On this day three years ago, the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, a once-in-a-lifetime event that tested the limits of humanity.
Locked down societies, untold numbers of people hospitalized, school closures, job losses and the death of loved ones have become routine in the lives of billions of people.
While many may want to forget the horrors wrought by the pandemic, others continue to suffer from its physical, emotional, and financial consequences.
Al Jazeera spoke to five people from around the world to understand how COVID-19 affected their lives and continues to do so:
Farath Shba, Singapore
Zaheer was just 18 months old when he succumbed to COVID-19 in June 2022, becoming the first reported death from the virus of a child under 12 in Singapore.
After registering a temperature of nearly 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the first few days of contracting COVID, Zaheer’s condition worsened.
She suffered from violent seizures and was diagnosed with meningoencephalitis, a condition that causes inflammation of the membranes of the meninges and brain tissue. Zaheer was finally put on life support after doctors declared that his brain was not working.
“In life sometimes you think you could have done better. I feel that way when it comes to Zaheer’s passing. I still feel the anger,” Zaheer’s father, Farath Shba, choked back tears, told Al Jazeera from Singapore.
“That was very traumatic…I wasn’t ready to let go. Everyone told me to give up or prepare for the worst, but I just couldn’t,” Shba said.
Zaheer’s older brother, Zayan, who is still a toddler, was constantly asking about him, his father said.
“I didn’t know how to tell him that his brother might not come home.”
Then, on June 27, little Zaheer breathed his last.
“Nothing prepares you for the loss of a child,” Shba said.
“The first month or so was very difficult. My wife would wake up at night crying loudly… this went on for weeks,” she said.
Zayan was also overwhelmed with sadness when he found out that his little brother was not coming home.
“He was very protective of him… he thought we had done something bad to him. He would start beating me and my wife”.
Nine months later, Shba says, the family has begun to move on.
“We have not forgotten about Zaheer. I still pray at his grave once a week,” the account manager revealed.
Also, Shba says that he avoids talking to Zayan about Zaheer, whose memories of his younger brother have started to fade a bit.
“When I mature a bit, I’ll explain it to you. But for now, I avoid mentioning his brother’s name,” she said.
Ana Gruszynski, Brazil
Ana Gruszynski says her life was forever changed from the moment her 87-year-old mother was hospitalized with COVID-19 in August 2020.
After her mother passed away from the virus, Gruszynski, who cared for her during that time, tested positive five days later, leading to pneumonia, neuropathy issues and rashes.
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Although his pneumonia subsided within weeks of contracting COVID-19, Gruszynski said he soon began to develop vertigo, a condition defined as having “a feeling of losing your balance” and can lead to nausea, vomiting and vision problems.
“If I went into an online video session to teach or use my phone, I couldn’t see well…I would get really dizzy,” she said. “I thought maybe it was just stress because my mom had just died, but the symptoms only got worse.”
Gruszynski, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, said that while battling vertigo, she was also diagnosed with polyneuropathy, a condition that affects a person’s peripheral nerves, skin and muscles.
“Taking a shower felt terrible,” she said.
“It hurt to put on my clothes. I had to buy a special pillow and foam (for sleeping). It was really horrible.”
Her condition worsened so badly that she was forced to take a break from teaching in 2021 while she sought medical attention.
Eventually, after more than a year of trying multiple remedies, Gruszynski was recommended medical marijuana to help with her symptoms, which she says made a world of difference.
But her symptoms have not completely disappeared.
“If I walk too fast or if it’s too hot, I have tachycardia symptoms,” he said.
In July, the 56-year-old said she had decided to take early retirement from her position at the university.
“I already had a desire to retire before COVID… but even (if) I wanted to continue, I couldn’t afford it,” he said. “I have difficulty concentrating and I am slower to complete tasks, which is incompatible… with the work demands of university professors.”
Nosipiwo Manona, South Africa
At the start of the pandemic, former journalist Nosipiwo Manona was forced to leave her job for health reasons. Manona, who suffered from diabetes, was susceptible to serious complications from COVID, which is why she decided to leave the job and industry that she loved.
“My workplace expected me to be active in the field during the height of the pandemic. But I just couldn’t take the risk,” Manona, a mother of four, told Al Jazeera.
