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The Sun will rise tomorrow

Turning in my bed, my eyes open, I knew it was time to wake up. Looking over at my alarm clock, the same red digital display in the dark, it was 5:03 AM. Funny, I thought to myself, that I have an alarm clock that I use to check the time. I wouldn’t know how to set the alarm on that gadget even if I tried. My own internal alarm clock wakes me up every day, as it has done since I was a child. If I sleep at three in the morning, I wake up at 5 AM. If I go to sleep at 10 PM, I wake up at 5 AM. I was three minutes late waking up today. I guess the internal clock that regulates me is getting as old as my Timex.

Stretching, I sketch out the day in my mind; but these are no ordinary times. I have my glass of water to start the day, wash my face, and contemplate the things to come, as first light begins to shine through my window.

Living in Abidjan now, in a small apartment that overlooks the lagoon, the view is breath-taking. I’ve always liked the idea of waking up to the view of water, a privilege I didn’t have growing up.

Like every early morning it was eerily quiet, but coming back to life. From my window, close to 5:30 AM, I could see a few cars from a distance on the highway. Three, actually. Curfew here begins at 9 PM and ends at 5 AM. I thought to myself where are these three cars going on a Sunday morning in this coronavirus-troubled part of the world? Nothing is open, movement from one city to another in the Ivory Coast is banned, schools are closed, and so are most restaurants and businesses. It’s likely a “drive of shame”, I speculated to myself, since nobody was walking on the street.

What follows as I awake is always the same. I turn the lights on in the same order in the apartment, open the shades in the living room first, and in the bedroom second, and then it’s time for breakfast. Liquid vanilla flavored yogurt and vitamins is about all I need.

Then before a quick shower and shave, I prepare my wardrobe for the day. Not a real time consuming chore for a man, just laying out a shirt, a suit, finding a pair of matching socks, and that’s all. I avoid neckties now, unless something formal is required during the day. I, like many, have temporarily abandoned this tradition. But, today is Sunday and this part of waking up is not customary.

It has been nine days now since our office closed because of the Coronavirus breakout in the Ivory Coast. Business is being conducted by video conference, polycom, Zoom mostly, with various Skype for business calls throughout the day. By 8 AM my video conferences had already begun, even on a Sunday. Dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and shorts, I position the camera only to reveal my upper torso. If I get up for any reason during the VC, I always have to remember to disconnect my camera. A new protocol, a new way of doing business and a new dress code to boot. Things won’t go back to normal for quite some time. That is, if there isn’t a new normal after this that will become permanent. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis will put a partial end to 9-5 as we know it, and redefine working out of an office forever. Telework is here to stay.

As I turn on my computer, I try to make sense of all that has unfolded in the past few weeks and what’s going to happen next. It looks like another month of work from home for yours truly, alone in a 900 square foot apartment, just me, myself and I and my human contact is all but redefined by VCs, WhatsApp and Messenger. This will wear on me; this will wear on everyone. Not a good time for extroverts, I thought to myself, not the best of times for introverts either. A really challenging time for germ-o-phobes as well.

My job today is to strategize on how to get the assistance that African countries need to fight COVID-19, better known as the Coronavirus. To not have any African country become the next Italy, or Spain. To not have an African city become the next New York. This work carries with it immense responsibility of which I am uniquely aware. African countries need money for medical supplies, ventilators, just like everyone else. With oil prices at unprecedented lows and commodity prices crashing, most African countries are struggling to find foreign exchange. Can Africa rely on the G20, the 20 richest countries in the world, for help in an era when they have their own needs? With several countries having to sustain multibillion-dollar stimulus packages, if not in excess of one trillion dollars? If Africa cannot get their support, what can they do; that is the question being assessed today. It will be a long day.

Accordingly, my calendar shows that my video and audio conferences will continue until around 5 PM, and today’s a Sunday. Wow.

As the day unfolds, and my Timex reminds me it’s 4:00 PM, I get up only to find myself wobbly and dizzy. I know what this feeling is. I forgot to eat, but worse I forgot to drink water throughout the day. I immediately realize that I’m dehydrated and grab a bottle of water and guzzle it down. This will help.

With my last meeting now out of the way, I go about the process of writing justifications for support interventions across the African continent, the task that remains. I won’t sleep very much tonight. As I draft what’s required, with the assistance of a very able team, I pause every now and then to look out of my window. The phone rings for what feels like the hundredth time, and it’s a work colleague concerned for the well-being of his family. He has young children. What a burden to carry in these difficult times. He asks me if I know when the airport will be open. I don’t. He tells me he just wants to send his kids back to his home country, that he will stay on and do the necessary in this now mercenary life of being a development specialist. But, there is no way to send his kids home. Not only are the airports closed; the seaport is closed as well. Driving to another country where an airport is open is conceptually possible, but to go where? The risk of contracting the virus is higher in Asia, Europe and the US than it is in the Ivory Coast. Besides, the Ivory Coast managed to survive an Ebola outbreak and get back to normalcy so my best advice to him was to stay put. He thanked me for “leading”, for being the person keeping his head when others are losing theirs. If he only knew.

Returning to my drafting, my pauses to reflect involve looking out of my scenic window from time to time. As we approach curfew, I begin to see less and less movement on the highway in my line of sight. It crosses my mind how crazy it is to see such limited movement in such a big city like Abidjan. People are scared here like everywhere else; I’m scared for them, I’m scared for the people I love, I’m scared for myself.

I have been through so much, I thought to myself. I’ve helped rebuild Bosnia after the war, I survived turmoil in Somalia, just to name a few, but this is something entirely different. For someone who has spent his entire life in development, all this is a first for me. Those that have lived very colorful lives know how to weather storms better than most. A sailor never learnt anything in calm seas, but storms like this are unprecedented. I’ve also learned that nothing happens to you, it happens for you, to make you stronger, and this usually helps me to see the positive in negative events. I will be quite the storyteller as an older man.

Looking out my window again, as the 9 PM curfew approaches, I watch as traffic comes to a complete halt. In the next few hours when I glance out my window again, there will be no vehicle traffic except maybe the odd police car, or an ambulance. A city with several million inhabitants completely in lockdown. I thought of what this scene might look like if you’re looking out of your window and seeing a deserted Fifth Avenue, or an empty Champs-Élysées. Yes, the world has changed forever.

Well after midnight, looking at the late evening Abidjan skyline, I notice the sky has a shade of black, much darker than I recall it ever being. Then, I remember my mother saying to me, once upon a time, that regardless of how dark the night is, the sun will rise tomorrow. And, it will.

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