Doctors and Dilemmas: A Year with Corona in the Netherlands

Two philosophers reflect on ethics and politics in corona times.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of first-year philosophy students are introduced to the finer points of moral philosophy through a famous nightmare scenario. They are asked to imagine a loose trolley racing over a train track to which five people are tied. They can divert the loose trolley to another track. To their horror, however, another unhappy person is tied to this alternative track. If they reroute the trolley, they save five people, but they kill one.

The Trolley Problem — Origins. The Trolley Problem is a thought… | by Sara  Bizarro | Medium

The Philosophy of Phase 3
In the Dutch context, philosophical reflections on the corona pandemic are reminiscent of this nightmare scenario. These considerations focus on the moral dilemma that physicians might face, namely, the need to refuse intensive care for older ICU patients to make way for younger patients. It includes scripts for emergency medical decisions under corona conditions, in particular the provisions for the so-called phase 3 or “code black.” This is the stage when ICU physicians must make life or death decisions based on “non-medical” criteria simply because they have more patients than beds, equipment, and staff. With every corona wave, code black and its ethical fallout — what is the criteria for letting someone die? — flare up again.

As various sources have reported an implicit code black, geared like the explicit one to let the vulnerable die, has already been in place since the onset of the pandemic under the auspices of advance care planning: older people have been discouraged by their treating physician from entering intensive care with COVID-19 infection. That the motives were not always purely medical can be inferred from the unprecedented fact that GPs took the initiative to call elderly patients with questions about their survivability if infected by corona. This happened around the time that the insufficient capacity of the Dutch ICUs became public.

Early on the pandemic, ethicists Marcel Verweij and Roland Pierik argued that, no matter how horrible this decision may be, doctors should bite the bullet and, given their limited resources, should act on the understanding that they will preserve “more” life if they are saving a younger person instead of an older one. Ethicist Fleur Jongepier rejects this line of thought because she considers subjecting human lives to a differential valuation to be inappropriate. She concluded that, given their limited resources, doctors should make the selection random. For the rest, we can only pull our hair and curse our fate.

COVID-19: Not a thought experiment
Undoubtedly, doctors are sometimes faced with tragic dilemmas. However, ethical reflection requires that we do not just fixate on the dilemma, but also think about its preconditions. It is precisely the image of tragic impotence around the decisions of doctors that obscures from view who and what is responsible for the fact that not everyone is saved from COVID-19 who could have been saved. When we consider the bigger picture, we see that doctors are forced to make tragic life-and-death choices based on decisions already made elsewhere.

So why is the situation in ICUs so bleak?

Manufactured Tragedy: Government Policy
When the so-called intelligent lockdown took effect in the Netherlands, Prime Minister Rutte announced, quite moving for many, that the young and fit must create a wall of immunity around the vulnerable (speech of 16 March 2020). Group immunity as a strategy against COVID-19 was always scientifically suspect. Nevertheless, we wonder what is left of Rutte’s idea that the majority would take a blow to ward her off the vulnerable.

The virus circulated freely through Dutch nursing homes. The circulation accelerated because, even at the height of the crisis and despite their urgent requests, nursing home staff were denied access to masks and disinfectants, so that nursing home residents became massively contaminated. The sudden influx of vulnerable elderly corona patients is one of the main reasons doctors in several ICU units in this country have had to brave the nightmare of tragic life or death decisions. The other important reason owing to venture capitalism is the stripped-down healthcare system in the Netherlands, in particular the limited number of ICU beds, the lack of ICU staff and the shortage of life-saving equipment on ICUs throughout the country.

With these two developments in view, it would be perverse to begin ethical assessments only where tragic life-and-death decisions loom, in the ICUs. Doctors find themselves in this situation because of government policies that claims to protect the vulnerable and in the same breath condemns them to death by negligence, as evidenced by mask-free or mask-averse hospital and care environments throughout the country. 

While Prime Minister Rutte surrendered to the vision of a wall of immunity, the government was for too long reluctant, against international standards, to impose preventive measures that go beyond washing hands and keeping a distance of five feet. For a long time, the government refused to mandate the public wearing of facial masks, although scientific research suggests that masks can minimize the viral load and thereby minimize virus transmission. In view of these policy choices, the ever-looming tragedy on Dutch ICUs appears to be the result of decisions.

