Homecoming: Quarantine chronicles

Day zero: Not quite Year Zero (when the ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia turned back the calendar to start a new agrarian society) but still, I think bitterly, this should in all fairness be day one of a 14-day state-imposed quarantine.

I’ve arrived exhausted at OR Tambo airport after a flight from Heathrow that was like something out of a sci-fi film. Gone were the flight attendants’ flirtatiously knotted neckerchiefs and high heels. Instead the cabin staff are kitted out in white hazmat suits and blue rubber gloves that wouldn’t be out of place in CSI.

Despite Britain’s high infection rate, and having been locked down in Oxford for months before I board, I am pretty sure I don’t have Covid-19. Afterwards, I am less certain. The flight was packed — with no ability to social distance.

I used to love flying, joking that “in transit” was one of the few times I was anxiety free: I wasn’t where I had come from, or where I was going; there were no decisions to make, no life to live — just a kind of hazy in-between state of existence with free wine and crappy movies. That’s gone now — flying is simply uncomfortable and scary.

Of course, being on a flight made up entirely of South Africans meant typical South African humour. But there was sadness, too. We were coming back to a locked country, leaving behind loved ones, not knowing when we would meet again. 

From OR Tambo, after handing in medical forms, getting doused with hand sanitiser, and collecting our baggage from the tarmac, we are put in crowded minibuses to be taken to the undisclosed location that will be our home for two weeks. Shortly out of the airport, our driver stops, telling us we are waiting for a police envoy “to make sure you don’t escape”. 

We breathe a collective sigh of relief as our van pulls into the St George Hotel in Centurion. 

At this four-star conference centre favoured by the ANC everything is efficient and friendly. My room is clean, with plenty of space, tea- and coffee-making facilities and —  important for an international wire reporter — CNN on TV. 

Day one: The meals so far have been excellent. You hear the food trolleys rolling down the hotel corridors and, after a knock by masked staff on your door, find a neat brown paper bag placed outside your room. It’s not at all like the airline food I was expecting; they even accommodated my gluten allergy. 

A Russian friend who recently returned to her quarantine sent me pictures of a shared room in some kind of state facility and gulag-esque, unidentifiable meals. The quality of the food and facilities provided by the South African government are more in line with another friend’s in Tokyo. Despite this, there is no shortage of “Karens” complaining.

A blue-clad nurse knocks on my door and takes my temperature. This will be done daily. She says we can get a private or a government Covid-19 test, but whatever the result we won’t be leaving before the 14 days is up. I opt for a free government test. 

The sisters are chatty and warm and I start to look forward to their knock every morning. My nurse tells me that, when she’s not at this site, she is at a hospital, where she says beds are filling up and things are getting bad as South Africa becomes fifth-worst in the world in its number of Covid-19 cases.

Day two: The St George, incongruously for a hotel on the highveld, is modelled on a Grecian villa. It has courtyards and fountains and rooms named the Acropolis and Parthenon. It’s kind of a surreal place to be. 

I had thought we would be locked in our rooms the entire time, like a friend in quarantine in Australia who says rooms are under the guard of soldiers, but we are allowed out to exercise. 

It’s much-needed respite to be able to walk around and chat to other people — in masks, of course. 

Like something out of Lord of the Flies, the repatriates have organically splintered off into groups. The Afrikaner brus lounge, chain-smoking in flip-flops by a fountain. Another group of tattooed contractors repatriated from Iraq sit and chew the fat by the reception. 

Day three: I have made friends! Being a journalist and naturally chatty and curious, it has been fascinating to learn what took my fellow repatriates abroad and what they do. We are a diverse bunch. 

The first time I venture out of my room at 3pm and speak to some women soaking up the winter sun, however, I am dismayed. They talk about how Covid-19 was all a plot by China, the media, and Bill Gates. When a vaccine is found, the one says: “I won’t take it because no one’s putting a chip in me!” 

