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The Covid Series

Belinda Blignaut’s Mud Rites: The Weight of Loss

How I rode out Covid-19 lockdown level 5

I began my lockdown with a kidney operation at Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg. I had to have the op at some stage, because my left kidney was swelling up dangerously and postponing it was unwise. It was dangerous to enter a public space where Covid-19 lurked, the doctor warned me on the phone, but, I thought, if I didn’t get the op done now, would it ever get done? Public hospitals would soon be overrun with people struggling to breathe, so I took the plunge.

It’s been a good decision so far. It is quite hardcore to be in one of Helen Joseph’s wards, but in my experience, private hospitals aren’t that much better and, these days, who can afford them? I got my op done for under R1 000; I’m pretty sure it would have cost more with medical aid. In the United States, it would have probably bankrupted me.

The Helen Joseph staff are professional and efficient. Just bring your own blankets, snacks and entertainment, put your mind into Zen mode and remember this: you cannot remember pain. It’s one of nature’s survival perks.

Back home, as I slowly clawed my way back to health, it dawned on me just how quiet things had become. The usual roar of Johannesburg had subsided into a pregnant hush, which hovered heavily about me as I peed blood every 10 minutes or so into my tiny garden. It was a welcome silence — the perfect backdrop for convalescence —  but there was disquiet in the quiet. The silence signalled closed shops, folding businesses, more unemployment and added desperation to a country already on its financial knees.

I counted myself lucky in that I was still employed; newspaper folk can work from home, and a salary cut is infinitely better than no salary at all. I discovered that with nowhere to shop I could save money. I helped a few people where I could to put bread on their tables; for instance, I kept paying our domestic worker though she no longer comes to clean our house.

I read about and listened to the horror stories of friends and acquaintances in the entertainment and hospitality industries who are bereft of income, and will be for some time to come. A tiny sliver of selfish relief ran through me: I was not in their shoes. Not yet, anyway. But the future of the news media is by no means assured.

As soon as I was able to, I foolishly elected to walk my dog, in contravention of the lockdown rules. I woke at 5am and trudged the streets of Melville in the cold and darkness. The streets were filled with banks of fallen autumn leaves, which my dog plunged through noisily. They were alive with an inordinate number of cats. Here and there was a lonely, grinning security guard. We waved. I hid in doorways and behind trees when cars came past. But the therapeutic nature of being active and outdoors was pretty much undermined by the anxiety of being caught. Even my dog was edgy.

By and large, the police and the army have left the middle class suburbs alone. Instead, they’ve been busy in the townships. I’ve read stories of brutality. Lockdown in a shack must make mine appear a holiday. Behind my walls I have my wi-fi, my river of access to information, friends, family and entertainment. The virus is making us even more dependent on the digital world, while the meat world falls rapidly apart.

But no matter where we are riding out this storm, I’m pretty sure there are commonalities. I know I’ve had difficulty sleeping, as have many of my friends. What’s coming next? What will be left? Will I have a job? Will I still get this virus, and how will it affect my health? There is so much we still don’t know about it. Will crime increase? That seems likely, despite the raft of relief measures thrown at trying to save businesses and feed the starving. Desperation also feeds populism, nationalism and intolerance. The shitstorm may only be starting.

Without our usual distractions, rich or poor, we’re all being forced back onto our essence, the backbone of what we are, who and what we stand for, represent and value. I buried myself for the first few weeks of lockdown in work and projects, only realising later that I was in denial. Luckily I have daily practises and routines to keep me sane. Still, I’m agitated: I don’t know what the world is anymore. I wasn’t happy with the way it was going, but at least I had some smidgen of understanding what it was about. Now, I have no clue, and I have to remind myself to just breathe.

Perhaps the coronavirus has awoken an ancient memory: our fear of pestilence, which we arrogantly thought we had long defeated. We died in great swathes before antibiotics, quaked in fear by the bedsides of loved ones dying, and we’re doing so once again. I can only pray that we use this opportunity to reboot with cohesion and compassion. Our future as the “lords of the Earth” is no longer assured.

Lockdown level three brings waves of despair

I’m sitting in my office in a small back room that, thank goodness, gets some sunshine during these cold winter days, working my ass off, and for less pay. And guess what, I’m eternally grateful. My relative in the film industry lost his job, and the chances of him finding another right at present are like, tiny. Another mate can’t get any gigs. He’s staying alive — for now — by selling his musical equipment.

Working from home is great, though it seems all I ever do is work, eat and sleep. My phone and I are attached by an umbilical cord; it rings at any hour and I respond as fast as possible. My clothes are not ironed and I wear the outer layers many times before I wash them, because who cares? I seldom get to see anybody. The familiar roar of Jo’burg traffic has returned, but the rumble of jets, once so commonplace, is still rare.