Prime Minister Rutte has been reticent with regard to more investment in the health sector even during the pandemic (“Rutte rejects extra investment with concern: ‘What will you achieve with that'”?). Years of this cavalier attitude has exhausted the health care system, led to the closure of fully operational hospitals, and shifted the financial burden to patients and paid little attention to nurses and doctors.

Societal Attitudes in the Netherlands
Even first-year philosophy students can find their way back from the trolley problem to their mundane moral intuitions and wonder: who tied up these people to the railway track? Why should I be responsible for the lever? Can’t we untie the victims? The COVID-19 pandemic is not a philosophical thought experiment anyway. So we have no excuse for excluding from moral criticism the policy-making that forces doctors to make tragic choices. 

A critical ethical perspective on the corona crisis should not stop with demanding more responsibility from the government and healthcare officials. We must also demand more responsibility from ourselves: questions must be asked about the moral compass of a society that cannot understand the urgency of the pandemic but responds to all measures, whether reasonable or unreasonable, with childish frustration. Questions should also be asked about why the elderly and vulnerable people are marginalized to such an extent that we have no qualms about endangering their lives and, when the time comes, letting them die. It seems appropriate to say that COVID-19 exposes the deep sediment of moral values ​​of Dutch society.

Perhaps these reflections help us see that the current is not a tragic fate. When doctors regularly find themselves in situations without life-saving resources, the moral problem lies elsewhere, namely with decision-makers whose policies cause a shortage of essential facilities, equipment, personnel and broader and better-designed pandemic policies. These policymakers have already determined that some can live, while others must die. The moral problem also lies with a society that, instead of protesting official disregard, becomes irritated about preventive health measures in their everyday life, especially when these measures mainly benefit others.

The fact may be that both policymakers and society at large have different priorities in corona times than saving lives, and in particular the lives of those in our society who are already vulnerable. 

Featured image: John Franklin, Consigning bodies of the plague to a communal grave in the plague pit, Plague of London. 1841

Dokters en Dilemma’s: Een jaar met Corona in Nederland

Twee filosofen reflecteren op ethiek en politiek tijdens corona

Elk jaar maken honderdduizenden eerstejaars filosofiestudenten kennis met de fijne kneepjes van de moraalfilosofie door middel van een beroemd nachtmerriescenario. Ze moeten zich een losse trolley voorstellen die over een treinspoor racet waaraan vijf mensen zijn vastgebonden. Ze kunnen de losse trolley omleiden naar een andere baan. Tot hun schrik is er echter nog een ongelukkig persoon aan deze alternatieve baan gebonden. Als ze de trolley omleiden, redden ze vijf mensen, maar doden ze er één.

The Trolley Problem — Origins. The Trolley Problem is a thought… | by Sara  Bizarro | Medium

De filosofie van fase 3

In de Nederlandse context doen filosofische overwegingen over de coronapandemie denken aan dit nachtmerriescenario. Deze overwegingen richten zich op het morele dilemma waarmee artsen te maken kunnen krijgen, namelijk de noodzaak om intensieve zorg voor oudere IC-patiënten te weigeren om plaats te maken voor jongere patiënten. Het bevat scripts voor medische noodbeslissingen onder coronavoorwaarden, in het bijzonder de bepalingen voor de zogenaamde fase 3 of “code zwart”. Dit is de fase waarin IC-artsen beslissingen over leven of dood moeten nemen op basis van “niet-medische” criteria, simpelweg omdat ze meer patiënten hebben dan bedden, apparatuur en personeel. Met elke coronagolf laait code zwart en diens ethische gevolgen – namelijk, wat zijn de criteria om iemand te laten sterven? – weer op.

Aangezien verschillende bronnen hebben gemeld dat een impliciete code zwart, net de expliciete tegenhanger die kwetsbaren simpelweg laat sterven, al bestaat sinds het begin van de pandemie onder auspiciën van zorgplanning vooraf: ouderen met COVID-19-infectie  zijn door hun behandelende arts ontmoedigd van de intensive care. Dat de motieven niet altijd puur medisch waren, kan worden afgeleid uit het ongekende feit dat huisartsen het initiatief namen om oudere patiënten te bellen met vragen over hun overlevingskansen bij corona-besmetting. Dit gebeurde rond de tijd dat de onvoldoende capaciteit van de Nederlandse IC’s openbaar werd.

