in sight, when Russia invaded Ukraine. "It's been stressful," says Ms. Nanaa, at her campus at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto.

Still a year away from graduation, Ms. Nanaa recently landed a job in Canada’s Parliament with the ruling Liberal Party’s research bureau. A few years ago, she was learning English.

“The pandemic was really good for creating opportunities virtually for people; I met so many people across the country, and I love this. I truly believe we should keep such opportunities virtual,” says Ms. Nanaa from Toronto.

That’s not to gloss over a draining year, one in which her entire family got COVID-19. And if her experience as a war refugee gave her the perspective to handle year one of the pandemic, as year two closes, a new source of anxiety has emerged that recalls her own experience being displaced: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“One of the enemies of the Syrian people was Russia, so I feel the tragedy the Ukrainians are feeling,” she says. “Finally, we were getting back a little bit to normal life, and then a war comes. I am feeling stress and asking myself, ‘What’s next?’”

Working online has also taught her that it can be hard to slow down virtually. “I tried to make the last year busy so I could mentally be well. But of course, being busy creates other problems. ... You are not socializing with your family and loved ones, and you’re burned out.”

She also recognizes how fortunate she has been to shift to a world online when the pandemic took away livelihoods for so many – like the vast majority of Ms. Montealegre’s colleagues in the informal economy.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Leonard Makuya (right) and Silva Kossa, caretakers at St. James Presbyterian Church in Johannesburg, tie ribbons to the church's fence representing people in South Africa who have died of COVID-19, Jan. 21, 2022. The men have been tying these ribbons nearly every day since the pandemic began in March 2020.

A small awakening

When the pandemic struck, 56.2% of Mexicans were working in the informal sector, according to Mexico’s National Occupation and Employment Survey. The Mexican government offered some initial, very limited support like small loans for specific categories of informal workers. But to get by, most of them relied on friends and family, informal workers unions, or the generosity of strangers.

Tania Espinosa Sánchez, Mexico coordinator for WIEGO, a nonprofit advocating for informal workers’ rights, says she has watched them overcome two years of hardship. “I don’t know how they do it,” she says.

Despite the extreme challenges in one of the most unequal regions of the world, Ms. Espinosa says she’s encouraged by small signs of sympathy for workers in the informal sector.

In early February, the police in a tony Mexico City neighborhood tried to ban vendors from selling their wares on tricycles. Clearing them out as a nuisance is not uncommon, Ms. Espinosa says, but she was surprised to see this time that the workers stood their ground, standing up for their right to work by blocking streets.

When she posted her support for that protest on Twitter, she was again surprised by the support she garnered. “Before we rarely heard those voices” defending informal workers, she says. She calls it a small “awakening.”

It’s an example of a larger shift that the pandemic has brought. “We may live with less innocence and naiveté, which I think can be understood as positive,” says Dr. Neimeyer. “It moves us toward greater maturity and wisdom and compassion.”

Finding their feet again

Yet compassion has felt in short supply for many people this past year. The hope sparked in many by the discovery and availability of vaccines gave way to divisive protests like Canada’s “Freedom Convoy” over vaccine mandates and continued public health restrictions.

For Hugo Tiedje, a German actor, work has gone surprisingly well. He recalls the fear he felt the first year when his entire industry shut down around him. But by the time he graduated from theater studies in Berlin in 2021, he had found stability in a two-year position at the Luzerner Theater in Switzerland.

But his relief was tempered by family troubles over the issue of whether to vaccinate, which ramped up after his grandfather became ill with COVID-19. “The biggest change from year two over year one was the split in my family,” he says.

Courtesy of Yi-Ling Huang
Ms. Yi-Ling Huang shops in a seafood market before the Feb. 1, 2022, Lunar New Year in Taipei, Taiwan. Despite a public health setback in 2021 during which Taiwan experienced its first major COVID-19 outbreak, Ms. Huang gained a new sense of agency in the second year of the pandemic.

And many families continue to be split by physical separation. Christmas 2021 was Yi-Ling Huang’s saddest ever, she says. Her son and daughter – both students in the United States – could not return to Taiwan because of pandemic travel restrictions. It was the family’s first Christmas apart.

Without the laughter-filled family Christmas party and the aroma of grilling pork, Ms. Huang’s Taipei home felt lonely. “My husband didn’t even set up a Christmas tree,” she says.