She then goes on a rave about how “That guy in America [George Floyd] was a criminal, hey” and “You know, all lives matter.”

Luckily my second foray into making quarantine buddies is more successful. I meet a guy my age, who like myself studied in Sydney, before finding the nanny state too dull and returning to South Africa. I also get to know Lucky and Vusi, two male nurses who have been working for the NHS and private healthcare in the United Kingdom for decades. They say the past months — where more than 40 000 people died of the virus in the UK — were terrible. 

Another guy I chat to a lot, is like me, Zimbabwean-born. He was doing an MBA in Philadelphia before the plague interrupted things. 

A Pretoria native also has an interesting story. He’s working in London as an engineer making titanium bone fragments for cancer patients. He’s going through a “corona-divorce”, which several people here seem to be. Very hard times made harder.

Day four: There is a fair amount of hilarity. I wonder if people are cracking up. A spontaneous sing-along of The Lion Sleeps Tonight breaks out one evening in my corridor; and my neighbour from the Eastern Cape tells me how she dreams of Cheas Naks. She would be happy to smell an empty packet, she sighs sadly. I tell her the small hotel shop has Nik Naks, but she replies crossly that they are not the same.

Day five: I laugh when my tech startup friend notes how some aspects of quarantine feel like prison. People bum cigarettes off each other, stalk desperately around the car park for exercise, and whisper to newcomers, “How long have you been in? When you getting out?”

Of course, we acknowledge that to compare a four-star hotel to prison, when our former president spent 27 years in a concrete cell for simply demanding his rights, is a bit obscene. 

Still, I start wondering if I can make a shiv out of my toothbrush… 

Day six: Today I meet the hotel owner, unpacking boxes of Simba crisps in the little shop (which is doing a roaring trade in Bar Ones and adaptor plugs). He’s a South African of Cypriot descent (the décor finally makes sense) and tells me he’s delighted that his is one of the government’s designated quarantine hotels. He says the hotel has been around since 1992 and has hosted all the country’s presidents. 

When Mandela spoke here, just after apartheid — about unity to a mainly white audience — “you could have heard a pin drop”, the crowd was so impressed, he says.

Day seven: I buy a chocolate ice cream to mark my one-week anniversary. I am getting bored of reading novels, Netflix, and WhatsApping friends. Vusi shows me how to do the Jerusalema — a dance by South African musician Master KG that has gone viral worldwide. 

Day eight: We all complain constantly about how Covid-19 has turned our lives upside down, but sometimes I remember with a jolt that I have been largely spared. This morning, after my run, I see a woman about my age with her suitcases waiting near reception. I ask if she has been let out early, and she says yes, but only because her father in Durban has just died. 

Day nine: I finally get the Covid-19 test myself. We are called in groups to a testing room where you wait for the nurse to stick a long cotton bud so far up your nose it feels as if  it might hit your brain matter. The guy next to me makes me nervous. He’s burly and tattooed, but tells me when he had the test previously in Mauritius his nose bled for hours and the pain was worse than getting inked.

After getting the test, unpleasant as it is, I decide maybe men do just have a lower threshold for pain …

Day 10: I am sick of CNN and never want to watch Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room ever again. I stare at the highway wondering where the cars are going.

Day 11: I miss my boyfriend, who is overseas, and wonder when I will see him again.

Day 12: My 37th birthday in lockdown! Someone has a bottle of brandy — like a prison, it was smuggled in under the fence. A few of us smoke, drink and bullshit all evening. A memorable birthday.

Day 13: The engineer got a car delivered by a friend yesterday so he can head straight home when we get out. Extremely kindly, he asked the friend to hide Cheas Naks in the car. A cry of delight echoes down the corridor.

Day 14: FREEDOM.

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Kate Bartlett
Kate Bartlett is a Johannesburg-based correspondent and is currently on lockdown while on a journalism fellowship at Oxford University

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