In het begin van de pandemie voerden ethici Marcel Verweij en Roland Pierik aan dat, hoe vreselijk deze beslissing ook is, artsen moeten doorbijten en, gezien hun beperkte middelen, moeten handelen in de wetenschap dat ze ‘meer’ levens zullen behouden als ze een jongere redden in plaats van een oudere. Ethica Fleur Jongepier verwerpt deze gedachtegang omdat zij het niet passend vindt om mensenlevens aan een differentiële waardering te onderwerpen. Zij concludeerde dat artsen, gezien hun beperkte middelen, de selectie willekeurig moesten maken. Voor de rest kunnen we alleen maar met de handen in het haar ons lot vervloeken.

COVID-19: Geen gedachte-experiment

Doktoren worden ongetwijfeld soms met tragische dilemma’s geconfronteerd. Ethische overweging vereist echter dat we niet alleen focussen op het dilemma, maar ook nadenken over de randvoorwaarden ervan. Juist het beeld van de tragische onmacht rond de beslissingen van artsen verduistert aan het zicht wie en wat verantwoordelijk is voor het feit dat niet iedereen van COVID-19 wordt gered die gered had kunnen worden. Als we het grotere plaatje bekijken, zien we dat artsen worden gedwongen om tragische keuzes over leven en dood te maken op basis van beslissingen die al elders zijn genomen.

Dus waarom is de situatie op IC’s dan zo somber?

Gefabriceerde tragedie: overheidsbeleid

Toen de zogenaamde intelligente lockdown in Nederland in werking trad, kondigde premier Rutte, voor velen heel ontroerend, aan dat jonge en fitte mensen een muur van immuniteit rond de kwetsbaren moeten creëren (toespraak van 16 maart 2020). Groepsimmuniteit als strategie tegen COVID-19 was altijd wetenschappelijk verdacht. Toch vragen we ons af wat er overblijft van Rutte’s idee dat de meerderheid een klap zou vangen om de kwetsbaren te beschermen.

Het virus circuleerde vrijelijk door Nederlandse verpleeghuizen. De circulatie versnelde doordat verpleeghuispersoneel zelfs op het hoogtepunt van de crisis en ondanks hun dringende verzoeken de toegang tot maskers en ontsmettingsmiddelen werd ontzegd, waardoor verpleeghuisbewoners massaal besmet raakten. De plotselinge toestroom van kwetsbare oudere coronapatiënten is een van de belangrijkste redenen waarom artsen op verschillende IC-afdelingen in dit land de nachtmerrie van tragische beslissingen over leven of dood hebben moeten trotseren. De andere belangrijke reden, te danken aan durfkapitalisme, is het uitgeklede zorgstelsel in Nederland, met name het beperkte aantal IC-bedden, het gebrek aan IC-personeel en het tekort aan levensreddende apparatuur op IC’s door het hele land.

Met het oog op deze twee ontwikkelingen zou het pervers zijn om ethische beoordelingen alleen te beginnen waar tragische beslissingen over leven en dood op de loer liggen, op de ICs. Artsen bevinden zich in deze situatie vanwege het overheidsbeleid dat beweert de kwetsbaren te beschermen en hen in één adem veroordeelt tot de dood door nalatigheid, zoals blijkt uit het gebrek aan en afkeer van maskergebruik in ziekenhuis- en zorgomgevingen in het hele land.

Terwijl premier Rutte vol overgave vasthield aan de visie van een muur van immuniteit, was de regering te lang terughoudend, tegen internationale normen in, om preventieve maatregelen op te leggen die verder gaan dan handen wassen en een afstand van 1,5 meter bewaren. De regering weigerde lange tijd om mondneusmaskers verplicht te stellen in publieke ruimtes, hoewel wetenschappelijk onderzoek suggereert dat maskers de virale lading kunnen minimaliseren en daardoor de overdracht van virussen kunnen minimaliseren. Met het oog op deze beleidskeuzes lijkt de alsmaar dreigende tragedie op Nederlandse IC’s het resultaat te zijn van genomen beslissingen.