Meantime, the virus is creeping ever closer towards this tiny little world of mine, infecting first acquaintances, then friends, now family. It was an abstract thing when lockdown began — I had a hard time remembering to wear my mask, at first — but as the figures soar, it’s becoming a stark, personal reality. Cases are about to peak and thousands are about to die. There’s no cheerful way to say it. We’re living through a disaster.

It occurs to me that we’re also in a period of mourning, for a time of plenty that we didn’t appreciate when we had it. Sure, we’ve had 9/11 and the 2008 crash, and before that we had apartheid and the struggle, but we haven’t had a global disaster that affects practically everyone in our lifetimes. A century ago there was World War I, followed by the Spanish Flu, then the Great Depression and then World War II. My grandparents must have been pretty resilient to deal with all that. I guess we’ll have to find ways to develop our own resilience.

I go through waves: sometimes I’m okay with all this bad news, at other times I carry a heavy weight of despair in the pit of my stomach, and it feels as if I can’t breathe properly. Some nights I can sleep, but often I wake and lie staring at the darkened ceiling. My partner and I hold each other up: if one of us is down, they’re supported by the other. We swap constantly. We’re not alone in feeling this way. The social media I peruse is starting to fill with posts about just how angry, depressed and fearful my social circle is. I’m finding that interactions can be quite odd, but I’m learning to give the person at the other end of the post, call or email more leeway. We’re all taking strain.

To keep our spirits up, my wife and I have been finding songs that we love on the internet and singing them, along with an old guitar. You can find the chords and lyrics of almost any tune these days. When we’ve run through a song a few times we record our amateur effort on a phone and send it off to friends and family — the best critics you can possibly imagine.

As lockdown lifts, there’s an appearance of life gradually returning to its many old ways, but it’s certainly not business as usual. When you do see a friend, it’s alienating to talk to them behind your masks: you talk at a distance, you can’t hug each other. And, just as we’re allowed to do this, infections are soaring. Nothing seems to make sense any more.

When I walk to the shops near my home, I’m forced to negotiate the sleeping gear of homeless people, half-eaten food and human shit. There’s a group of nyaope addicts living on the streets just 50m from my door, cooking up and injecting each other with grim intensity, impervious to the stares of those passing by. There are no public toilets, and no social safety nets to feed, house or clothe them, let alone rehabilitate them. They’re a microcosm representing the larger one of the country: some get help, some just don’t, crisis or no crisis.

I also have to sidestep the rubbish left by a neighbour outside their home. Their bin has been stolen so many times that they no longer bother to buy a new one. Across the road is a pile of building rubble. Someone has decided the side of Melville main road is a dump. Periodically the unsightly mess is cleared up, but either the same culprit or another soon replaces it. Few seem to respect the laws of the land. Few trust those in power.

When I get to the shop, prices have skyrocketed. A nine-litre gas cylinder cost R135 to fill a few weeks ago; now it’s R195. A lekker slap in the face for those who’ve lost their jobs or taken pay cuts.

Sandwiched between the junkies and the rubbish is an evangelical church. They were mercifully quiet during the initial lockdown, but they’re warming up again and soon, four days each week, they’ll regale the whole block with their songs. How come they are allowed to gather, but we can’t walk in the nearby Botanical Gardens by Emmarentia Dam?

Just down the hill, along the same main road, the streetlights are finally working, after years of darkness on a stretch of road on which vehicles careen along at 100km/h. Problem is, now the streetlights stay on all day too. Just after that, as you get to the Botanical Gardens, is an intersection with Judith Road, where the robots haven’t worked since lockdown began.

As a mate of mine likes to remark, how can South Africa co-ordinate a lockdown when it can’t fix a robot?

Across the ocean, pretty much the only superpower of the last century is busy imploding. The United States nearly tore itself apart in an utterly gruesome civil war over the issue of slavery, but 160 years later racism is still rife and black people are still killed routinely without consequence. Black Lives Matter. Looking at the way our government has treated poor people under lockdown, it’s hard to believe it.

On the outside, we’re all wearing brave faces. We have to, or we end up writing opinion pieces like this one. Where’s the good news? I keep looking, but so far, I’ve found only a few examples of people who are off the grid, rehabilitating the soil and educating others about how to live in harmony with each other and nature. May they grow in numbers, join up and deliver us from our senselessness. May it not be too late.

Cabin Fever Blues

I was just hoping to get to the end of 2020, so when I did, I gave myself a big pat on the shoulder and said to myself: “Well done, you made it, old chap!” What I hadn’t geared myself up for mentally was the fact that 2021 may be, from a pandemic point of view, just as bad. It might even be worse. After a slight reprieve, we’re back in lockdowns, the economy is still staggering like a boxer who just took a Mike Tyson-klap, and the second wave of Covid-19 is more deadly than the first.

It was an odd year indeed, though you can’t really blame the year itself: things were going to catch up with us sometime, the scientists kept warning us. But who listens to scientists? They wear white coats and glasses, fiddle around with test tubes and stats and are dead boring, man. Politicians don’t listen to them. