Pandemic lockdown #2: Do it for Della

I have worked at the World Health Organization for 12 years, a fair amount of that time spent helping out in outbreaks, starting with the H1N1 flu pandemic. I also worked with the team dealing with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)–which is also a coronavirus–going on mission several times to Saudi Arabia and to South Korea, and the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014, when I accompanied senior officials to see the aftermath in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. 

I see how hard my colleagues in the emergencies programme work, day and night, with very limited staff, in everything from cholera to Ebola and influenza to whatever pops up. My admiration for them knows no bounds, which is why uninformed criticism of the WHO gets my dander up. 

In December, when I was in North Carolina, staying with my family as my 21-year-old niece recovered from a heart transplant, I heard our WHO reports of an unknown virus, originating in China. I thought, this could get interesting–and alarming.

Having sat through endless meetings and briefings and pored over dozens and dozens of technical documents, I have been taking this outbreak seriously from the very beginning.

But I have been completely astonished, and dismayed, by the negative responses among the public to public health advice–the resistance, the nonchalance, the utter refusal to listen to facts, reason, and scientific evidence.

I realize we are living in a post-truth world, where everyone’s opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s, and that somehow I should not be surprised by all of his.

But I had another reason for being saddened and shocked. For me, this pandemic is personal.

It began on Christmas Eve 1918. 

My maternal grandmother, then 10 years old, had come down with the flu earlier in the week. Her recently widowed mother had put her into her own bed. The little girl was so ill that her mother remarked, “My little Josephine won’t get up in the morning.” 

She did not get up the next morning, nor for several more. 

In the meantime, her mother also caught the flu. 

After a few days, Josephine was better. She woke up, alone in her mother’s bed.

She raised herself up on one elbow and leaned way over to look down the hall into the parlor. There she saw her mother, lying too still. Ladies from the church were getting her dressed.

Josephine, whom everyone else called by her first name, Della, got out of her mother’s bed and went in search of her grandfather, to find out what was going on. 

She found him in a rocking chair in front of the fireplace. He was bent over, holding his head in his hands. The hearth was wet with his tears.

The young woman in the parlor, Della’s mother, was his daughter, and she was being laid out for her burial.

She was the second of his children and the third person in his family to die that week. On Christmas Day, he would make his third trip to the cemetery in as many days. 

They were killed by the 1918 flu, which ravaged the world and caused the deaths of somewhere between 20 and 40 million people–more than all those who died in the incredible carnage of the First World War. 

The flu orphaned my grandmother and her 7 brothers and sisters. 

“We didn’t have no Christmas that year,” she always said to me, as she related this tale to me over and over, throughout the many years of her long life. 

Much worse was to come. The children were dispersed separately into foster care. My grandmother was sent to stay with some hateful people, who, I am sorry to say, were relatives of her parents. 

They treated her horribly, like a servant, or worse. She was made to milk cows at 4 o’clock in the morning and then forced to drink spoiled milk, as fresh milk was reserved for the “real” family. 

She told me how hard it was to pull the cows’ teats. It was freezing cold, and her little fingers were raw and red and she cried while she did it. 

She also picked cotton, like everybody else, stuffing the cotton bolls into a huge sack she wore around her neck and dragged behind her. 

Callie Campbell, 11 years old, picks 75 to 125 pounds of cotton a day, and totes 50 pounds of it when sack gets full. “No, I don’t like it very much.” Lewis W. Hine. Location: Potawotamie County, Oklahoma. PART OF: Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.) REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

The African-American girls, she said, could always pick more. She wanted to be able to “pick a bale a day,” just like they did.

A bale is 350 pounds.

One day, once only, as far as I know, she managed to pick a bale of cotton. She was triumphant. 

I asked her, what did you do then? 

She said to me, “I was so tired, I just laid down at the end of the row. I couldn’t get up.” 

As hard as all of that was, it was nothing compared to when the matriarch of the house locked her in her room and took the key, while she set the house afire and left. 


My grandmother jumped out the bedroom window. 


And lived to tell the tale. 

Old Lady S, her relative and foster mother, was obviously mentally ill. 

Many years later, my grandmother took her fiance, my grandfather, to meet her. 

My grandfather was the kindest and most gentle person I have ever known. At his funeral, my father, who had known him for more than 50 years, said of him, “I never heard him say an unkind word.” 

So when Pop met Old Lady S, who was ancient and blind by then, he took her hand and merely said, “I’ve heard so much about you.” 

Della endured the horrors of her foster home for about 4 years. When she turned 14, she managed to meet up with her older sister, Bert, aged 16. They agreed to try to escape their situations. 

They ran away and lied about their ages and were accepted into nursing school, at the State Hospital Training School in Morganton, North Carolina, sometimes known as the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum. After they graduated, they got jobs there. 

On her first day of employment as a qualified nurse, my grandmother went to check on one of her patients. She found him hanging from a bedsheet he had tied to the back of the door. 

Her life was always hard, but it got better from then on, especially when she stayed in a boarding house, in Charlotte, North Carolina, run by her aunt. I will tell this happier tale later.

But for now, I have written this to start a little campaign in honor of my grandmother. 

Knowing what we know now, do you think Della would have said, oh, this outbreak is some kind of political nonsense, and there is no need to do anything we are advised to do, so let us go about our daily lives and ignore the authorities, because, after all, it’s our right to do so? 

The pandemic changed my grandmother’s life forever. She was indelibly marked by that historic event. She warned me; she had lessons to impart; she made sure I understood, as much as I could, the terrible cost a virus had exacted, not only from her and her family, but for life as it then was. Nothing was ever the same after that.

