I began my lockdown with a kidney operation at Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg. I had to have the op at some stage, because my left kidney was swelling up dangerously and postponing it was unwise. It was dangerous to enter a public space where Covid-19 lurked, the doctor warned me on the phone, but, I thought, if I didn’t get the op done now, would it ever get done? Public hospitals would soon be overrun with people struggling to breathe, so I took the plunge.
It’s been a good decision so far. It is quite hardcore to be in one of Helen Joseph’s wards, but in my experience, private hospitals aren’t that much better and, these days, who can afford them? I got my op done for under R1 000; I’m pretty sure it would have cost more with medical aid. In the United States, it would have probably bankrupted me.
The Helen Joseph staff are professional and efficient. Just bring your own blankets, snacks and entertainment, put your mind into Zen mode and remember this: you cannot remember pain. It’s one of nature’s survival perks.
Back home, as I slowly clawed my way back to health, it dawned on me just how quiet things had become. The usual roar of Johannesburg had subsided into a pregnant hush, which hovered heavily about me as I peed blood every 10 minutes or so into my tiny garden. It was a welcome silence — the perfect backdrop for convalescence — but there was disquiet in the quiet. The silence signalled closed shops, folding businesses, more unemployment and added desperation to a country already on its financial knees.
I counted myself lucky in that I was still employed; newspaper folk can work from home, and a salary cut is infinitely better than no salary at all. I discovered that with nowhere to shop I could save money. I helped a few people where I could to put bread on their tables; for instance, I kept paying our domestic worker though she no longer comes to clean our house.
I read about and listened to the horror stories of friends and acquaintances in the entertainment and hospitality industries who are bereft of income, and will be for some time to come. A tiny sliver of selfish relief ran through me: I was not in their shoes. Not yet, anyway. But the future of the news media is by no means assured.
As soon as I was able to, I foolishly elected to walk my dog, in contravention of the lockdown rules. I woke at 5am and trudged the streets of Melville in the cold and darkness. The streets were filled with banks of fallen autumn leaves, which my dog plunged through noisily. They were alive with an inordinate number of cats. Here and there was a lonely, grinning security guard. We waved. I hid in doorways and behind trees when cars came past. But the therapeutic nature of being active and outdoors was pretty much undermined by the anxiety of being caught. Even my dog was edgy.
By and large, the police and the army have left the middle class suburbs alone. Instead, they’ve been busy in the townships. I’ve read stories of brutality. Lockdown in a shack must make mine appear a holiday. Behind my walls I have my wi-fi, my river of access to information, friends, family and entertainment. The virus is making us even more dependent on the digital world, while the meat world falls rapidly apart.
But no matter where we are riding out this storm, I’m pretty sure there are commonalities. I know I’ve had difficulty sleeping, as have many of my friends. What’s coming next? What will be left? Will I have a job? Will I still get this virus, and how will it affect my health? There is so much we still don’t know about it. Will crime increase? That seems likely, despite the raft of relief measures thrown at trying to save businesses and feed the starving. Desperation also feeds populism, nationalism and intolerance. The shitstorm may only be starting.
Without our usual distractions, rich or poor, we’re all being forced back onto our essence, the backbone of what we are, who and what we stand for, represent and value. I buried myself for the first few weeks of lockdown in work and projects, only realising later that I was in denial. Luckily I have daily practises and routines to keep me sane. Still, I’m agitated: I don’t know what the world is anymore. I wasn’t happy with the way it was going, but at least I had some smidgen of understanding what it was about. Now, I have no clue, and I have to remind myself to just breathe.
Perhaps the coronavirus has awoken an ancient memory: our fear of pestilence, which we arrogantly thought we had long defeated. We died in great swathes before antibiotics, quaked in fear by the bedsides of loved ones dying, and we’re doing so once again. I can only pray that we use this opportunity to reboot with cohesion and compassion. Our future as the “lords of the Earth” is no longer assured.
Derek Davey is a sub-editor for the special projects division at the Mail & Guardian