When we were told a work colleague had tested positive for Covid-19, I froze. You only enter the true hell that is this pandemic once you know someone who has been infected with this virus. This is not to say that we lack the imaginative capacity as humans to empathise deeply with people we do not know, but there is no mistaking the cold reality that you deal with when a pandemic is no longer an abstraction but a workplace or domestic fact.
It is compounded by one’s exposure to the person who tested positive. To date, three of my colleagues at 702 have tested positive for Covid-19. One is a team member of my radio show. She is dear to me both as an excellent and hardworking person and as a real mensch. We chat daily, and the nature of our workplace is such that there was a real possibility that we could infect one another.
There are many questions one can ask about whether optimal occupational health and safety regulations were always adhered to, but that is not my focus in this reflection. I want to reflect on the dangers of not focusing enough on people in how we tell the story of the pandemic.
When our Covid-19 reported cases exceeded 1 000 over a 24-hour period, I remarked on social media that this was a scary development. One person challenged me to explain why I had described it as scary when it was near inevitable and predicted. The implication was that, since it was a matter of time before the exponential community spread would happen, being scared or shocked reveals some kind of evidence-averse response to the projections we knew would become our reality too, as had happened elsewhere in the world.
I think this kind of response is deeply misplaced. Behind every confirmed infection or death is a person. That person is connected to a web of relations: colleagues, friends, family, community. Individual lives are changed and social networks are disrupted and ruptured. The aggregate data — and the watching of the data increases on news channels in real time like some sort of sporting scorecard — now numbs us so much that we hardly think of the biographies that are invisible when we rattle off that day’s new numbers.
This is where the work of statisticians and some scientists need to be complemented with better narrative journalism about the pandemic, and also with the work of our academics and researchers in the humanities who can speak to the phenomenology of illness, the sociological changes happening and what they mean to us at community and even species-level, et cetera. It is, of course, sensible to give science airplay as we desperately search for a vaccine, effective treatments and also, simply, as we try to improve maths models that can make planning and policy formulation more effective.
But we cannot forget that we are living through this pandemic as humans. And so we owe it to ourselves to also centre our experiences, our inner emotional landscapes, our fears and our inventiveness on display as we find new ways of being.
The maths models mean nothing to me as I think of my colleague who is infected with Covid-19. It is cold comfort to her family that someone predicted that she may well get infected working in Sandton, which has been one of the hotspots of the pandemic in South Africa. The maths models mean nothing to her partner as he goes to be tested to see whether he is infected. The maths models mean nothing to her as she endures what the virus is doing to her body and the inevitable anxiety of wondering whether she will be recorded as one of the “recoveries” or not.
The maths models mean nothing to colleagues who themselves wait for their test results when one of our own is positive and we do not know who might have initially infected who. When I went to get tested for the virus, it was with some trepidation. The mind plays tricks on you. Especially if, like me, you are prone to hypochondria. Every new development in your body leads to self-diagnosis.
When the first case at work was reported, I had been experiencing headaches for a while, a little cough and the back of my throat felt sore. I had already been on antibiotics during the previous few weeks. But my GP had said that I did not need to test for Covid-19 because, on examining me, and knowing my body very well since he first attended to me in 2009, he knew that I had inflammation of some sort but no fever or any other symptoms warranting a test.
Now, however, armed with the knowledge that a work colleague was Covid-19 positive, you suddenly wonder whether your doctor got it wrong. After all, even excellent and experienced doctors can get it wrong. Now I convinced myself that every symptom I was experiencing was caused by Covid-19. Besides, Sandton has been a breeding ground for this menace, and I have been in the work building throughout this period, plus going to the malls to buy groceries, so why not me?
Besides — and this speaks to why we cannot only write about the pandemic in clinical and numerical terms — I felt like I am the kind of person who simply is always unlucky. I just “knew” that I would get it, and if my result was to be negative, I told myself, it will only be because I probably already had it a few months ago, but the symptoms were mild and my body strong enough to deal with them without needing to be admitted to hospital. Not least considering that you can find almost every medication and supplement in my house that your heart desires.
So if a symptom like a menacing cough is to be dealt with, the syrup is in the cupboard. If Imodium is needed for a runny tummy, Eusebius can sort you out. Struggling to sleep? I’ll give you something to make you relax and say, as a friend puts it, “the world comes slooooowly at me!”
So I probably would, once those antibody tests are available, be shown to have had it. Or so I convinced myself. Because none of the data I report on my radio show or science articles I read, or the scientists and public health experts I interview or watch and listen to as a viewer or listener, makes me immune, as a human, to the existential vagaries of life as we know it.
After a specimen, or whatever they call it, was violently taken from deep up my poor nostril, I momentarily felt virtuous for my good health-seeking behaviour. I am a bad hypochondriac. I fear disease but, despite my means and access to good doctors and specialists, I also do not want to know the facts. This too is an existential reality that top-line data do not reveal. Only stories reveal our human struggle. But once my Covid-19 test had been administered, I felt proud for going through with it. Of course, the wait then begins.
I was reminded of waiting for results from HIV tests. Having some comorbidities, like millions of South Africans, I feared a positive result because my body can do without extra challenges. The first time I tested for HIV, I found the waiting for the result to be frightening. I had a similar dread about Covid-19 and could not sleep that night.
When, early in the morning, my doctor messaged me with a copy of the result, I breathed a little easier. But not for long, because my overactive imagination then wondered whether I might be a false negative or even whether I had been infected after the test was taken. As I type this sentence right now, my throat is scratchy, and my neck muscles are sore. Is it time for another test?
This pandemic will test our sanity. To maintain mental well-being we must allow ourselves to speak into our fears. It is okay to not be okay.