My friends, I assure you that my grandmother, Della Josephine Noggle Davis, would have done anything on earth to save her mother and the rest of her family from the horrors of the 1918 flu, and from all that followed.

Me, with my maternal grandparents, Bill and Della Davis.

Follow the science. Listen to public health authorities. Won’t you do it for Della? 



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Pandemic lockdown #1

I have actually been in lockdown since March 3, I think. Because I have extremely severe asthma, I got worried and decided to start working from home. Only a few days later, almost everyone at WHO started working remotely.

Oddly, I have written almost nothing about this strange new world we find ourselves in. I decided today that I must settle down and get some creative work going, in addition to my work-work.

We are still able to go out for walks near our houses, as long as we have the official form from the French government that explains why we are out: “walking dog” would seem to be fairly self-evident, according to Poppy and Ivy.

My friend Alice is staying with me, as she has been undergoing cancer treatments and all the friends who were scheduled to come and stay with her have had to cancel. I am so grateful that she is here, as I think I would have gone bonkers already if I had to be alone. Our friend Bex from Paris is working at WHO and has switched over from living with me to living at Alice’s and taking care of her cats.

Our saving grace so far is that we have been able to go out for walks and the weather has been so beautiful it hardly seems real. This week it is meant to get a bit colder.

First we walked through the center of Ferney, which was nearly completely deserted.

Today was grey and cold, but we had a wonderful walk until we learned that we were in a park that was officially closed! We found a sign that said, STAY AT HOME! THIS PARK IS CLOSED! AND THERE IS A 135 EURO FINE FOR BEING IN IT! Sez I, the town really should put a sign up at both entrances to the park 😉

Poppy and Ivy enjoyed themselves hugely, even though it was all forbidden.

I took Poppy out of her puppy carriage and she went for a RUN!

Coming up: lockdown recipes, amusements, projects. Bon courage to all!


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St Ives

The Tate. The Barbara Hepworth studio and garden.

Glorious and inspirational.

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Who knew there were rhododendron TREES?

Today, Lanhydrock gardens and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Just stunning.


It is SO COLD in Cornwall that I had to buy a coat today. Am finally warm. Hooray!

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Around and about in Cornwall

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In Cornwall

For a week with old friends. Started out in freezing, icy London. Now in sunny but cool Padstow.

We stopped for an excellent Sunday lunch at the lovely Coombeshead Farm.

The bread was extraordinary. I wish I had gotten a photo of the butter, which was a bright deep yellow. From Guernesey cows.

And there were roasted beets and chicken and a beautiful salad. Black currant and hazelnut tart with rhubarb sorbet to finish. Yum.

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Georgia, part 2

Of all the travels I have undertaken while living in Europe, Georgia felt most different, unusual and very far away–literally and metaphorically.

It took about 8 hours to get there, starting from Geneva and transferring in Warsaw. From Warsaw to Tbilisi the flight is about 4 hours. And all flights to and from begin or end in the middle of the night.

We arrived on Maundy Thursday (although it was not Holy Week in Orthodox Georgia!) around 5:30 am and checked into our very nice hotel.

The hotel is sumptuous, full of textiles, art, Georgian designs, pottery, old mismatched silver, and quite a few oddities, like a lifesize giraffe sculpture.

On the one hand, Tbilisi feels old and brooding, with the weight of the Soviet past still heavy. On the other, it’s full of the energy of renovation and refurbishment; gentrification–and Easyjet flights–cannot be far behind. See it NOW, before all that happens.

Lots of interesting architecture, from old and crumbling to new and WOW.

The wisteria and the lilacs were in bloom, with bunches of flowers being sold by babushkas who have clearly had a rough life and were begging for customers.

More to come!




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Pretty spectacular drive to work today


And yes, that’s fresh snow on the Jura, and more headed our way next week. Happy Spring?!

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Around the office today. #spring

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From Georgia. Yes, the other one.

Part 1 of who knows how many posts about our Easter trip to Georgia, the former Soviet republic.

First, the food! Did you see this excellent article in the New Yorker? Georgian cuisine is having a well-deserved moment.

Southerners, take note. My first meal in The Other Georgia included . . .

HUSHPUPPIES! aka Elargi balls, stuffed with a bit of cheese.

I admit, I never had a hushpuppy in the South served with walnut and chile sauce, but it’s delicious!

And the cornmeal didn’t stop there.

We also had, well, a bowl of grits!

Homemade, in a private apartment, where we joined a family for prepping dinner and then digging in (if you find yourself in Tbilisi, you must meet Mari and Levan!) This experience was just the best. Mari had to leave for an out-of-town tour, so we were hosted by Levan and Mari’s mother at Mari’s parents’ house. There is nothing like seeing where and how people really live, talking history, politics, and travel. Not to mention helping with the chopping, learning about the food and recipes, and then sitting down to a feast.

This grits dish (ghomi) is served with a big slab of the Georgian cheese known as Sulguni.

Levan noted that this is a pretty bland dish, so he slathers his with walnut sauce (NB: walnut sauce, aka, baje, features prominently here and elsewhere!).

We also had chashushuli, beef with homemade tomato sauce; adjapsandali, eggplant, red pepper, potato, onions, and coriander in tomato sauce; shkmeruli, chicken with garlic sauce; nadughi, one of my favorites, as it is a thin skin of cheese stuffed with more cheese (these people know how to live!) and mint; and kitri-pomiduris salata, tomato and cucumber salad. Washed down with Levan’s first vintage of his own wine and some very fine chacha (a homemade fruity vodka).

I feel full all over again, just writing this.

Our bounteous table below.

More on Georgia to come.

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