And yet the year also brought her new confidence, she says. Her job as a real estate agent has kept her busier than ever, as the industry moved to more virtual showings. Less positive surprises intruded – after being a global standout for successful pandemic prevention, Taiwan had a brief but significant setback last summer. In some ways, though, navigating through the stress has brought her a sense of calm. “I feel much more in control than before,” she says.

Steven Taylor, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who wrote a book on the psychology of pandemics, conducted research about how Americans and Canadians perceive they are doing now. His team found that about 77% of participants reported moderate to high improvement in at least one respect, like valuing friends and family, gratitude for each day, or a greater feeling of self-reliance.

Moving forward

On a slate-gray January morning, Leonard Makuya counts out 25 pieces of blue ribbon and carries them to the barrier fence at St. James Presbyterian Church in Johannesburg, where he is the caretaker. And then, just as he has nearly every day for the last 700 days, he begins to tie the ribbons to the palisade bars, knotting one ribbon for every 10 people who have died of COVID-19 in South Africa in the preceding days.

Over time, this fence has become a kind of archaeological record of the pandemic. By now, the earliest ribbons are frayed and fading.  As the pandemic crests into its third year, the memorial has achieved a longevity its creators never planned for. But its centrality in their lives is also slowly receding.

After spending the first year of the pandemic mostly behind the church’s ribbon-covered fence, tending to its gardens and wiping dust from its unused pews, Mr. Makuya, in the second year, began to resume a more expansive version of his life.

In January 2021, he began taking driving lessons, after making a resolution to himself that this was the year he would finally learn. For weeks, he lurched up and down the road outside the church with a driving instructor, until that kind of movement began, slowly, to feel natural. 

By last spring he had a license and a zippy, yellow, two-door Opel Corsa, which he uses to drive the 350 miles home to visit his family in a rural northern area of South Africa called Venda. “It’s given me much more freedom,” he says.

If year one had been a year of stillness, then year two was one of movement.

Yet the act of moving forward, which everyone has waited for for so long, could actually be the hardest part, especially for younger adults just starting their careers and staking out their independence.

Ms. Hanaa in Toronto has always been an extrovert, so the fact that she has come to love working and studying in her room, what she calls her “zone,” concerns her. She’s been anxious about returning to life on campus, and for a woman who easily leads virtual events (last year she introduced Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at an online conference about refugees), she says the prospect of doing so in person is daunting.

“Virtually I feel so confident speaking, but when I go back to in-person, I feel shy about people looking at all of my body,” she says.

In Mexico, Ms. Montealegre’s daughter Claudia says the stress of the early days of the pandemic has in some ways marked her.

She was in the middle of college when the pandemic began, but asked to join her parents at their food stall because she didn’t want to be alone all day in the house. She has since finished school and gotten her first job. And she was the inspiration behind the branding and online ordering her parents now implement. But doing half her university degree online, seeing less of her friends than she used to, and new stresses – she mentions the war in Ukraine – weigh on her mind.

“I got to know that stress from the early days of the pandemic, and it stayed with me,” she says. “All of my peers who went through this – finishing university in a way that it’s not meant to be finished, all alone – we have this sad vibe. Not finding work, not going out with friends, it affects us all.”

She tries to focus on all that she has gained, and most of the time she’s good at that. She has perspective and knows her family has been fortunate.

An “absolute gift”

So does her mother. 

On a recent day at the market, a pair of older women in exercise clothes and baseball caps sit down at Ms. Montealegre’s stand next to two young girls playing hand-clap games. “Would you like red or green salsa?” Ms. Montealegre asks them, taking their order for three chicken flautas and a gordita stuffed with chicharron.

Her stall is one of the few that are fully set up at 9 a.m. – she and her team arrived three hours earlier to build the frame and hang the hot-pink awning, then fry meat and chop tomatoes.

Ms. Montealegre says things at work are looking more “normal” two years into the pandemic. Last year, customers would order their food to go. Now they often stay to eat, and Ms. Montealegre can once again enjoy what she likes best about running a business – small talk with diners, the thrill of juggling multiple orders and managing a team, and being part of Mexico City’s cacophony.

Looking back, she calls the pandemic “an absolute gift.” Her family grew closer, as members got to know one another on a new level, she says.

“The pandemic brought really tough moments,” she recalls, “but then it brought beautiful ones, too.”

Lenora Chu in Berlin, Ann Scott Tyson in Seattle, and Ryan Lenora Brown in Johannesburg contributed reporting to this article.

Editor's note: A detail about a personal relation mentioned in the story has been removed to respect the privacy of the parties involved.

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