Minister-president Rutte is terughoudend geweest om meer te investeren in de gezondheidssector, ook tijdens de pandemie (“Rutte wijst extra investeringen met zorg af: ‘Wat ga je daarmee bereiken’”?). Jaren van deze arrogante houding hebben het zorgsysteem uitgeput, hebben geleid tot de sluiting van volledig operationele ziekenhuizen, verlegde de financiële last naar patiënten en besteedde weinig aandacht aan verpleegkundigen en artsen.

Maatschappelijke houding in Nederland

Zelfs eerstejaars filosofiestudenten kunnen de weg terugvinden van het trolleyprobleem naar hun alledaagse morele intuïties en vragen zich af: wie heeft deze mensen aan het spoor vastgebonden? Waarom zou ik verantwoordelijk zijn voor de hefboom? Kunnen we de slachtoffers niet losmaken? De COVID-19-pandemie is sowieso geen filosofisch gedachte-experiment. We hebben dus geen excuus om de beleidsvorming die artsen dwingt tot het maken van tragische keuzes, uit te sluiten van morele kritiek.

Een kritisch ethisch perspectief op de coronacrisis mag niet eindigen met het eisen van meer verantwoordelijkheid van de overheid en gezondheidsfunctionarissen. We moeten ook meer verantwoordelijkheid van onszelf eisen: er moeten vragen worden gesteld over het morele kompas van een samenleving die de urgentie van de pandemie niet kan begrijpen, maar met kinderlijke frustratie reageert op alle maatregelen, of die nu redelijk of onredelijk zijn. Er moeten ook vragen worden gesteld over waarom ouderen en kwetsbare mensen zo gemarginaliseerd worden dat we er geen moeite mee hebben hun leven in gevaar te brengen en hen, als de tijd daar is, te laten sterven. Het lijkt gepast om te zeggen dat COVID-19 het diepe sediment van morele waarden van de Nederlandse samenleving blootlegt.

Misschien helpen deze reflecties ons in te zien dat het hedendaagse geen tragisch lot is. Wanneer artsen zich regelmatig in situaties bevinden zonder levensreddende middelen, ligt het morele probleem elders, namelijk bij besluitvormers wier beleid een tekort aan essentiële faciliteiten, apparatuur, personeel en breder en beter ontworpen pandemiebeleid veroorzaakt. Deze beleidsmakers hebben al bepaald dat sommigen mogen leven, terwijl anderen moeten sterven. Het morele probleem ligt ook bij een samenleving die, in plaats van te protesteren tegen deze officiële minachting, geïrriteerd raakt over preventieve gezondheidsmaatregelen in hun dagelijks leven, vooral wanneer deze maatregelen vooral anderen ten goede komen.

Het feit kan zijn dat zowel beleidsmakers als de samenleving andere prioriteiten hebben in coronatijd dan het redden van levens, en in het bijzonder het redden van de levens van degenen in onze samenleving die al kwetsbaar zijn.

Editorial “Introductie Baghawat”

oppositie, rebellie, opstand – بغاوت

Welkom bij deze eerste editorial voor Baghawat, de plek van de ontheemden. Wij – twee ontheemde vrouwen – hebben dit platform en deze publicatie gecreëerd als een ruimte waar we samen kunnen komen zonder nationale grenzen, maatschappelijke verwachtingen en normatieve beperkingen. Wij zijn openlijke en trotse antiracisten, queers, neurodiversen, vluchtelingen en migranten, antikapitalisten, feministen, anarchisten. Vanuit deze intersectionele posities die we in de wereld belichamen, brengen we Baghawat tot leven.

 Het idee voor Baghawat kwam in de zomer van 2020, een zomer gekenmerkt door de COVID-pandemie, afwisselende lockdowns en sociaal isolement, maar ook door de Black Lives Matter-protesten waar we allemaal samenkwamen ondanks de strikte lockdown – omdat de strijd belangerijker was.

