‘He was at all times your first fan’: Remembering COVID-19 victims | Asia Pacific

A Melbourne bus driver with a passion for fun – and cricket – an Indonesian tax consultant who sewed her daughter’s wedding dress, a chef who defended workers’ rights in Italy, and an Indian-born American engineer who was always “first in the buffet line” – these are just some of the people the world has lost to the coronavirus pandemic.

The outbreak is inflicting a heavy toll, with more than a million people dead since COVID-19 first emerged in central China late last year.

Victims of the contagious disease are often dying in isolation, without their families and friends by their side. And across the world, many of the bereaved are being robbed of the comfort and closure of funeral rites.

The people we have profiled here are from all walks of life, representing just a few of the faces and names behind the staggering death toll.

We would like to add more names to the list. If you know of anyone whose story you think we should tell, please get in touch with Zaheena Rasheed, [email protected], or Kate Mayberry [email protected].

Richard Proia, 66, United States

Richard Proia, a retired accountant from Rochester, New York, died on April 16 after 10 days on a ventilator. The father of two was 66 years old.

His daughter, Angelina Proia, said she started a support group on Facebook for people who had lost their loved ones to COVID-19, to help cope with the loss.

“Losing someone to COVID is so different – you have to deal with people calling it fake or not believing that so many people are dying,” the 34-year-old told Al Jazeera. “We all kind of get it, we get the frustration, the collective anger.”

With limitations on large gatherings, the family held a small physically distanced funeral that was arranged on video-conferencing app Zoom and attended in-person by around 10 people.

Retired accountant Richard Proia died in April, and his family had to hold his funeral over Zoom [Supplied]Proia said it was tough not being able to grieve properly because of the restrictions.

“Even hugging my mother and my brother was a really big risk around the grave,” she said.

When asked about her fondest memory of her late father, Proia recalled their trips to the amusement parks and the zoo when he came to visit her in New York City.

“My father was like an 8-year-old in a 66-year-old man’s body,” she remembered fondly. “He loved life … Even when he was sad, he was happy, he had a smile on his face.”

Ramash Quasba, 67, United States

Ramash Quasba moved to the United States from India at the age of 26.

The 67-year-old retired engineer and father of two suffered a cardiac arrest as a result of COVID-19 complications and died on September 22 after being intubated for almost three weeks.

According to Hindu custom, he was cremated.

“It was a very difficult experience because I knew every single detail of what my dad was going through,” his daughter, Naeha Quasba, who is a primary care physician, said.

“My dad was very hardworking,” she told Al Jazeera. “He always pushed us hard to study and he was very proud of the achievements that me and my sister made academically and career-wise.”

Hailing from a cricket-loving nation, Ramash enjoyed watching the sport and spending time with his grandchildren.

“He loved food. We would always joke that he would be the first in the buffet line,” his 33-year-old daughter, Naeha, added, laughing.

“I’m just trying to focus on keeping his memory alive for my children. I’ve printed out some photographs of him with my kids and we keep his name in our prayers at night.”

Ramash Quasba moved from India to the United States when he was 26 and loved family, food and cricket [Supplied]

Neville Vaughan, 80, Australia

Neville Vaughan died on August 16, after contracting COVID-19 in an aged care facility in Melbourne, Australia. He was 80 years old and only one week away from his 81st birthday.

He had been married to his wife Margaret for 61 years, who his granddaughter Rebecca said “he adored.”

“He was a very family-oriented person,” Rebecca told Al Jazeera. “He always somehow made you laugh no matter what. He was a very happy and easy-go-lucky man who was always supportive and always proud of you no matter what.”

Rebecca described Neville as “the life of the party” and despite his age, even attended her 18th birthday party in February.

“That was the last time I saw him,” Rebecca said. “He was very happy and a little bit confused because of the dementia, but he was having a laugh and a joke with my family and my friends.”

Neville had five sons, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, and was known as a star cricketer in his younger days.

His love of cricket continued after his playing career ended, volunteering at local cricket clubs and encouraging his sons in the game. He was also a bus driver in Melbourne for many years.

