It is 2 years since the first cases of COVID-19 were recorded in the WHO European Region – 2 years that have tested our resilience. Looking back, and looking forward, 5 people from the Region reflect on how COVID-19 has changed their lives.
The first cases in the Region
On 24 January 2020, Bordeaux, France, was the first city in the Region to report a case of COVID-19. Victoria Smyth, who runs a property management company, moved with her family of 5 from the United Kingdom to Bordeaux in 2007, drawn to the beautiful countryside and inspired by the peaceful lifestyle.
“We heard about the virus on television,” said Victoria, “but we live in a bubble in the vines in France, and we thought, ‘It won’t affect us’. Then it started to encroach on our lives.”
Soon, COVID-19 measures meant they could only travel within 1 km of their house and take 1 hour of exercise a day.
“Fortunately, we were able to continue our work, but many of the houses we look after have been empty for 2 years now. That badly affects the local economy. We won’t ever get rid of COVID-19 – we will need to learn to live with it and be more cautious.”
At that time, WHO encouraged countries in the European Region to prepare themselves for a surge in cases and provided support to engage their citizens to protect themselves.
Acknowledging our health workers
Laboratory specialists have been at the frontline of the COVID-19 response; their tireless work has been central to promptly detecting COVID-19 cases. For staff at the Kyiv Laboratory Centre of the Ministry of Health, Ukraine, the start of the pandemic was a steep learning curve, but Natalya Rodina, the Deputy Director General of the Centre is proud of how they were able to quickly adapt to this emergency.
“The beginning was difficult. Very few people were trained in PCR diagnostics at the time. Today, everything is seamless and the level of professionalism of each specialist is much higher. Hardly anyone who works in medical institutions today can say that they have had a real holiday. I want to wish them more patience, more optimism, not to be scared, and to remember that a holiday is just around the corner.”
The Omicron variant has increased the number of people needing hospital care, and staff working in hospitals are still run off their feet. Getting vaccinated and maintaining personal protective measures, such as wearing a well-fitting mask when needed; maintaining a physical distance of at least 1 metre; avoiding closed, confined or crowded spaces; and keeping hands clean, can keep people out of hospital and prevent health services from being overwhelmed.
WHO declared 2021 the International Year of Health and Care Workers in appreciation of their dedication. WHO/Europe amplified the voices of health and care workers from across the Region and called on countries to invest in looking after them.
COVID-19’s lasting health implications
Over the last 2 years, WHO/Europe has highlighted the need for health authorities to focus on Long COVID as a serious and little-understood impact of COVID-19 that needs further research. Akmaljon Niyazov, a tour guide from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and his wife Oksana, a project manager, are 2 people still suffering from post-COVID symptoms today. They both caught the virus around 18 months ago. In the first weeks, they had high fevers, followed by chest pains that lasted for a year.
“Even now, I smell petrol when I eat lemons,” said Akmaljon. “My wife can’t wear her favourite perfume anymore because it smells disgusting to her. Another impact of COVID is the worsening of my memory. Nowadays, I have to rehearse my tour materials when I used to know them by heart.”
Akmaljon and his wife are now both double vaccinated. He hopes their Long COVID symptoms will fade. In the meantime, he urges people to get vaccinated, wear masks and practice social distancing. “Even mild COVID can affect you. Nobody knows what after-effects you might have.”
The effects of isolation
Even for those not infected with COVID-19, the pandemic has left its mark. The teenage years are not easy, but for many, the pandemic made them a lot harder. Dana Bakayeva, 20, from Kazakhstan found her plans dashed by COVID-19.
“I graduated from high school last year, but we didn’t have a prom. And to say that I’m sad at that thought doesn’t cover it. Since 8th grade, probably, I have dreamed of graduation, of launching balloons, of a walk along the embankment, about the obligatory photos as a souvenir. I dreamed of moving into a new adult life but I didn’t have any of that.”
“Of course, there are also things that can be seen as positive, we became closer to our relatives for example, but it took a big toll on my mental health. Stuck in 4 walls, I closed myself off from those around me. Apathy has become a frequent ‘guest’.”
In early 2021, the WHO Country Office in Kazakhstan and the country’s Ministry of Health worked with young people on the issues facing Kazakh youth during the pandemic, producing an inspiring video.
Protecting expecting mothers
Two years on, a key message from WHO to everyone is to get a vaccine. This includes mothers-to-be. Cara Jamieson is a Scottish breastfeeding specialist, and mother to a boy aged 4 and a baby girl aged just 7 weeks. In March 2020, her biggest concern was that her partner, a doctor, would bring the virus back from work.
“My pregnancy with our daughter was different [from my son’s] as we did have concerns about my catching COVID, or the virus in some way impacting how and where I gave birth.”
Cara sought out information about vaccination from trusted medical sources. She received both vaccinations while pregnant, and her booster while breastfeeding, just weeks after her daughter was born.
“I am incredibly grateful to those people who helped me to understand the evidence base. And I feel confident in my decision to get vaccinated whilst pregnant, despite my initial reservations. I recognize that it offered me and likely my daughter protection against COVID at an important time, and that she has also likely benefited from my being vaccinated whilst breastfeeding.”
“My message to pregnant mums is to find trusted sources of information and discuss any thoughts or concerns you might have with your midwife and/or doctor, rather than keeping them to yourself.”
Cara and her partner are taking measures to reduce risk, such as mask wearing, hand washing and meeting outdoors where possible. “For me and my family, we are working to find a balance that allows us to enjoy the things that matter to us, whilst keeping those we love safe,” she says. WHO has produced evidence-based guidance to support expecting and new mothers.
The pandemic has changed all our lives, and it is not over yet. In the Region, 1.7 million people have died, and we are now in the grip of a new variant. Nonetheless, individually, communally and scientifically we have proved ourselves adaptable and inventive. So far, vaccination has saved the lives of well over 500 000 people in the Region, and increasingly, we know more about what works to prevent and treat the virus. Two years on, that fact brings hope.