One hundred and thirteen days ago, the president of South Africa shut down our country to combat the threat of Covid 19. The whole world was being affected and thousands of people were getting sick and many were dying. As the days went by and the infection numbers increased along with the death toll, the pandemic dominated the news every day. Endless experts gave their opinions on where this was coming from and where it was going and what the long term effects were likely to be while the numbers kept ticking over relentlessly.
While the virus was causing sickness and death it was also destroying lives in an even more effective way – being forced by the authorities and the fear-mongering media into various levels of lockdown, the economies of the world were collapsing resulting in millions of people losing their jobs and their livelihood. This fact elicited a huge amount of criticism directed at the various governments, especially those of us obeying the rules of social distancing, wearing masks and sanitising to ensure we would not become a statistic.
As the lockdown was partially opened, the kids went back to school, we sat around complaining about the state of the economy and wondering how we were ever going to get through this and every day I saw the numbers of infections and deaths rising steadily. The town we live in was COVID-free one minute and the next our doctors were facing rising numbers of cases. We were not too concerned because we were doing what we had to in order to stay safe and more people die from so many other causes that we hardly think about, why would we worry about a virus which is hardly worse than a bad cold, unless you were high risk.
It is a Thursday afternoon, a nice warm winters day in the Lowveld and I am sitting in the sun like the reptile I probably am. The sound of tyres on our gravel driveway attracts my attention and I wander to the front door to see who has arrived. Di and I have been alone since Monday, when I took Aidan back to boarding school 2 hours away and the triplets back to the local boarding school here in Hoedspruit. I looked through the glass door of the house as my ever conscientious partner came up behind me telling me to put on my mask which I did immediately.
It was the school bus parked in our drive-way and watching through the window I saw the teacher driving cautiously as if she was expecting an ambush. When nothing serious happened she signalled the kids to get out and the triplets, climbed out of the bus, and carrying all their bags moved slowly toward the house. We mumbled a masked thank you to the masked teacher that had brought them and as she drove carefully away, Di guided the triplets to their rooms their masks hardly hiding their concerns while their huge eyes glued to Di, making sure she was keeping at least a 2m distance from them.
A couple of hours later another vehicle arrived and a similar scenario played out. The driver of the car was one of the local doctors, so being a vet of the war being fought against the virus her approach was different and we exited the house properly sanitized and masked. She had just come from the other boarding school where she had collected her two teenage boys and Aidan. She asked if we were ok, gave Di an instrument with some instructions and left with her boys. Aidan stood on the driveway surrounded by all his baggage, his school books, his clothes and all his bedding from boarding school, his eyes reflecting the fear and confusion in his little heart.
We called all the kids together, sanitised them and made sure they were masked before Di said the few simple words that ricocheted through my mind like a bullet searching for my heart “I have tested positive for COVID-19.” The four teenagers stood listening as Di explained they had to remain in quarantine for the next 14 days and she explained how best we would go about protecting them from us, assuming we had not already infected them. We will never know what went on in their heads and how teenagers think but after their “lecture” they slinked off to their respective quarters to isolate as best they could. The fifth teenager, Emily, was away once again and her horse trainer decided to keep her while we weathered this storm, hoping and believing that it will take more than a Chinese-made virus to catch her.
Di had started developing flu like symptoms a few days ago but she was not really concerned because she is prone to colds, especially during the winter. She spoke to her friend, who is a doctor, and described the symptoms which were not Covid-typical. The doctor told Di to keep her updated and to try and stay away from me which resulted in me sleeping on the couch. Despite keeping my distance, I started showing some flu-like symptoms. After some discussion, and the fact that we have children in various boarding schools, it was decided that for everyone’s peace of mind, Di would go for a test on Wednesday. We were all convinced that it would come back negative and then we could all get back to our already relatively isolated daily lives.
All the things we have read, all the discussions we have had and opinions we have shared went over and over in my mind as the hours ticked by waiting for the result of Di’s test. We spoke a lot about how we felt and because our symptoms were so mild and nothing like the highly publicised list of symptoms, we did not believe we had anything more than a common cold. We even expressed the thought that maybe it would be good that we did have it so we could get it over with, increase our immunity to these invisible little monsters and start living normally again. At the end of the day, all our little hopes, wishes, fears, whatever was going on in our minds were all irrelevant. The stick that was shoved down Di’s throat held the final answer that we would have to deal with.
On Thursday morning I was making tea for the two of us when Di's phone signalled that she had a message. Di picked up the phone and I watched her as she read what was on the screen. The moment she looked at me I knew. She just said quietly “I have tested positive.”
We had both said only hours earlier that we would both like to get it now, and here it was, one confirmed case and one highly likely. At that stage Di was feeling a bit nauseous and my body was aching but neither of us felt like we had just become a statistic and we actually burst out laughing. Perhaps a sign of panic, fear and uncertainty all rolled into one. We were about to cause a world of chaos to those who had anything to do with us!
Di called her doctor who advised her to notify both schools, the local school, where the triplets were in boarding and the school on the mountain where the doctors’ sons and Aidan were in boarding. I think we both went into a robotic type state – Di was notifying the relevant people and I was basically wandering around like a lost fart in a baked bean factory. The schools both said the kids must all be collected immediately and we were told to self isolate, also immediately. No time to plan or shop and no, we could not go collect the kids ourselves! The triplets’ father said they should come and stay with us rather than travel all the way back to Johannesburg. Just like that, we would be two infected adults, living in isolation, but at the same time trying to take care of four teenagers, in quarantine, with unknown status and trying to prevent them from becoming infected.
