This week marks a year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Greater Houston, sending the region into lockdown and turning millions of people’s lives upside down.
The pandemic’s hardships haven’t been felt evenly, with some frontline workers and vulnerable communities feeling the effects of COVID-19’s economic and health crises more deeply than others.
With the anniversary of the coronavirus’ arrival in the region, Houston Public Media checked in with Houstonians who have spoken with us during the pandemic to see how they’re doing now.
An oil and gas engineer trying to ride the wave of layoffs. A renter facing eviction. A single mom trying to keep things together for her son. And a first generation college student finding new motivation.
Here are their stories, in their own words, as told to Houston Public Media reporters. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
When the pandemic hit, Sid Banerjee and his wife had just welcomed their first children — twin boys. Although Banerjee was pretty sure his job as a petroleum engineer at an oilfield services company was safe, he was still worried about what the pandemic would mean for his family as well as the oil and gas industry. At the six month mark, Banerjee was still employed, but the industry had shed thousands of jobs in Houston. Some of them were at his company, and in his managerial position he had been part of those staffing cut decisions.
This has been my first real managerial role — this is the first time I’ve ever had to let anyone go. I’ve managed to keep in touch with some of those employees, and I’ve gotten reassurance: they’ve changed industries, they’ve gone back to school. I have written letters of recommendation to help out where I could. But I’m happy to see that for the most part, everyone has kind of rolled with the punches and landed on their feet. For me personally, I’ve gotten some relief from my guilt.
The fact that people aren’t driving to work, they aren’t taking flights, they aren’t going to concerts — a lot of the issues with oil prices really relate to demand. I feel like there is some hope now that we have this vaccine. One of the things that we’ve been talking about at work is trying to bring head count back on. We are looking to the future, kind of expecting things to now come back in terms of activity.
This past year has been absolutely nutty for my family. My wife and I had our first children in December of 2019. And so things were already kind of getting upended. What we considered normal was already changing. We basically went straight from newborn twins from the hospital into quarantine. And everything was sort of flipped on its head, and “weird” became just what we knew day in and day out. In some ways that was good: I got to spend a lot more time with my children than I ever would have with paternity leave.
But in a lot of ways, it was just draining. The big thing with COVID was that you had no idea really when it was going to end. You had no idea how long you had to drag out putting a good face on things. And so why it’s better now is: you finally feel like you can see that end point.
Over the summer, Kamran Malik got a notice from his landlord that he and his parents, who live with him, were being evicted from their home in Houston. He had lost his job at an accounting firm in a round of pandemic-related layoffs and it took weeks for his unemployment checks to begin. In August, he moved to Dallas to be near family, and he started a new job.
I moved back to Dallas on Aug. 15 — my birthday. It was very stressful. But me and my landlord came up with this idea that I will move back to Dallas, and she’ll drop the charges if I pay her the filing fees and whatever money she has spent on the court filings. So I had to pay her $200.
I did a lot of interviews and I was able to get a full-time contract position. It was a small local CPA firm in Fort Worth, helping them with tax season. I was hoping that position would become full time, because that’s what we talked about, but I learned very quickly on the job that they don’t have enough work to keep me busy throughout the year. I went back on unemployment.
I went back home to visit Pakistan and I was there for about two months. I had a cousin who was getting married. I explored some parts of Pakistan that I never did when I was growing up and living there. While I was in Pakistan, my new employer made me an offer. After some negotiation, I was able to get the money that I was making at a previous job. So I didn’t get a raise but I’m making exactly what I was making before the pandemic.
Most of the airlines require you to have a negative COVID test, and when I went to go get it, I was positive. And then my whole family got tested and pretty much everybody was positive except the kids. But me, my mom and my dad were asymptomatic and my brother had mild symptoms.
I went through a very difficult time, because I’d never dealt with a situation like that in the 16 years I’ve been in the U.S. I was never, ever late on my rent. The landlord was not being very understanding. In the past, when you tell people you are going through something, people usually understand. And she wasn’t being very understanding. She wasn’t showing any empathy, given that we are in a global pandemic and I had lost my job.
I really believe that I gave her so much power over me to make me feel the way she made me feel. If I’m ever in a situation like that again, I wouldn’t take it too personally where I would get sick. I wouldn’t give her so much power over me. I think looking back, I learned that lesson — never, ever make a situation bigger than it has to be.