Neville remained in community work in his old age, singing and performing in nursing homes. After being admitted to an aged care facility in October last year, he became popular with staff and other residents. He was a “social butterfly,” Rebecca said.

Due to the lockdown and restrictions that were imposed in Melbourne to combat the spread of COVID-19, Rebecca and other family members did not get the chance to see Neville before he passed away.

Rebecca is left with fond memories of her grandfather.

“He’d always take her to the park and push me on the equipment and always come to your soccer game.”

“He was always your first fan. Such a lovely guy.”

Neville Vaughn, pictured celebrating Christmas in 2019, was “the life and soul of the party” [Supplied]

Du Shengchang, 67, China

Piano teacher Du Shengchang died on February 15 from complications related to COVID-19. He was 67.

A Wuhan local, Du taught the piano his entire life. Among his students was his son, Du Qin.

Qin remembers his father as a strict man, who would pin him down by the piano every day after school. Du would then sit next to his son to make sure he hit every key correctly.

“I owe him a lifetime of gratitude for introducing me to music, and he is forever my first and my last piano teacher,” said Qin.

Du was also a loving father, Qin said, sending him homemade food during his time away at college in Shanghai. The well-sealed packages would often come with a note reminding Qin to stay healthy and keep practising the piano.

Du met his wife at the age of 19, while at college.

“According to the love story they told me, I’d call myself lucky if I could encounter half of the romance they did,” said Qin.

Then, last year, Du sold the piano that he had been using to teach piano and got a new Steinway & Sons, specifically for his son. Du wanted him to come back home and play a “mini-concert” for him. But the coronavirus meant Qin never got the chance.

Ali Behzad, 66, Iran

Ali Behzad was known as ‘Uncle Moustache’ among some close friends [Supplied]
Ali Behzad, a prominent Iranian journalist, died of COVID-19 after fighting the illness for 45 days. He was 66 years old.

“Uncle Moustache”, as he was called by some close friends, was known for an easy smile, his kindness and willingness to help others.

The veteran journalist began his career at the Kayhan newspaper in 1977. Considered the most conservative Iranian daily, Kayhan has been headed by a representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader since the country’s 1979 revolution. Behzad worked at the paper’s culture desk for 17 years, rejecting several offers to head its current affairs section.

After leaving Kayhan, Behzad worked as the public relations manager of Behrouz, a large food industry company for 20 years. He wrote several books including the popular, Pioneers of Food Industries.

Ismy Latifah, 68, Indonesia


Ismy Latifah, a tax consultant, died in Indonesia in March [Supplied]Ismy Latifah, 68, died from COVID-19 in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, on March 19.

Latifah is believed to have contracted the virus from her son, after he came into contact with Indonesia’s first confirmed local case at a dance in southern Jakarta.

A tax consultant, Latifah continued to advise her clients even after she retired, according to her daughter Eva Rahmi Salama. She also sewed her daughter’s wedding dress and was a good cook, said Salama, adding that she would miss her mother’s traditional dishes of “soto ayam” (a herbal chicken soup) and “nasi goreng” (fried rice).

Latifah’s parting words to her daughter were to look after the youngest of her two brothers, who is 25 years of age. She then kissed Salama’s hand and wished her success.

Taten Syamsir, 70, Indonesia

Salama also lost her father, 70-year-old Taten Syamsir to COVID-19. He died in Jakarta on March 21, only a few hours after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Salama said Syamsir, who had been separated from Latifah for about 20 years, apologised for “leaving us all at that time” and gripped her hand tightly during their last moments together.

She cried and said she “already forgave” him.

Giovanna Sigali, 71, Italy

Giovanna Sigali, known as Gianna, died from COVID-19 on March 27.

The 71-year-old died at a nursing home in the northern town of Chiari, half an hour away from Brescia and Bergamo, among two Italian towns most hard hit in the coronavirus outbreak.

The nursing home had closed doors to visitors in February to reduce the risk of infections, but “the coronavirus found its own way to get through taking away her life and the ones of many others,” said her niece, Elisa Arcari.

“Be it your birthday, name-day, or some sort of anniversary, I knew she would be the very first one to call,” said Arcari, her voice imbued with tenderness.

