By Marieke Slovin Lewis / Bailleul, France
My husband and I have spent the past several years, lauding the incredible access and affordability of healthcare in Europe. Now, we joke that we will have to move back to the United States to get vaccinated. Just last week, we drove past an AstraZeneca facility a mere 30-minute drive from our house and I suggested to Richard that we go knock on the door to see if they might take pity on us and give us each a jab.
My husband often jokes with me to be careful what I wish for because there are often repercussions I would not have anticipated and that I may not enjoy.
When the gods want to have fun with you, they give you exactly what you ask for, he has told me, time and again.
This certainly seems to have been the case with our wish to stay in Europe.
Sure you can stay in Europe for another year, the gods whispered seductively in our ears over a year ago, but it won’t be all red wine and romance.
The gods didn’t tell us that we would spend most of our time in France, sitting on a couch in a tiny farmhouse, feeling extremely isolated and raging against the agonizingly slow Internet. They didn’t divulge the challenges of French bureaucracy or the equally agonizing molasses-like movement of the vaccination campaign in France.
This reality all came much later and with it the dream of a vaccine and return to “normal” life.
At the start of the wild Covid ride a year ago, my husband and I were living in Brussels, Belgium. We had just purchased tickets to return to the United States later in the spring. While we were making peace with leaving Belgium and the European Union (EU), we hoped there might be some paradigm shift that would allow us to stay. We had wanted to stay as far away from the politics and President as possible. We never imagined that the universe would respond with a global pandemic.
Word of the pandemic began with rumors and hearsay. A friend mentioned a conference she was planning to attend in Prague had been canceled. Then the same friend told us a work trip to Strasbourg had been called off. We invited two friends over for dinner, one from Venice and the other a native Belgian. Our Italian friend mentioned that she was afraid to talk on her cell phone on public transport because people would stand up and move to sit farther away from her if they heard her speaking Italian. Our Belgian friend said she had been sitting on a bus beside a father and child when our friend started sneezing. The father had begun shouting at her that she was going to get everyone sick, even though she tried to explain she only had allergies.
These were the early days, when the virus had only just begun to shift from China to Italy and the outer borders of Europe, places that still seemed far away from our “sanctuary” in Brussels. These were the days when we all thought the fear sweeping across the world seemed extreme. The virus did not appear to be as widespread as the flu. Why all the fuss?
During the first lockdown, our focus was on figuring out the answer to the proverbial question, “should we stay or should we go?” In the end, the pandemic decided for us. With airlines temporarily shutting down any transatlantic transport of animals, we realized we were stuck in Europe with our three cats and big white husky. My husband would have been returning to work at a university in the southwest region of the United States. We came up with contingency plans for him to work remotely. When a postdoc position came through in France, we breathed a sigh of relief. We had been granted a temporary reprieve from returning to our home country, where the virus was sweeping across one state after another with a vengeance. At least in Europe we felt relatively safe. The government seemed to have things under control, and people were respecting the lockdown rules and regulations.
At the time my husband was offered a position in France, the thought of a vaccine against the virus was a distant afterthought, a dreamy notion that was so far off in the future that I did not give it a lot of thought. Just motivating myself to go to the grocery store felt like an insurmountable obstacle. Thinking about a far-distant vaccine was surreal.
As I moved in and out of each day in a kind of pandemic trance, I remember reading headline after headline about the slow march to a vaccine. Progress was being made. Vaccines had been made but not yet tested. A vaccine was showing promise. Vaccines were working but they had to be maintained at an ultra-cold temperature, which made shipping them around the world challenging, if not impossible.
As I read the headlines, I also read article after article about the many different strains of the virus that were rippling around the globe. How could one vaccine possibly account for so many different variations on the virus theme? To say I felt hopeless would be an understatement. While my husband and I went through our own Mount Everest to get a temporary visa to move to France and then try to find a place to live, my attention was oriented to the trials of the immediate present.
We settled into a small farmhouse in France and were just getting our bearings when France went into a second lockdown. A vaccine was still a dream.
I remember reading about the “European strategy” unveiled by the European Commission back in June, 2020, when the commission president discussed the benefits and strength behind working together as a union. I found this hopeful while also experiencing a healthy dose of skepticism since my view of the European Union as an outsider looking in (and living in multiple EU countries) is that the countries that make up this union are not all that united.
In our experience, the European Union has seemed a bit of an oxymoron. Each country seems to have different (sometimes wildly so) bureaucratic policies in place for everything from pandemic coping strategies to work visas to healthcare. While we wore masks in Brussels both inside of shops and walking around outdoors all summer, friends in the Netherlands told us that shops and restaurants were open and people were not wearing masks. When we went into a second lockdown in France in the fall, our friends in the Netherlands and Denmark were still going to shops and sending their kids to school.
In talking with friends in Belgium, I noticed there were varied responses to the vaccine. Some were skeptical, talking about concerns over inadequate research and arguing that the entire development process had been hasty and rushed. There were questions about how much power and authority to grant Big Pharma and whether we could trust the government claims that vaccines were safe. Others had relatives who were anti-vaxxers. Most were pro-vaccine, however, and longing for life to return to normal.
With 2021 well underway, normal has yet to show its mundane face. Where we live in northern France, we are now several days into our third lockdown. This was thanks to our location relative to Calais and Dunkirk, where the British variant had been arriving after making its way across the Channel. The United Kingdom may have left the EU, but this has not stopped the spread of the virus.
While our family members and friends in the United States continued to send updates that they have gotten their first and second doses of the several iterations of vaccines over the past several months, we were still waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Nothing seemed to be happening, and we couldn’t figure out what was taking so long.
Eventually, the answers became clearer. Even with the seeming discontinuities with the EU, the countries had come together to come to agreements on the price of vaccines to ensure equity across the region. The time it took to negotiate contracts with drug companies set the EU well behind the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel, which had spared no expense in purchasing vaccine doses and quickly taken the lead in their vaccination campaigns.
There seems to be little hope that the EU will catch up with other countries or meet their original vaccination goals. Each week there are more roadblocks to normalcy. There was the blood clot scare that led to the halt of all AstraZeneca vaccinations across the EU, followed by the news that the company had selectively shared research results. The news headlines are grim, and each setback feels like a very real blow in an already sinking ship.
With EU countries going into third lockdowns, one after another, and the even more dire state of less wealthy countries around the world with regard to vaccine rollouts, I find my spirits at an all-time low. I do my best to keep busy with creative projects and forays to the bakery and grocery store, but increased stress over transmission of the British variant weighs heavy.
Each time my anxiety level rises, I walk around the farm fields that surround our home. With no end in sight for my own unanswered call to take flight, I try to take heart in the continued movement of life all around. Spring has finally arrived and with it a brief respite from the recent sweep of cold weather and high winds. Skylark and northern lapwings engage in dizzying aerial mating displays, and new flowers bloom each day. My daily walking record has already exceeded eight miles, and there are many miles ahead.
Marieke Slovin Lewis is a writer, musician, composer, yoga teacher, and editor. She grew up in Massachusetts and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Education from Prescott College. Marieke is a wandering soul and has lived all over the world. She currently finds herself in a third lockdown in northeast France with her husband, Richard Lewis, three cats and a big white husky. Marieke strives to create balance in her life through long walks around the farm fields that surround her home; practicing yoga and meditation; singing and strumming on her ukulele or banging on her bodhran; and writing, writing, writing.