Het was een zomer waarin ons isolement, zowel letterlijk als figuurlijk, scherp werd verlicht, net als ons verlangen om samen te komen. We zagen de bereidheid van de samenleving om degenen die volgens de logica van het kapitalisme niet langer productief zijn, af te werpen en te isoleren. We zagen ondernemers opgezet worden tegen de kwetsbaren en we zagen de sluwe stappen van de machthebbers om degenen buiten de machtsposities verantwoordelijk te stellen voor een puinhoop die ze niet hebben gemaakt. We zagen de Black Lives Matter-protesten over de hele wereld die in Nederland tot controverse leidden met de bewering dat deze “rassenkwesties” uit de VS waren geïmporteerd en hier niet thuishoorden. Enkele weken later braken er rellen uit in migrantenwijken – de dominante verklaring voor de rellen? Dit was slechts “tuig” uit op vernieling. We hebben duidelijk gezien wat Nederland echt van migranten denkt – gevangen in steeds erbarmelijker wordende omstandigheden in Nederland en in de grenskampen van Europa, terwijl ze ook systematisch genegeerd worden door de Nederlandse staat en reguliere media.

We zagen dit allemaal gebeuren en kregen er genoeg van. Niet omdat dit de eerste keer is dat we van dergelijke dingen kennis hebben genomen, noch omdat we onder de omstandigheden van de pandemie wat tijd over hadden. We waren het zat omdat we duidelijker dan ooit zagen hoe de stemmen van de gemarginaliseerden niet afwezig zijn, maar weggestampt uit de gemaakte realiteit van dit land. Dus besloten we om de druk op te voeren en onszelf te laten horen.

  Wat je hier leest, is het begin van onze stap voorwaarts. We weigeren om naar de marge geduwd te worden waar onze stemmen weerklinken in de uitgestrekte lege kamer van het Nederlandse medialandschap. We weigeren ons langer alleen te voelen. Want we zijn niet alleen, en jij ook niet. Omdat de sleutel tot verandering samenkomst is, is Baghawat meer dan alleen een online publicatie of een evenementenpagina. Samenkomen vormt de hoeksteen van wat we met Baghawat willen doen. Samen in ideeën en gevoelens maar ook hoe we daar concreet naar kunnen handelen.

We zijn niet alleen.

Wij zijn Baghawat

Ons initiatief begint met een maandelijkse nieuwsbrief met aandacht voor recente publicaties op de website en wereldwijde grassroots-strijd die misschien onder de radar is verdwenen. Hoewel het niet mogelijk of verantwoord is om fysiek samen te komen onder pandemische omstandigheden, hopen we dat onze gemeenschap wortel kan schieten in deze tijden van isolement en dat onze wortels worden versterkt wanneer we elkaar weer kunnen ontmoeten.

Lees in de tussentijd dit prachtige stuk, geschreven door Ghazaal Yousefi – een Iraanse journalist, politiek activist en vluchtelinge – over haar ervaringen in een Nederlands AZC. Of dit artikel waarin twee filosofen reflecteren op het Nederlandse COVID-beleid een jaar na de pandemie.

Neem contact met ons op – vertel ons wat we samen kunnen doen!

Editorial “Introducing Baghawat”

opposition, rebellion, uprising – بغاوت

Welcome to this first editorial for Baghawat, the place of the displaced. We – two displaced women – have created this platform and publication as a space where we can come together free of national borders, societal expectations, and normative constrictions. We are overt and proud anti-racists, queers, neurodivergents, refugees and migrants, anti-capitalists, feminists, anarchists. It is from these intersectional positions we inhabit in the world that we bring Baghawat to life. 

The idea for Baghawat came to us during the summer of 2020, a summer marked by the COVID pandemic, intermittent lockdowns, and social isolation, but also by the  Black Lives Matter protests where we all came together despite the strict lockdown — because the cause was important. 

It was a summer during which our isolation both literal and figurative came into sharp relief, as did our desire to come together. We saw society’s readiness to cast off and isolate those  who are no longer productive under the logic of capitalism. We saw the entrepreneurs being pitted against the vulnerable and we saw the sly moves made by those in power to render those divested of power responsible for a mess they did not create. We saw the Black Lives Matter protests throughout the world which sparked controversy in the Netherlands with the claim that these “race issues” were imported from the US and didn’t belong here. Just weeks later riots in migrant neighborhoods broke out — the dominant explanation for the riots? These were just migrant “scum” bent on destruction. We saw acutely what the Netherlands truly thinks of migrants — imprisoned in increasingly abysmal conditions within the Netherlands and at Europe’s border camps and they are systematically ignored by the Dutch state and mainstream media.

