The week the Coronavirus whipped us into behaving


12 July 2020

Suddenly, we can put faces to the victims

It was, in a way, the week many South Africans were, with trepidation and a lot of regret, waiting for – a week when COVID-19 forced us into taking it seriously through a series of shocks.

It was no longer up to our political leaders to whip us into line, as it were, but the virus showed us who is boss. Some are forced by myriad circumstances to leave home to fend for families.

Others, egged on by a false sense of invincibility and an exaggerated belief in their immune systems, felt inured and ventured into the streets, organized private parties, and/or disregarded
repeated messages from President Cyril Ramaphosa to stay at home and follow World Health Organisation (WHO) protocols. The admission earlier this week that COVID-19 could be airborne for hours has also unleashed a tailspin of uncertainty.

But the pain visited on ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile, even if unrelated to the Coronavirus, seemed extraordinarily cruel – just as this virus is. Mashatile buried his mother Marriam Nomvula Mashatile, then his wife Manzi Ellen Mashatile died days later and, even before she was buried, reports surfaced about Mashatile being in self-isolation after a staffer tested positive. It placed him in the unenviable position of almost missing his wife’s burial. The times we live in.

Yes, Mashatile can be cavalier even about so serious a thing as paying Luthuli House employees on time. But almost everybody agreed this week that the constant spectre of death in his family is nothing less than traumatic. The most important women in his life are gone in quick succession. And therein lies the nub of the Corona pain: it comes in clusters, it can affect all parents at a go, leaving children to fend for themselves.

A teenager in Cape Town, Amy Volkwijn, 19, lost both parents, Barry and Heidi Volkwijn, within hours of each other.

“I couldn’t see my mommy and daddy without each other. I am glad that even though they are gone, they are still together,” she told News24. When Lungelwa Sindiswa Ndabeni succumbed to the virus in Mthatha, her son said: “My mother has died and we don’t know how to tell my father, who is fighting for his life in hospital, that she is no more.” The pain of children parenting their parents.

As we discovered earlier this week from one of South Africa’s best sons, Vusi Pikoli, the coronavirus can affect multiple people in the same family tree. He tweeted: “Slept with a heavy heart last night, having lost three family members to COVID-19 within hours of each other…”

As the week ended, funeral preparations were getting under way for North West cooperative governance, human settlements and traditional affairs MEC Gordon Kegakilwe. Premier Job Mokgoro was on TV one day saying he was fine with very limited symptoms after testing positive for the virus. In less than 24 hours, he was rushed to hospital. In KwaZulu-Natal, ANC deputy chairman Mike Mabuyakhulu collapsed in his office because of the virus and is receiving treatment. In Gauteng, Premier David Makhura, the best premier in the country, confirmed he tested
positive, but remains asymptomatic. ANC KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson
Ricardo Mthembu died from the virus.

It’s a lot to take in.

South Africans are going through a heart-wrenching, life-sucking episode we saw coming months ago. But nothing really prepares you for death. Even its inevitability, where old people are concerned, is not enough.

What three months ago were perfect family units with fathers, mothers and kids are breaking apart. Children are forced to mature instantly and ensure the family is not wiped out completely. Whatever happens after COVID-19, there is a lot of healing, hand-holding that will be required. We can start a process of blaming each other and ask what the lockdown was meant to achieve if many are infected, affected and dying. But what is that going to achieve?

The truth though is that even the scientific community is still clueless on many areas of the virus. The WHO was forced by the 240 scientists to concede this week that COVID-19 could be airborne. WHO says while evidence suggests so, more research is still required.

A firm concession, which WHO avoided, of this virus being airborne has very serious implications. It may mean that the WHO must review its own protocols, used to guide nations on how to respond to the virus, meaning how all of us in the world have been responding has been fundamentally flawed.

One of the protocols, for example, is that we must keep our office and home windows open to allow for ventilation. If the virus is airborne, it then means opening windows is risky. It also means jogging around the block may be life-threatening. Is that, perhaps, what led to the spike we saw in the Western Cape?

As the country records infections of over 12 000 a day, understanding that there is a lag between these numbers and actual infections, it is going to get worse. Blaming President Cyril Ramaphosa will not help. Trite though it may sound, it is really in your hands – stay at home. Mothers and fathers are leaving children alone, scarred by excruciating but sudden death. So much pain. So many people isolating. So many buildings closed down because of infections. Don’t stay at home because that’s what government wants – do it
because it may just save your life and your family, and our scorched country.




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