An Earlier Epidemic

We met under a jacaranda tree in the headteacher’s garden;   social distancing, I suppose, although I have no recollection of that term from the time. This was a 1975 staff meeting at Kaoma Secondary school, Zambia to discuss strategy for health and safety on the campus during an outbreak of bacterial meningitis. Two pupils had died and a further one would die the following week.

Staff meetings were generally lengthy affairs at the best of times; they were among the most democratic that I have ever experienced in a   lengthy teaching career. Mr Wachila, the headtacher, was a reserved but profoundly thoughtful Zambian. His staff was drawn from around the World – Russia, Canada, Sri Lanka, Southern Rhodesia, UK, South Africa, Germany, Denmark, India and Holland – and he valued each individual’s input.  The desire of all was to save lives and to prevent the further spread of the disease.

Liz and I were two years into a three year contract and thoroughly enjoying the experience in this rural, boarding school.  Our first child, Caoimhe, had been born six months earlier and we were deeply conscious of the risks to her. Local medical facilities were fairly basic, as the picture of Liz at the clinic shows. For long periods there was no doctor in residence and there were only two trained staff. We had travelled forty miles through the bush to an American Baptist missionary hospital for Caoimhe’s birth because it had a doctor and nurses on site.

Staff and students were receiving daily dosages of anti-biotics and vitamin supplements. Water was a frequent problem; not because of drought or shortage but rather from inadequate and frequently disrupted pumping. I owned the nearest car to the dormitories and was called on occasionally to provide an ambulance service. It was always a scary, all windows-open journey during that chilling outbreak.

Covid-19 is much more serious and widespread but the memories of that time return. I watched the school caretaker make a simple coffin from a pine supplies crate and I can still hear the line of pupils singing in three part harmony as they followed the funeral beyond the playing fields. The First Minister, in her daily briefing, is at pains to remind us that the ripples from every single death extend outwards to embrace a circle of family and friends. The loss of those pupils affected each of us and extended many miles into the Bush villages and to their stricken families.

The mood of the staff meeting all those years ago was that we could beat the illness, given willingness to co-operate and support each other.

It’s happening here in Scotland today.

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