The coronavirus threatens those who need care the most and strains networks providing help
Organizations have canceled or postponed at least 440 trade shows and exhibitions in response to the coronavirus. But in Austin, where the lucrative and enjoyable South by Southwest (SXSW) 10-day music/movie/tech festival is still scheduled for March 13–22, the band plays on.
Organizers of this year’s Game Developers Conference, scheduled for the week of March 15 in San Francisco, postponed it after Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Sony, and other companies said they weren’t coming. Facebook, Mashable, CapitalOne, TikTok, Intel, and SAP have all announced they’re canceling their SXSW participation. Nevertheless, in Austin, the band plays on.
Investor and podcaster Tim Ferriss, scheduled to give a SXSW keynote address, tweeted, “I love SXSW, but I don’t believe the novel coronavirus can be contained, and I view an int’l event of 100K+ people as a huge risk to attendees and the entire city, given limited ICU beds, etc. … SXSW brings huge economic benefit to Austin, but possibly making Austin a hotspot for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, and the emergency actions + funding that would require, could make a huge event seem shortsighted.”
SXSW cancellation would certainly be a big financial hit, yet organizers who canceled late last month the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, did so despite expectations it would generate $546 million. Factora CEO Allegra Brantly had a useful twist on dollar concerns when she canceled a “Women & Wealth Lounge” scheduled for Austin on March 14, saying, “Health is wealth and we’re not willing to risk yours. … As disappointed as we are, we will never regret prioritizing women’s safety as a top concern.”
The Austin American-Statesman Tuesday night reported SXSW officials saying, “The 2020 event is proceeding with safety as a top priority.” As of Wednesday morning, more than 42,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for the cancellation of the entire event. But, so far, the band plays on—with the music of Jaws in the background?
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On a cloudy Saturday morning here in May, around 30 young people in matching T-shirts gathered under a bridge, armed with posters on mental health. They walked across the city for more than an hour, backed by music from two loudspeakers. The group handed out emergency contact cards to passersby and occasionally chanted, “Speak your mind!” and “Better health for all!”
A local nonprofit, Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative, or MANI, organized the march across seven of Nigeria’s 36 states. In Abuja, the movement was timely: Stories were making the rounds on social media about two young men who separately committed suicide one day apart in May.
The cases are among a rising number of publicized suicide attempts across the country. Groups like MANI are stepping in to combat stereotypes surrounding mental health and to inform people about available assistance.
Victor Ugo founded MANI in 2016 out of his own personal struggles. Two years earlier, he was a medical student at a Nigerian university when he started to feel dispirited and unmotivated. “I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t sleeping. I lost interest in everything.”
His friends and some of his professors intervened and encouraged him to see a doctor, who diagnosed him with major depressive disorder. He started treatment and therapy and began to recover, but decided he wanted more than just his own healing.
“If I could go through this, then what about everyone else who didn’t have the same access or friends that I had?”
According to government officials, 3 in 10 Nigerians suffer from a mental health disorder. The World Health Organization says Nigeria has the 15th-highest number of reported suicide cases in the world, in an age-standardized tally.
Ugo launched the nonprofit with a focus on young people. It has so far offered as many as 10,000 suicide interventions. Trained counselors on call provide five free sessions to people who request help on the organization’s website. Offline, MANI hosts events, like its “conversation cafés” across 10 states. Those events involve difficult conversations with participants on issues such as mental health stigmas.
Last year, the group tracked down and stopped someone from committing suicide at a beach in Lagos just as he was walking into the water.
“We got him out, then he snatched the gun from a policeman,” Ugo recalled. “I had to go get it from him. It was such a scary moment.”
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In August, Nancy Writebol, a missionary with SIM International, celebrated exactly five years of being healed of Ebola. She had contracted the virus during the 2014 outbreak while helping spray health workers with decontaminating bleach at Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia.
On this anniversary of leaving the U.S. hospital where she received treatment, she made dinner with her husband David Writebol, sitting at the table in the same house in Liberia where she had been sick and isolated before her medical evacuation from the country. The Writebols talked almost laughingly about all they went through. They’re a cheerful, jocular couple with a long career in hard places.
But certain memories still make Writebol cry. When she got out of the hospital, she was so thankful to be alive and Ebola-free that she was caught off guard by the way people treated her and her husband afterward. Close friends avoided her, fearful about Ebola. She carried an official letter declaring her to be a safe, noninfectious human being, but at one U.S. airport agents pulled her aside and brought out people in protective gear who said they were going to call in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We were almost afraid to be seen because we didn’t know how people would respond to us,” said Writebol. “To this day it’s still painful.”
Soon after returning to Liberia with SIM in 2015, Nancy Writebol began work as a trauma healing facilitator for Ebola survivors in a country with the barest of mental health resources. She can identify with Liberians not only in terms of surviving Ebola, but also in having her home looted right after she was medically evacuated—something many Liberian survivors experienced.
Evangelical Church of Liberia Pastor Jeremiah Kollie works with Writebol to lead trauma healing sessions and train facilitators. They point out they are not trained psychologists, but simply offer Biblical counseling resources.