Bongekile Macupe: The virus now has a face


This week someone I know died of Covid-19. Someone I grew up with — even though she was three years older than me — succumbed to the novel coronavirus. My friend’s dear sister is one of the more than 480 400 people globally who have not survived the virus.

This is someone I fetched water with emthonjeni (at the well) in my village of Hlankomo in Mt Fletcher in the Eastern Cape. This is someone I would meet emfuleni (at the river) on weekends when we, as young girls — back then — and omama be lali, we went to wash clothes. This is someone I attended church with when I was still a member of the Anglican church while growing up. We were probably part of the play during Easter Mass at St Peter and Paul parish when we would be hosts to the Ngxaxha and Katkop parish. At 37, she has died from this virus.

 Suddenly in my village the virus has stopped being something from afar. It has a face.  When I spoke to my cousin, who is back in Hlankomo, in March she was nonchalant about Covid-19 and said this was the attitude of most people elalini. But when we spoke on Monday after the news of the death she wrote to me: “Ndiyayoyika nyani ngoku.” (I am scared of it now). When I spoke to my aunt, she said she was numb. She called me on Tuesday again and told me that she was still in disbelief about the news. She remembered how the woman never wanted to call her Sisi — because even though my aunt was much older than her she saw her as her peer — she instead called her Mkhaya (home girl). We laughed about that. 

“Oh, ebenobubele ke lonto,”  said my aunt. 

After hearing the news my mother said she had a lump on her throat. 

It has become tradition at home that I read out the daily stats of Covid-19 every evening when they are released. One reason for doing this has been to ingrain it in my family that the virus is alive and is wrecking people’s lives. I will probably stop doing that now because we personally know someone who has died of Covid-19. It is no longer a distant thing. 

When the minister of health, Zweli Mkhize, released the statistics on Monday and announced the number of deaths in South Africa to be 1 991, it was no longer just numbers for me. Someone I knew was part of those 1 991. A mother, a sibling, a friend, a wife, a colleague, umkhaya wam was now a statistic. In years to come, when this virus has long left us, she will be remembered as one of the people who perished because of it. When her children grow up and ask about their mother they will be told that she was killed by a virus that terrorised the world. In years to come, when scientists and scholars document Covid-19, she will be among those numbers. 

It is mind-boggling then to see that there are people who think they are immune, with some even making absurd claims that it is fake. None of us are immune. I hope they do not wait until someone they know contracts Covid-19 or dies from it. 

It is important to protect ourselves — and others — and do what we are being told to do by health experts and the government. I know people who attend parties, giving the virus a middle finger, and this is scary to witness. I hope everyone knows and realises that this  novel coronavirus is not here to play.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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