Covid-19 Chronicles: On Duty


I meant to write about coming back to the motherland, when I first got back 2 months ago. I’d quarantined myself for 2 weeks (you can read about it here) and figured there wouldn’t be a whole lot else to do.

But I was feeling too guilty to get the words out.


  • For the privilege of being able to hop on a plane for a better option, though I am grateful for this.
  • For leaving my team, who all stayed in country and are working through this crisis. For choosing my own life, and my mother’s over everyone else’s, when we both have so much more than thousands of people I am supposed to be working for right now.

Then there’s the professional guilt.

My line of work is exactly about staying on in times of crisis. This is the raison d’être of an aid organisation, including my own. Much of the work that my organisation does, is helping Iraqis to build better options for themselves. But to do this, it’s necessary to stay on when the going gets tough. In leaving, I abandoned my work, when I should be on the ground.

I’m not the only one tangling with this. Veteran humanitarians do too.

And I have no justification.

I had choices. I made this one.

It was a relief to see mum opening the security gate of our flat, hale. To enact the comedy of trying to keep the regulation metre or 2 away from her in a small flat during my 14 day self-imposed quarantine. It’s still good to see her hale every morning.

Because you know what? Before I was guilty about leaving Iraq, I was guilty for leaving her.

Mum is 70 and lives alone. I am her only child, and all she has in this world. She busted her ass to raise me, and the right thing for me to do is to stay here with her to care for her as she grows older, because she is my priority.

This is my honour and filial duty, an aspect of my life that is non-negotiable. It’s what I was raised to do, along with millions of other sons and daughters in this incredibly diverse continent, who somehow meet life with a similar cultural understanding when it comes to our parents.

(My Chinese and Indian people – I am Chindian – out there are intoning “so it is written” with varying levels of gravity, I can feel it.)

But Mum has never asked this of me, so we agreed, before I left for Iraq, that when she needed me home, she would ask, and I would come back. She does not ask anything lightly. She’s a tough nut, my mother.

She asked in February, for the first time ever.

Iraq closed its airports the day after I landed in Singapore. They are still closed at the time of this post. If I’d delayed my departure, and something happened to Mum here, I wouldn’t be able to get to her.

I got back in time.

I’m glad I made this choice.

See all posts in this series.


  1. Of course, you did the right thing, and just in time.

    1. Charlene says:

      I don’t know about “right”, Reggie. That depends on perspective. But I did what I needed to do.

  2. Joerg says:

    Enjoy every minute you have with your mom. You are where you need to be.

    1. Charlene says:

      I think so too Joerg.

  3. jim says:

    You are a good daughter and good person.

    1. Charlene says:

      That remains entirely to be seen, Jim!

  4. David Mullen says:

    Hi Charlene,
    It’s great to hear that you are safe and with your mum when she needs you.
    A line in a song by singer / songwriter Adele suggests that – “Regrets and mistakes are memories made”……. a beautiful piece of writing. Decisions around family can be clouded by history, and overlooked in preference to our own personal needs, but when the dust settles and life returns to a new normality, I think you will reflect on this decision you made to return home, and it will be like a warm blanket on a cold night.
    Take Care,


    1. Charlene says:

      You said it David. Ultimately, it’s what we make of our mistakes that define the trajectory of our lives. No one knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. We can only make the best decision we know, for today. And try to make the best of the consequences. Take care mate!

  5. pj says:

    You have plenty of time “left” to sort out your guilt. For now, love is all you need and your responding to your mum is a beautiful thing. I hoe you never feel guilty about doing that even if you feel some things about leaving Iraq.

    1. Charlene says:

      Bit late mate. Guilt’s all over the post ;)

  6. Ish says:

    You can’t win on this one, you’d have felt guilty whatever you did. I think your first obligation is to the promise you made to your mum and I suspect you’d have gone back to her whether it was safer or not. If you’re at risk of needing treatment with Covid-19, you’re maybe better off not taxing the stretched Iraqi medical service. Stay safe both of you xx

    1. Charlene says:

      Yeah, there’s definitely no winning this one. Also, as an Asian daughter, it’s culturally necessary to feel guilty about any major life decision. Tragic, but true I think you’re right about the first obligation. My mum will always be a priority.

  7. Pavlik T says:

    Charlene, I have followed your work since I picked up my first Fujifilm camera in October 2018. I have seen your dedication to helping others. I too have very similar worries as I suffer respiratory problems easily. Helping those who are in need is a common part of my life. So…. you may have had to retreat for a period of time. You are being too hard on yourself. You shouldn’t even be hard on yourself at the slightest. Be devoid of guilt. I say this, because you can be of greater help over a long period of time, if you are alive to do so. You may have had a setback in the battle, but will conquer the war on injustice and hardship that ails so many. You are of no value if you are not around. Sleep in peace!!!

    1. Charlene says:

      “You are of no value if you are not around.”

      That’s my current story and I’m sticking to it, ha! I hope you are safe and sound and stay that way Pavlik. Thanks for stopping by.

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