“Losing my job was a beating. Journalism has always been my first love and great passion.”
In November 2020, when she was 50 years old, Manona lost eight members of her family to the virus in a few weeks. Among those who died were her parents and the father of her children.
“It was six weeks of pure horror,” she said in exasperation.
“When we organize…events like weddings or funerals, you need your family members to be present, including your aunts and uncles. Today we are the family that now has to look for relatives for that to happen,” she said.
Manona explained how her former employer laid off hundreds of employees when the coronavirus hit, and that companies in South Africa have downsized and been reluctant to rehire until today.
Aside from a few reporting opportunities, Manona revealed that she has become reliant on the generosity of her friends and family to make ends meet. She doesn’t have money to pay for her children’s school or to buy food.
“What really kills is being a donor-recipient when you have lived so many years being able to take care of yourself,” he said.
Often the pressure of providing for her family and the pain of losing loved ones leaves her “overwhelmed,” she added.
“I just go to the corner or take a walk to drop everything… I have cried a lot in the last three years.”
Biboara Yinikere, Nigeria
“She is very close to my heart,” Biboara Yinikere says of Mimi, her 11-year-old daughter with Down syndrome.
So naturally, when the pandemic hit, the 50-year-old said she was “really worried,” knowing that children with Down syndrome were more prone to severe respiratory illness.
While she was concerned about her daughter’s health, Yinkere said she was also upset by the disruption to Mimi’s education. When schools closed during the lockdown, Yinkere had to become Mimi’s primary educator.
“I did it for the first two months. It wasn’t easy,” said Yinkere, founder of the NGO Engraced Ones.
However, Yinkere admits that he was eventually able to get better at teaching Mimi, employing “a lot of learning resources” to make sure she didn’t fall behind.
“He started to enjoy the lessons more. At some point, she would even remind me that it was time to learn.
Once Yinkere was back at work, Mimi resumed her education online, presenting her mother with a new challenge.
“Due to her condition and level of education, she couldn’t sit by herself during Zoom classes,” Yinkere explained.
While her brothers helped out for a while, she was eventually forced to hire an outside educator to help her daughter get through online classes. And that raised more concerns during the pandemic, she said.
“Of course I was terrified. With my children, I can control the (home) environment. But now he had someone who came from outside, using public transport.
Yinkere’s advice to other parents of a child with special needs is that everyone should reach out during a pandemic-like situation.
“All family members need to be involved at some level,” he said.
Mona Masood, United States
When American psychiatrist Mona Masood first floated the idea of starting an emotional support hotline for doctors on her Facebook page, she was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response.
Encouraged by the feedback, in April 2020, Masood and four others launched the Physician Support Line, where doctors, trainees, and medical students can request help anonymously.
The hotline experience, he said, gave him an “unmatched window” into mental and emotional confusion facing frontline workers during the pandemic.
A “buzzword being used everywhere was ‘burnout,'” he said, recounting how he described the pressure frontline staff faced during the pandemic.
“But it wasn’t that, because that’s too much ‘oh, you’re not cut out for this job,'” the 37-year-old explained to Al Jazeera.
According to Masood, non-pecuniary damage was the more accurate term to describe what health workers faced. A term that was first used when war veterans returned home.
“It wasn’t just that they were feeling post-traumatic stress disorder, but they were also questioning their morality: what they did in war zones, like decisions related to collateral damage, civilian deaths,” said Masood, who is based in Pennsylvania.
The same moral damage was happening to doctors during the pandemic, he observed.
“We have to decide who has to live and die, to whom a (medical) resource will go. We had limited medication. Who were we to decide who got what, ”he recalled what the doctors said at the time.
“People were really struggling with what it meant to be a doctor: someone who took an oath to do no harm, but was inevitably doing harm because we didn’t have a system (that) gave us enough resources.”
Describing his own well-being in the three years since the outbreak, Masood said that while he was able to relate to his fellow doctors to some degree, he had come to “accept his own humanity.”
“It means I don’t have to have all the answers. I can accept that to be human is to be imperfect,” she said.
“Accepting imperfections allowed me to be there for others,” she added.
“I’m going to do my best, and sometimes my best will look different every day.”