‘Unclean!’ Or how to tell people you’re Covid-positive

On the Day of Reconciliation, 16 December, I flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town to begin the first holiday I have had since Christmas in New York in 2019.

Now I have Covid – whether Omicron, Delta or a combination of both is unclear – and how I feel (apart from the foggy brain, aching body and thudding headache) is profound shame. If I were not coughing, I’d hide my head under my arm as I write this, so ashamed am I. 

Every sneeze and sniffle; every fibre of my exhausted being feels like just punishment for catching this dreaded virus.

After two years of isolation; after 20 months of keeping within a 10km radius of my home (mostly inside it); of religiously following all the protocols meant to keep me and those around me safe, of limiting contact with those I love and hold dear … now this? 

I feel like I have betrayed myself; let myself down in the most shocking way. And there’s nothing more wrath-inducing than being angry and disappointed in oneself; there is limited scope for forgiveness. In my case, admonishment is an infinity loop that refuses to quiet the disparaging voice in my head.

I have seen in the New Year with Covid, which surely bodes badly as a beginning. But then again, what promise does 2022 hold? With the way things are at this moment in time across the globe, can we expect anything different than what we had in 2020 and 2021?

The timing of my testing positive seems an additional penalty. After all, I’ve been double-vaxxed and Pfizer-boosted (something that is limiting the severity of my illness and will ensure that I do not die, so thank God for the vaccine). 

And, if we can believe it, the virus is reducing its kick and will continue to do so as we head into Christmases of the future. 

According to The Guardian science correspondent Robin McKie, respiratory expert Dr Julian Tang believes that the Omicron variant, initially known as the South African variant and which had us banned from entering most of the western world, is step one of the virus adapting itself to humans to produce more benign symptoms. 

Benign? There is nothing benevolent about the indescribable fatigue that has me stopping to steady myself every few steps; not a shred of kindness for my blocked eardrum…

If the epidemiologists are right, in time the virus will become milder and more transmissible and only the vulnerable will need vaccinating.

That’s me. A doctor friend who’s worked in Covid wards since the beginning, and who fell victim to the dreadful Delta variant herself, calls me one giant comorbidity.

I’m asthmatic, overweight, chemo-compromised (breast cancer eight years ago) and old … a bundle of vulnerabilities.

So here’s what happened: after 20 months of scrupulously following the rules, I, like large swathes of the population, let my guard down.

In the lull between the start of the summer and the end of November when Omicron was identified, the figures were so low that people – and I among them – began to make Christmas holiday plans.

I sensibly cancelled my end-of-November birthday trip to Mpumalanga when Omicron was announced. 

Then it emerged that while Omicron was much more transmissible, it was also significantly less virulent than other strains. Down came my guard. 

Anyway, what did I have to fear? I was triple-vaccinated, so where was the harm in going to the glorious Cape for a bit of a break from the wintry, wet Johannesburg weather that threatened to last all of December and spill over into the New Year.

Of course, once in the fairest Cape, I continued to follow sensible protocols and yet here I am: sick and deeply embarrassed. 

It’s my own fault, really. For the last two years I have raised my eyebrows when someone I knew caught the virus.

My Covid-phobic friends and I judged people who were “out there” chancing fate and throwing caution to the wind.

We complained that their carelessness was putting us in danger. It was the new social pariah status.

So what am I supposed to do now that I know that I have the virus? How will I follow the protocol that requires me to tell people I’ve been in contact with (many, many people) that I have tested positive?

What if I am Typhoid Mary (the cook Mary Mallon who unwittingly infected 53 people with typhoid fever) and am responsible for making people I know sick? The responsibility of it all is inconceivable!

As I lie in my bed, staring out at a pewter sky that is threatening to spill its icy contents, I am trying to compose the communal message I will send to my friends.

Should I say I’m sorry I have Covid? Am I sorry?

Is it acceptable to simply say: I am informing you that I tested positive for the coronavirus? Too cold?

Perhaps I could begin by saying ‘I feel utterly rotten’, then casually add that I’ve got Covid. Sneaky?

Maybe the best thing would be to say how awful I feel (and I do) about exposing them to the virus. I could add, of course it’s not my fault but that would come across as being unnecessarily defensive.

The amount of thought that has to be put into revealing that you are sick is quite ludicrous. 

I am counting days and working out timelines: when did I first notice the terrible headache that blurred my vision? When was the trip to Babylonstoren with Hugh; what day the lunch with Sheree; which evening the dinner with Peter? Did I spend Tuesday or Wednesday with my godchild? Should I tell the man who gave me a facial?

And what about my gracious holiday host, Viv who was exposed most of all to my coughing and spluttering? 

Once the results were out – I had Covid – people recoiled from me.

One friend delivering vitamins and ginger shots left the package outside my gate and as I walked down the drive to collect it (double masked and freshly sanitised, it must be said) she leapt into her car, reversed quickly and – from behind windscreen glass – waved and mouthed “love you” before speeding off.

I might as well have been a leper in biblical times, ringing a bell, shouting “unclean!” to passers-by.

Of course the rational me knows that nobody wants to be within spitting distance of this highly infectious virus and I understand people’s revulsion.

The child in me feels rejection tinged with loneliness in my bubble.

Finally I understand what people who’ve endured sickness-enforced isolation mean when they talk about the loss of meaning, purpose and relevance in this netherworld.

On top of all this Sturm und Drang there remains the dilemma of how to share my Covid+ result with people I’ve been in contact with.

So, if you’re reading this, PeterHughShereeVivPippaHenry … consider yourselves told.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Charmain Naidoo
Charmain Naidoo is a journalist and regular Thought Leader contributor

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