/ 27 March 2020

The Covid-19 view from rural Eastern Cape: ‘The virus is still far from us’

Mount Fletcher Paul Botes
Far from the madding crowds: Many of the inhabitants of Mount Fletcher are aware of the Covid-19 virus, but some are not taking it as seriously as they should. (Paul Botes)

In some villages in Mount Fletcher in the Eastern Cape, the pandemic that is ravaging the world and is spreading fast in our country is still seen as the virus of people living in urban areas. People are not “scared” of the Covid-19 and life is continuing as normal.

This is evident in the fact that they are not following the restrictions that have been announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa to limit the spread of the virus. People still attend funerals with a large number of people, they drink from the same beer bottle using their mouths and some are planning to go to Easter mass.

Unreliable electricity has also meant that they miss out on important government announcements about the virus or any valuable information that may assist them in understanding the virus better.

Some people rely on misinformation on social media, such as the fallacy that if they drink a certain concoction made of garlic, lemon and cayenne pepper, they are likely not to get the virus. 

Nomthetheleli Mbedlashe from Hlankomo village tells the Mail & Guardian that there are guidelines that people adhere to, such as washing their hands. They have also stopped shaking hands.

She adds, though: “But in all honesty most people are not taking this seriously.”

Mbedlashe says people still attend imilindo (night vigils), which take place a night before a funeral.

In Hlankomo, night vigils are usually held in a room inside a house, commonly a living room. Depending on how popular the deceased was or how prominent their family is in the village, these night vigils can easily draw a crowd of 50 people or more. These people are squashed together in the room — singing, preaching and reminiscing about the deceased until the early hours of the morning of the funeral.

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In this setting, social distancing is difficult.

Mbedlashe says she has decided to stop attending funerals and night vigils. There is an upcoming funeral at a nearby village this weekend that she will not be attending. “I am scared, because there will be people from Cape Town at that funeral,” she says. “Ekapa seyikhona lento [Cape Town already has this thing].”

Many people from Hlankomo work in the Western Cape and a large number of them never miss funerals in the village.

“I am really scared. I’m not going to the night vigil or the funeral. I am diabetic, I have high blood pressure and they say our immune system is weak so we are likely to catch the virus easily,” says Mbedlashe.

It is mostly older people who appear to not be bothered by this virus. Mbedlashe says older people still attend traditional gatherings where they get to share ibhekile [enamel drinking bucket] when drinking umqombothi.

“Elderly people are not paying attention to this virus; young people do seem to be scared of it. But even within young people, there are those who still share a beer and drink from the bottle with their mouth. They do not use a glass to drink.”

The people who the M&G spoke to from villages in Mount Fletcher believe that people will become alarmed and take Covid-19 seriously only when they hear someone they know has it or when they find out that there a patient at one of the local hospitals who has it.

Makutloano Lekhatlanya from Makhatlanyeni, just over 32km from Hlankomo, tells the M&G that people in her village are aware of the virus, but life is continuing as normal.

“If people heard that there was someone suffering from the disease at the hospital in Mount Fletcher maybe they would be worried, but now we hear that people who have this virus are in Gauteng and East London for example, so we think that it is still very far from us. We heard about it but we are not worried about it, our lives are continuing as normal.”

Lekhatlanya says people from the village are aware of the 21-day lockdown that was announced by Ramaphosa this week. But she says people are more worried about how they will survive during this lockdown.

“People are stressing about running out of food and not being able to travel to town to get it,” she says.

And because there is no clinic in Makhatlanyeni, she says people are also worried that they will not be able to access clinics in town in Mount Fletcher because they will not be public transport.

“Those are our concerns,” she says.

It has been three weeks since the first case of Covid-19 was announced in the country, and as of Thursday March 26 at noon, that number stood at 709. But Nobongile Masentile from Moroka village says there is little knowledge in her village about the virus.

“I would not really say that we have enough knowledge about the virus here in the rural areas. Our knowledge about the virus is very limited.  We get information from these social networks such as that you must make a concoction of lemon, cayenne pepper and garlic and drink it to prevent the virus,” she says.

The village only recently got electricity and this means that most people still do not have television sets where they can at least access reliable news about Covid-19.

Masentile says some people do not even have radios; others might have them but the radio does not have a functional battery. “Most people here survive through social grants and they use it to feed their families before they can think about buying a radio battery,” she says.

Sanelisiwe Qamata’s mother works at the local clinic in Mcambalala village. She says her mother has to remind them every time she comes back from work that they need to wash their hands.

“We forget to wash hands. We are still blank, life is as we know it.”

Mcambalala got electricity connection only in 2019. But the supply is not strong enough and when it rains or there is lightning then there are power cuts.

Qamata says they have missed important information about the virus because there was no electricity. They did not hear Ramaphosa announcing the 21-day lockdown — there was no electricity because it was raining.

“So I do not want to lie — I do not know much about the virus. I hear people saying ‘corona, corona, corona’, I do not have enough information about it. I’m blank.”

Her cousin, who stays in town in Mount Fletcher, told Qamata about the lockdown. “I am still confused though. Do we not leave our houses or yards?”

When she hears that people will not be allowed to leave their yards unless it is for an essential reason — like going to the clinic or if you have run out of food and you need to go buy groceries — she laughs: “We are going to die.”

Qamata says there were two funerals this past weekend in her village and she estimates there were more than 100 people at each funeral.

Last week, Ramaphosa announced that gatherings of more than 100 people were banned. The government has further advised that only family members and close friends should attend funerals.

“People are not following the rules. People from our local church say they are going to have an Easter mass, but we have been told not to have such gatherings,” says Qamata.

She also says that people are not taking the virus seriously because it has not yet reached their shores.

“Abantu basayabula [people are still roaming around], they are doing as they please and I anticipate that they will not adhere to the lockdown; they will do what they think is right for them,” she says.

“They do not think that they are putting their lives at risk.”