/ 21 May 2020

The recovered remain cautious

Justin Sylvester Recovered From Covid 19 Photo Delwyn Verasamy
Isolated: Hospital was a lonely place for Justin Sylvester, who probably contracted Covid-19 when he was in New York for business. (Delwyn Verasamy)

As of Wednesday night, South Africa had 18 003 confirmed Covid-19 cases. Of those cases 8950 people who have recovered and are now considered healthy.

Much is still to be understood about Covid-19, including whether people who have recovered have a level of immunity. Nevertheless, the number of recovered cases are considered optimistic signs that the majority of people who contract the virus will recuperate.

Out of the total number of confirmed cases, as of Wednesday South Africa had recorded 339 deaths, which is 1.88% of total cases.

Ulrich Hendricks, a journalist for the SABC in Kimberley, had himself tested even though he had such mild symptoms that he didn’t think the result would come back positive. This was about a week after South Africa recorded its first confirmed cases of Covid-19 at the beginning of March.

“I was in contact with a group of Germans in Upington. Afterwards, I had a bit of a cold. At the same time, my employer sent out a questionnaire with some educational material and asked some questions. Based on that I thought I probably needed to be tested,” Hendricks.

The positive diagnosis shocked Hendricks. From what he had read, or heard about the virus and its effect on health systems in countries around the world, his symptoms were near non-existent. His asymptomatic condition had him worried that he may have unknowingly passed the virus on to his wife and children. (They tested negative for the coronavirus.)

“I didn’t know how it would progress. I read that you could either get a cold or the flu. Or you would need to go to the hospital and be put on a ventilator, or you would die. I didn’t know where on that range I would be,” Hendricks reflects on the worry that engulfed him.

He recovered and feels strong and healthy. But he doesn’t feel invulnerable.

“When I tested positive I read widely. I read that there were reinfections. And the fact that scientists are still learning about this virus. I’m not sure if I will not get it again, so I still take precautions. I wash hands, I wear a face mask. There’s just so much we don’t know. I could still be a carrier and spread it. But I do sometimes joke about it. I tell people I have the antibodies. I should maybe tattoo it on my forehead,” he said.

Melanie Verwoerd is a former MP and diplomat living in Cape Town. She and her family also came into contact with foreign visitors in the early weeks when Covid-19 reached South Africa’s shores. She and three of her adult children tested positive for Covid-19.

“We had a bunch of overseas guests here. Or that is what we’re presuming [was the source of infection]. It was right in the beginning, a week after the first case in South Africa. We must have got it from them because some of them were sick,” Verwoerd said. “We all started the same way. Back pain, diarrhoea, a sore throat and a bit of a head cold and we all lost our sense of taste and smell within a few days of each other, which was bizarre.”

Verwoerd said she had developed a cough towards the end of her bout of Covid-19, but her symptoms were mild. It was her daughter being sent to the hospital that made her realise the virus affects people differently.

“My son and I, and my daughter’s husband sort of had it lighter. But my daughter developed those corona symptoms that we hear about. The high fever and then got very sick. That was the only time I got really scared. After about 10 days they told us to bring her into the hospital and that had me worried,” she said.

Even though Verwoerd and her family are considered recovered, the effects of the disease still linger. Eight weeks on and she still succumbs to bouts of lingering exhaustion.

“There’s definitely a level of relief even though we’re not sure if we’re immune. But there’s also a consciousness of other people. Seeing how sick my daughter got I get really pissed off when people don’t wear masks. People don’t get how dangerous this virus can be,” Verwoerd said.

Justin Sylvester lives in Johannesburg and works for an international nongovernmental organisation based in New York. The city has long been the epicentre of the outbreak in the United States. Sylvester knew this and the risks associated with travelling and so knew to take precautions and then self-isolate afterwards.

He said that during his latest trip to the US he never encountered anyone who he thought was sick or displayed symptoms of the virus.

“I developed symptoms after 24 hours of arriving back from the trip. I woke up feeling sick and went immediately to a private testing facility in Rosebank. When I got my tests back a few days later, I was really sick,” he said.

Sylvester believes he possibly got infected while making his way through New York, touching handrails and door handles.

After several days of trying to recover at home, Sylvester drove to the hospital and was admitted to the high-care unit, where he remained for a week.

The isolation affected him. His family is based in Cape Town and even if they lived in Johannesburg they would not have been able to visit him. Neither could his friends in Johannesburg. The hospital became a lonely place. His only contact with other people were nurses clad in full protective gear.

“I have a history as a child of having bad asthma, for which I have been hospitalised before, and I haven’t been in a hospital since I was young,” Sylvester said. “It was quite a trauma being that ill and not being able to breathe. It’s a strange feeling.”

Although he has recovered and working from home, Sylvester too does not feel bulletproof. The hygiene and physical distancing regimen he had in place are still in operation — if not for himself, then as an example for others.

“I’m not an island unto myself. I’m still sanitising my hands. No one is certain about immunity yet and I don’t want to take that risk,” he said. “Having had [Covid-19] before, I definitely don’t want it again. But we have to address the fear. There’s far too much fear. And that is creating a lot of trauma.”