How we were going to do this kept our minds busy because deep down a little red light was flashing which both of us were trying to ignore – FEAR. It needed to be extinguished as soon as possible so it could be replaced with a more positive ray – HOPE.
That evening after dinner and having followed all our protocols for self isolation Di and I finally got chatting about what had happened. Di was feeling guilty and almost in tears trying to work out how she could possibly have gotten infected. She was always so focused, always wearing her mask when she left the house, which was hardly ever, and never without her little bottle of sanitizer. She was heartbroken when she worked out that she had disrupted the lives of 11 kids who all had to go home because of the chain of association. Let that sink in for a moment ... 1 infection and 11 kids affected by association. This excludes their parents, loved ones and siblings.
Our doctor has been truly incredible, taking me back to when I was a child when the doctor would actually come to the house and visit. She did not come to the house, for obvious reasons, but was continually in contact making sure we were ok. We live in a small town and the people have been great: shopping for us, calling to see if we were ok and whether we needed anything. Friends have made and dropped off some of the most unbelievable soup and within a couple of hours our shopping was sorted, cupboards stocked and ready-made meals frozen. Our community grapevine works really well too! People we haven’t chatted to for ages have sent messages to check in on us and offer us support. We stand and watch our gifts appearing on our doorstep, through the glass panels of our front door, picking up the parcels after our friends have left, while we wait for the virus to run its course.
Di and I have spoken at length about what has happened to us and how we are going to deal with it. As with most of what we have been facing from the outset of this pandemic, we will get through this one day at a time. Di was advised to get tested and she faced her demon and now she knows her result. As usual, she did this from a completely selfless point of view, thinking she would simply be allaying everyone’s concerns. I have elected not to be tested. Besides the fact that I don’t relish the thought of the test itself I do not believe the result will have any different outcome for me. I have been with Di from the beginning and have had exactly the same symptoms, just 2 days removed, so I am 100% convinced that I am positive and am isolating and quarantining as if I had a document confirming it.
I have had malaria three times, a disease which kills many more people than COVID-19 ever will and even though the doctor treating me when I had cerebral malaria, told my family and answering their questions, said I may die, I did not for one moment believe I would. There was no media hype around malaria other than a short article in the local newspaper when there were a number of cases resulting in fatalities. Interestingly there have been no malaria reports from our local community this year - did the mosquitoes all simply choose to stay away from the lowveld this year?
Di has been an asthma sufferer her entire life and while it is well controlled it is mainly still triggered by stress so she is never without her pump. She told me that when she read her result, seeing that word: POSITIVE, just for a moment she felt her lungs contract, that shortness of breath, that panic. But that was just in her mind and she knows that. Relax, take a deep breath, you’ve got this. The body aches, headaches and nausea were real but not hugely debilitating. She does not read all the horror stories about this virus any more than she reads about the terrible motor vehicle accidents that kill people every day on our roads. She is being careful, staying positive, keeping hydrated and today she woke up feeling mostly fine. Today, a week after she, a vulnerable person contracted COVID-19, she is one of the many survivors.
I fall in the vulnerable age category of 60+, and the only reason I did not go on my 5 kilometre walk today was because my kind doctor said she would have me thrown into a government quarantine facility if I put my scrawny butt outside my house. I am also on the mend and recovering well.
Despite our best efforts to avoid that spiky little bug and despite the fact that we live in a small town that is not densely populated, where the majority of people wear masks and abide by the laws dictated by our government, we got infected. We still do not know how or where and we never will.
We are not saying this virus should just be shrugged off. Nor are we advocating irresponsible behaviour. What we are saying is that even with all the precautions in place and living a careful existence, there is a chance that each and every one of us could contract this virus. It is now just one more of the many things out there that can take your life if it is your time. Not everyone dies from malaria - I have survived it 3 times and Di has survived it once. Not everyone dies from COVID-19 - I have survived it once and so has Di. But we can all still take precautions, do the right thing and minimise the risk. That should be our plan and that will certainly still be ours going forward. You do not cross a busy highway with your eyes closed, thinking oh, if it is my time then I will not make it. No, you look left and right about fifty times and you plan and bide your time so that you maximise your chance of survival.
The only reason this virus has become a formidable enemy is because it has us as an ally. We are the ones who expose ourselves to infection and spread it around. This virus doesn’t have wings to propel itself around the world. We move it around and pass it on to others. Just like people driving drunk and killing innocent road users and blaming everything and everybody other than themselves. We are not innocent and we have to take responsibility for our actions and live with the consequences.
We did nothing wrong. In fact, we feel we did everything right. And yet, here we are - isolated, feeling slightly ostracised simply because we are not allowed outside our 3m x 3m room. Peering through glass panes at our good neighbours and wondering how will we be welcomed back into the real world after our 14 day sentence is over?
In a home where smiles, laughter and hugs are at the very center of our everyday lives, there is something extremely difficult about staying away from everyone you love in your own home. Your home is where you feel safe and can throw caution to the wind. You take your mask off, take a deep breath of “clean, home air”, hug your loved ones because you know they are safe. Isolation takes that away from you. Our emotional cups are running on empty and we cannot refill them with physical contact and cuddles. We exist in a shell of a house and cannot wait for our lives to return to normal. As Di said to me this morning: “I really miss hugging right now.”
This virus is so unpredictable that nobody really knows what is going to happen. It is a bit like going down a steep hill on your bicycle when the brakes fail. There is a sharp corner at the bottom of the hill but nobody knows what is waiting there – a pile of soft leaves or a heap of gravel. I have chosen to hang on. I will let you know when I get there.