Reflecting on a year of living since COVID-19 reached South African shores

Sally Burdett

An unprecedented year – by Sally Burdett

A year ago, on 5 March 2020, South Africa identified its first case of COVID-19. A still-unnamed KwaZulu-Natal man who returned from a skiing trip in Italy started showing symptoms. It was headline news across the country. eNCA reporters provided live updates from the hospital where he was in isolation.

It was hard to imagine then that one year on, over 1.5 million South Africans would contract the virus, and that sadly we would have registered over 50 thousand COVID-19 deaths.

In March 2020 not many people were wearing masks. I remember chuckling to myself on seeing a person wearing what looked like a gas mask to the shops which, in hindsight, may have been a clever idea. ‘What an overreaction’ I thought at the time. Of course, that was before the results of research showed wearing a mask significantly cuts the chance of breathing COVID-19 particles at someone else, before we knew the virus was not just spread through sneezed droplets and saliva, but also carried airborne in tiny particles, floating and collecting in the air. A year on, I get anxious watching crowded scenes in pre-COVID-19 movies with no one wearing a mask and I myself now have a vast collection of face coverings.

Our first lockdown began on 27 March 2020. As an essential worker, which media is, I drove through hauntingly empty streets in week one. By week two almost every street corner had a person begging for food.

I remember my 12-year-old daughter taking her first lockdown car trip for an emergency medical appointment, weeping at the sight of the scale of need in an already needy country. It felt apocalyptic and unprecedented. In the early days, it seemed at first that we might get ahead of the pandemic. Could we be spared, could this be another magic moment for South Africa, with our early lockdown cutting off the virus at the knees? Sadly, it was never going to unfold that way.

As the virus progressed we became fixated on the President’s regular addresses. The ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes became a highly contentious issue throughout the year. Looking back, the ban on alcohol sales, although it was economically devastating, was hard to argue against. The tobacco ban though, seems an extreme overreaction now.

In March 2020 the conspiracy that COVID-19 was no more harmful than flu abounded. Heck, even the president of the most powerful country in the world told us it would all be over by April. Well, we are heading towards another April now and while vaccine rollouts are rapidly increasing, Easter celebrations are still going to be limited due to COVID-19 restrictions. The USA has recorded over 500 thousand COVID-19 deaths. Those who say the virus is just a conspiracy are much quieter these days. Most of us know someone who has died, particularly after the December second wave.

‘Family meetings’, ‘with immediate effect’ and ‘adjusted level 3’ have become familiar terms now. A year on, there is less drama every time we await a presidential address and more weary acceptance.

When COVID-19 touched our newsroom for the first time, the office was devastated at the loss of eNCA’s beloved cameraman Lungile Tom. Sadly, he was not the last of our colleagues taken by this virus. Rules and rosters were constantly updated, studios changed to try and outsmart the virus and keep us safe, and concern for our reporters in the field was a constant worry.

Furthermore, we didn’t know how those with TB, HIV, and Aids would react if they became ill with COVID-19. Age and obesity proved to be the most dangerous factors in determining who would be most sick. But we learned never to underestimate COVID-19, particularly when we saw perfectly healthy people succumb to the virus.

The virus also brought into sharp focus the already deep divide between those with a home, a job, money to put food on the table and pay for data, and those who have little to nothing.

The extraordinary effort by the government, corporate South Africa, and private individuals to help gave us a moment of hope. At eNCA we began a drive to raise funds towards food parcels. Children pledged their pocket money, old people wanted to share their pensions. It was a reminder that we are a giving nation and the worst of times brings out the best in some of us.

Sadly, it also brought out the worst in others. It didn’t take long for the government’s plan to roll out protective equipment, sanitisers and other vital stocks to be perverted by corruption. A moment of shame and justified anger and a web of deceit that is still being unravelled by crime-fighting authorities.

Schools would remain closed for large chunks of the year, and we became increasingly dependent and familiar with online living. Today, I do almost all my grocery shopping online, my children are quite comfortable joining Zoom or Teams meetings for lessons, and we regularly have remote dinners with locked down friends from London to Melville.

So, as we mark a year since our first case of COVID-19, we count the cost of loss and live with a third wave looming like a potential tsunami. We know economic recovery is going to be brutal. We worry about what will happen when the COVID-19 relief of distress grant ends.

But, we are no longer in unchartered territory. We know the virus mutates, we know what we have to do to stay as risk-free as possible. The vaccines are coming and treatments for those who get very sick are improving. Our children will know how to carry on studying remotely when the next wave comes, many continue to work from home.

As we move into our second year of COVID-19, we have 12 months of experience under our belts. We will still make mistakes, we will continue to learn and yes, we need to do more to protect the poor. Things may never be the same again but we are at least in familiar territory. We are now living in precedented times.

About Sally Burdett

Sally Burdett anchors ‘South Africa Tonight’ on eNCA from 5pm to 8pm on weekdays.  Sally is a veteran journalist who has been with eNCA since October 2005. 

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