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11 Books to Read During COVID-19

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Stronger than Death: How Annalena Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

This book will show you how to live in a time of contagious disease and fear. I am so inspired by Annalena, as I think comes across in the book. She was relentless in her love and care for the most vulnerable among us. Her legacy continues and I want to quote her nephew, with whom I messaged in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis in Italy where he lives. He said, “All is quiet. It is a time of silence and also of God.” That is just so beautiful. He is caring for his family and they are turning to faith. He also quoted Annalena, “Everything is grace.” What a privilege to get to know people like this, who live this way and with these hearts in the world. They are what bring me hope.

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Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

I loved this book especially because (spoiler alert) it ends with hope. It is so beautiful and thoughtful and richly imagined and slightly terrifying. All the right elements.


Black Death at the Golden Gate, by David K. Randall

I saw a dead rat in the streets of Nairobi about a week after reading this and felt a cold pit in my stomach. This book is a deep dive into the bubonic plague (which is still around, who knew?!) but also the way fear stoke racism and how that leads to further death and mayhem. A super relevant read right now.


On Immunity, by Eula Biss

I quote this book all the time. Biss is such an incredible essayist. If you want a thoughtful look at herd immunity, on caring for the vulnerable among us, on being a parent in an age of disease and fear, if you just want to read someone with a sharp and smart mind, this is amazing.


No More Faking Fine, by Esther Fleece

I gifted this book to many people. An excellent look at how to cling to faith in the middle of a crisis or of pain without pretending that everything is fine. I love this book.


Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

Science, history, geography, disease. It’s all here.


Illness as Metaphor, by Susan Sontag

Such a powerful essayist. This is a look at how we talk about illnesses like cancer and how the words we use can sometimes also cause harm and affect the patient.


The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

How to cultivate empathy when we feel overcome by our own fear? We need to wrestle with this question because I do not want to see the end of empathy. I’ve read this book several times.


Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, by Pema Chodron

Could there be a more apt title?


It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way, by Lysa Terkeurst

Nope, it’s not. There is so much pain and brokenness in the world. How does our faith respond?


Devotion, poems by Mary Oliver

Because we can always, always read poetry.


What would you recommend for readers right now?

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The Coronavirus, Zombies, and Africa, and Maybe I’ll Eat My Words Later

We all know that zombies are really just misunderstood creatures who want their own kind to be safe and healed as badly as we want that (I Am Legend) and if we could only cure them, the world would be safe (though we might all be zombies by the time we figure out the cure). Also zombies only like darkness and cold weather and are scared off by dogs. So here in Djibouti, we’re safe. We have walls around our houses, perpetually sunny days, hot weather, and loads of wild dogs that haven’t had their barks or their meanness trained out of them. We’re good.

We also all know that zombies only really want to devour the healthy and turn them into zombies (World War Z) so if we can just get collectively sick, kill the zombies, and then get cured, the world would be safe. So here in Djibouti, we’re safe already because most of us have malaria or dengue dormant in our blood, or parasites in our intestines. We’re good.

And, we all know that zombies really only attack people in New York City or maybe L.A. or Tokyo. So those of us in tiny countries, especially tiny countries in Africa (which zombies have either never heard of or think is a single country without any value), are safe during zombie apocalypses. Unless said apocalypse starts in “Africa” because that’s where monkeys live, but in order to make the disaster appear serious enough, the disease or monkeys need to get out of Africa and into New York City because who really cares about people in Africa dying from disease or zombies (Outbreak). Again, here in Djibouti, we’re good.

To reiterate, in Djibouti, we’re safe.

Zombies don’t care about us and people here are creative, resilient, and used to trouble, invasion, and disease. People here aren’t so surprised that the elderly who were already sick might die from a virus. They’re sad, of course. Death sucks. But they aren’t so shocked by deaths thousands of miles away that they empty store shelves, wear masks, and refuse to go to work.

I feel reasonably confident that the coronavirus is in Africa. Zombies may or may not be here, they just haven’t made the big screen in Hollywood yet. Heck, coronavirus and zombies are probably in Djibouti, too. I’m saying this with absolutely no evidence or reason, other than common sense in terms of infectious disease and travel and human movement. I don’t think there is much capacity for testing for it and in general, people seem much calmer than they were in the USA when I was there just last week. Possibly because of the lack of evidence. Or maybe because they are already worried about their loved ones with chikungunya. Or maybe because they are working hard to provide food and shelter and can’t be distracted by a flu-like illness. Even if it is a specific strain they haven’t had before.

Maybe we’re being foolish and stupid. Maybe the zombies are just hovering, waiting for their moment. Maybe the coronavirus is going to take us all. I’m not trying to be cold or cruel about people being sick and even dying. I don’t want anyone I know and love (or anyone at all) to get sick or to die. God forbid. I don’t want them to get cancer or TB or the flu or dementia, either. Maybe I will eat my words, along with a big dose of medicine.

I’m just saying Syria is on fire, men and women and children are being slaughtered en masse, starving and freezing to death.

I’m saying the billions of dollars lost by economies or spent by sports organizations to move and reschedule events could be spent on helping refugees, on curing malaria and tuberculosis, on solving our climate issues.

I’m saying what the world does not need right now is one more fear-induced and panic-inspiring reason to divide ourselves along ethnic, national, or racial lines.

Maybe I’ll write something else as the situation evolves. And I’ll apologize for being ignorant about epidemiology and a jerk.

Maybe I need to run out and stock up on toilet paper. Though, bonus tip: toilet paper isn’t really a necessity. There are other kinds of paper, hands, water, towels. You could shake it off or air dry. Maybe I need to buy a lot of food. Not because people in Djibouti will freak out but because the rest of the world has freaked out and what if our supply chains get blocked?

I’m more concerned about global fear than a virus.

More concerned that someone else’s fear might mean I can’t access my medication.

More concerned that someone else’s fear might mean a diabetic friend can’t get insulin.

More concerned that someone else’s fear means we forget how to take care of each other.

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