We saw all this happening and we became fed up. Not because this is the first time we have taken notice of such things, nor because under the conditions of the pandemic we had some time on our hands. We got fed up because we saw more clearly than ever how the voices of the marginalized are not absent but stamped out from the manufactured reality of this country. So we decided to step up and make ourselves heard. 

What you are reading here is the beginning of us stepping up. We refuse to be pushed to the margins where our voices echo in the vast blank chamber of the Dutch media landscape. We refuse to feel alone any longer. Because we are not alone, nor are you. Believing the key to change is people coming together, Baghawat is more than just an online journal or event page. Coming together is at the heart of what we aim to do with Baghawat. Together in ideas and feelings but also how we can concretely act on them. 

We are not alone.

We are Baghawat 

Our initiative will begin with a monthly newsletter highlighting recent publications on the website as well as global grassroots struggles that might have slipped under the radar. While it is neither possible nor responsible to meet in person under pandemic conditions, we hope our community can take root during these times of isolation and that our roots are strengthened when we can meet again. 

In the meantime, check out this beautiful piece of prose, written by Ghazaal Yousefi — an Iranian journalist, political activist, and refugee — about her experiences in a Dutch asylum seeker center. Or this article in which two philosophers reflect on the Dutch COVID policy a year into the pandemic. 

Get in touch with us — tell us what we can do together! 

Pomegranate – Ghazaal Yousefi

December 18, 2020

I had turned into a pomegranate. The sound of my dry seeds scattering resonated through the room as I was thrown into a corner. I was scared of my dry rind cracking, of the sound of the dry seeds… I was a pomegranate, a red one…

I awoke to find myself trembling , I shuffled my hands and legs to make sure I was still a human being. I heard a cough, a nonstop cough. It was Maria, the girl next door. She’d been sick for days. With a swollen head and still afraid of the dry pomegranate, I gathered all my strength, got up from the bed, and went into Maria’s room. She was burning with fever. 

I dialed the Asielzoekercentrum (AZC) asking them to come to her assistance. Within an hour a nurse showed up. She checked her up and said: “she has to take a COVID test.” Maria and I stared at the nurse in shock. Moments later, the Central Orgaan opvang asielzoekers (COA) personnel came in and locked the house door.

Then began the quarantine. All other residents had abandoned the house in advance, so Maria and I were the only ones left. Behind the locked door and enclosed by the walls I returned to my room and sat on the bed gazing at a chunk of gray sky through the skylight feeling desperate and dreadful, not of the disease, for sure, but of the loneliness within these walls.  

Maria’s whining filled the house. She was in pain. I gathered my strength, got up, and went to her room. A wan smile appeared on her chalky lips as she looked at me and thanked me. Her feverish body was bathed in cold sweat. Picturing death for an ephemeral second, I began trembling, yet I came to my senses and hurriedly shook my head to get rid of that thought. Maria looked at me worriedly, perhaps having momentarily seen through my eyes the same thought. 

Two days passed in total apprehension when, in the morning of the second day, the COA personnel knocked and asked for Maria. She was pronounced to have contracted COVID19 and was to be transferred to a COVID patients’ facility. Spellbound as she was, a look of horror animated her eyes. Before long, a vehicle arrived and took her away. The quarantine extended for two more weeks. Now I was left on my own with these walls, loneliness, and the ominous shadow of the disease.

I walked up the stairs, my whole body aching, stepped into the common-room, and gazed through the window at the creek running behind the house. Its bank was teeming with migrant birds. Their cacophony filled my ears. I closed my eyes and listened. The migrant birds’ twittering reminded me of the story The Little Prince, and there came before my eyes my favorite childhood scene where the prince flew with migrant birds to reach his small planet. I wished I could fly away with these birds to some faraway place where you wouldn’t be barred from entering, locked in, banished to a no-man’s-land. I realized I was in a distant place, but not like the birds; like them, very far from home but unlike them denied any territory. As I smiled bitterly and opened my eyes, a host of migrant birds began to fly, and I felt envious of them. If only human beings could also fly to wherever they wanted and their sky was just as limitless as that of these birds…. 