Sigali, born with cognitive disabilities, lived most of her life in Milan.

She moved back to Chiari in 2017, but continued to miss the big city. She was a great fan of AC Milan and had a special place for the team’s red-and-black scarf in her bedroom, among the many photos and teacups she kept there.

Always wearing a hat and a myriad of colourful bracelets, Sigali rigorously followed her daily routine, including breakfast at 9am, an unmissable date with the TV at 2pm to watch Il Segreto, her favourite Spanish soap opera, and endless card games of Gin Rummy.

“What I will miss the most? Her smile. I can’t remember her without a smile,” Arcari said.

Muhammad Ali, 64, Pakistan

Muhammad Ali [Supplied]Muhammad Ali was a trader, travelling from Pakistan to Iran every few weeks to procure household goods that he would then sell in his home city of Quetta. He contracted the coronavirus following a trip to Iran and died of COVID-19 on March 22. He was 64.

He is survived by seven children. His wife died from a heart attack just a few days after his death, according to Ali’s 20-year-old son Ali Asghar.

“He was a straightforward person. He would go to work and come home. When he was in the hospital, he had no idea what coronavirus was. He just wanted to go home,” said Asghar.

“He was a softhearted man. When he would go to Iran, he’d be there for 15 days or so, and then in Pakistan, he’d spend most of his time at home.”

Traditionally, Muslim funeral prayers are offered in conjunction with one of the five daily prayers. For coronavirus patients in Pakistan, however, this is not the case. So Asghar said he drove his father’s body to a graveyard in the dead of night and buried him within hours.

Zhang Lifa, 67, China

Zhang Lifa saluting during the parade to mark 70 years of the People’s Republic of China last year [Supplied]Zhang Lifa was born in the final days of World War II, just five years before the Chinese Civil War ended in the eastern province of Shandong.

The young Zhang grew up to become a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army where he worked in nuclear weapons development. He left the army in 1968 as the Cultural Revolution raged across China, but his service left him deaf in one ear and in poor health due to exposure to radiation.

After leaving the military, Zhang moved to Wuhan where he worked as a clerk at a local college and retired in 2000. The army veteran died on February 1 at the age of 76.

His son, Zhang Hai, thinks his father contracted the coronavirus while he was in hospital for surgery on a broken leg after having a fall in January.

Asked about his favourite memory of his father, Zhang Hai said it was a fairly recent one.

On October 1 last year, when China was celebrating its 70th anniversary, Zhang Lifa got to his feet to salute the flag during the playing of the country’s national anthem.

“The most important thing I learned from him is that he taught me to maintain my moral integrity, to always show love to others and to treasure life,” Zhang Hai said.

Claudio Musa, 79, Italy

An unstoppable worker, devoted to his family and “a real socialist” – this is how Claudio Musa’s niece remembers her uncle, who died of COVID-19 at a retirement home in Italy’s Cremona on March 17. He was 79 years old.

Musa had been a chef at Cremona’s hospital for his entire career. If needed, he would always go the extra mile by taking part-time jobs to be sure nothing was missing at home for his wife Rina and three children, Tiziana, Roberto and Nadia, the latter who died from cancer in 1999.

“He was firmly convinced that working was people’s expression of dignity,” said Bartoletti. And while he was mild-mannered, he was a fierce proponent of worker’s rights which he defended as a leading representative of the hospital’s union.

After his wife’s death in 2007, Musa dedicated his time to helping his son, Roberto, with his duties as a priest in San Daniele Po’s diocese, including cooking almost every summer for the children of the parish.

His career in kitchens and restaurants made him a great organiser, a skill he would use to turn his own family celebrations into festive events, said Bartoletti.

In his last years, Musa, who suffered from diabetes, moved into a nursing home. He was active and social at the Cremona home, quickly establishing a new entourage of friends, especially of women whose company he greatly enjoyed, his niece said.

Reporting by Ali MC in Australia, Saba Aziz in Canada, Shawn Yuan and Michael Standaert in China, Randy Mulyanto in Indonesia, Asad Hashim in Pakistan, Maysam Bizaer in Turkey and Virginia Pietromarchi in Qatar. 

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