The world has gone mad, part 2. February 18-March 14, 2020
Here in Morocco, we did not get our first case of the Corona-virus until March 3rd. Even then, it came in from Italy and was isolated. Our first PC advisory had been January 27th, to be aware of potential virus effects on travel plans. On March 2nd, Peace Corps banned us from traveling to Italy. No one expected it to become an issue for Morocco. Then, one by one, additional countries were banned from travel for PCVs, then countries started closing borders. It all happened so fast.
On March 8th, my Virginia friends, that were planning to visit me on the 16th, cancelled. On the 11th, my California friends, that were planning to visit on the 18th, had their trips canceled due to the problems in Europe. At this point, I was still saying “just come straight to Morocco, safest place you can be”. They looked at options, but it was going to be too expensive.
On March 10th, we had our 3rd case. On March 12th, Peace Corps was in the midst of Initial Service Training for the new volunteers, in Marrakesh, and it was still business as usual, but growing concerns about Europe. All European travel was banned for PCVs. On the 13th, PC initiated the “Alert” phase, and later in the day it changed to the “Stand fast” phase. All 101 PCVs were sent back to site, from the training, and all other PCVs were told to return to their site, and “just in case” there was an evacuation. At this time, really all we could do was begin an inventory, as they could not even tell us if we would be leaving with a small backpack or more. Would we come back? No details were known, as the situation evolved rapidly. Still, we did not really expect to leave.
Then, on Friday, March 13th, my friend from the Nour Association came to the Youth Center, and I knew it would be bad news. Indeed, the government of Morocco had banned all events having 50 or more people, including our Soccer Awards program, staged for Sunday.
During the 3 weeks since my last blog entry, a lot has been going on, when it was business as usual. Most of my efforts have been focused on the final preparations for this awards ceremony. We held our final practices and matches the weekend of March 8-9th. My PCV friends from neighboring Sefrou had agreed to take team photos, but needed to beg off, due to altered travel plans to the meeting in Marrakesh. So, I hired a local professional photographer, but it is Morocco, and he did not show up. We called him, but he had worked two weddings the night before and changed his mind. Actually, he was still in bed. I was able to take photos with my phone, but as always, it meant there would be no pictures of me. There was a lot of drama that last weekend, with theft and who-wears-which-jerseys. The Director came to be in the photos.
We had been holding planning meetings for the award ceremonies and even practiced the ceremony. I had big spread sheets where I tallied all the attendance, to calculate award winners. We finalized who the various winners would be. “Persistence and Excellence” awards were set by the numbers, but we also selected winning teams for Sportsmanship and Teamwork. I traveled to Sefrou twice for artwork and printing of the certificates, Fes three times for preparing cups and medallions. The cookies were baked, the invitations delivered. The paperwork finalized with the Beladia. But now, we would be postponed indefinitely.
I can’t begin to tell you how sad this made me. At first, I was taking it rather personal. “If they are not closing schools, mosque, souk, who is being closed besides me in this town?”. Then, Saturday morning, the government of Morocco took the next step…they closed the schools, associations, youth centers, everything. They were saying the mosques could be the next step, though no mention yet of the souks. My Director came in, and after short greetings, went straight to the phones. We did not really talk until Ridouan came in, when he relayed the closures. Kids were coming in, asking about the ceremony, and not really understanding the closure. I thought he said effective Monday, but when I returned from lunch, he had closed up and posted notices. I could see this would likely add to the pressure to send us back to America, as no volunteers would have a place to work. That night, Saturday the 14th, I sent an email to the Country Director, not really expecting a reply, but urging her to not pull us out, let us show solidarity with our Moroccan friends at the time they need us most, “these colors don’t run”. To my surprise (knowing how over-the-top busy she was) she called me and we chatted. She wanted to share that she was doing everything possible to avoid the evacuation, but in the end, safety would dictate the decision.
Throughout the past 3 weeks, I had all my normal activities of English, art, games. We had just experienced the return of the music program. I had also been building a list of participants in the Global Art for Peace program. I had 4 different associations, (2 women’s, 2 children’s), plus about 25 individual students, many through my Darija teacher’s English class. I had also been finalizing the schedule for our Spring Break Art Day Camp, which would largely be focused around this global art event.
The King was in Fes. I did not know this, but asked my taxi driver why there were so many extra police. People were lining up with pictures, flowers, and such, in an area he was to visit. Police were adding lines of barricade rails as people filed into Place R’cif, where we dropped off two other passengers. Sadly, I needed to get home before dark, so did not stay. All the fountains were running, and colored street lights lit, tons of extra flags in the city and for miles around. Then, the next day, the Director said the King was supposed to come to near our town, to see the new water project. I was to join Nour in a government transport to see him there, but he postponed.
Sunday, March 15th, was my host sister’s birthday. I paid her a visit and took her a small gift and card. I spent the day organizing and cleaning. I was overdue anyway, due to having soccer the last 20 weekends. Then, at 6:30, the message came, we were evacuating, and needed to be to the consolidation point in Fes, early tomorrow. Several things sealed the deal. 1-The Moroccan government advised our government that they would be closing the borders to international travel on Thursday, so now or never. 2-Volunteers were being denied public transportation and being harassed. This was not directed at Americans per se, but rather at all foreigners, as Moroccans were aware that the virus was all coming in from Europe. 3-Concerns health care systems would become overwhelmed. 4-No ability to medivac PCVs in the event of an accident or other health issue. 5-The National Peace Corps office made the decision to evacuate all volunteers worldwide.
To read the story in order, jump back to “Evacuation, parts 1 & 2”, before proceeding to “Evacuation, part 3”.