Three more days passed. Feverish as I was, my whole body writhed in restlessness. I kept pacing in my room so as not to let my feet forget how to walk. With a short breath, I sat on the edge of the bed staring at the wall. Thoughts whirled inside my head as I kept talking to myself, answering myself, judging, reprimanding and, at times, even commending myself. I had turned into two separate women who were sometimes at war and at other times at peace. The white bedroom wall felt like it was closing in on me so much so that it pushed my breath back at me. The other walls joined in, encroaching one at a time, making it impossible to breathe. I presumed I was going to die within these walls, a lonely death in an uncharted territory off the map of the world . I shook my head and moved my body aimlessly. I wanted to get up, not to die within these walls. Trudging to the kitchen my body and mind worn out, I struggled to cook some soup for myself to survive.  

Days passed… four, five, six days and now it had been a week since the lockdown started. The internet connection of the whole AZC was lost for two full days within these walls. Now I was dazed, confused, and angry, reproaching myself…you wouldn’t have been confined lonely within these walls in a faraway quarter with an undefined future if you had led a life similar to other women contenting yourself with living in your own house, being someone’s wife, and a child’s mother and not struggling for something you deemed as just and true. I wish you were just like those other women… 

Seven, eight, nine…the days passed. On the nineth day the Wi-Fi connection was secured, so I saw dad’s message on my phone and passed the day reading it over. In his message he wrote “keep going since there ain’t no country for the cowards in this world.” I closed my eyes as tears ran down my cheeks and kept repeating to myself “keep going since there ain’t no country for the cowards in this world.” So, I did keep going… 

Ten whole days in isolation. No one bothered in all this time to knock and ask about my health. My food supply was diminishing. It was as if this was the house of the forgotten. But sitting behind the little table in my room I felt I was doing better since I didn’t have a fever. I tried to study Dutch again, did my homework, and did some cooking with whatever was left of my food supply, even taking pride in my cooking innovations despite the shortage! My frail being was striving for survival now. 

Eleventh, twelfth, and then came the thirteenth day. I was tired of daily chores and my body lacked the vitality it once had. I lay down and fell asleep. Once again, the sound of dry pomegranate seeds resonated in my head. Looking at my body, I realized I had turned into a tree, a dried pomegranate tree with my trunk rotten and branches devoid of leaves. Where are my red flowers? I was afraid. This rotten trunk is not my body… 

All of a sudden, my mom came forward and caressed my dried-up body; how warm her hands were. Hold me tighter, mom…. Then came forth my sister, opened her arms, stood by my mom’s side and hugged me. How kind your hands are. Further away a little girl with curly hair and rosy cheeks was smiling at me. I called her. She came closer and rubbed her petite hands against my dried-up body. I feared her soft little hands would be injured by my body. Oh darling, don’t rub your hands against it… And then appeared my dad. He rested his head on my body and spoke softly: “keep going, my gal. There ain’t no country for the cowards in this world.” I feel warm. The sap of vitality rises from my roots and comes up flowing through my body. Buds appear along my body. My branches begin blooming with the red flowers of pomegranate. 

The wind rattled my window with a terrible noise. I opened my eyes. I had dreamed I was abloom. A smile appeared on my lips as a tear-drop ran down my cheek. 

When the last day of quarantine arrived, one of the COA personnel showed up at my doorstep and removed the quarantine sticker from my door. As he left, I went outside. The dim sunlight shone on my face. Turning my head toward the sunshine, I looked in the daylight at my hands and nails to which I had applied a gorgeous red nail varnish the night before. Now they were shining in the sunlight. I took a few steps in front of a window and looked at my reflection in the glass. 

I was still a pomegranate, a bright red pomegranate… 

*

Ghazaal Yousefi was born in 1986 in Iran. She grew up in a family with a history of political and social activism. In Iran, she studied law and journalism. She has always had a passion for writing about social problems as she believes it can be beneficial to her community and her country. She worked as a journalist in Iran but had to come to the Netherlands because the Islamic government of Iran took issue with her work. She has been living in a Dutch asylum centre (AZC) as a refugee for almost two years. But her passion for writing has not waned: “It’s an important part of my personality. It’s the only way for me to talk about what I see and what I think…”

Featured image: John Singer Sargent, Pomegranates, 1908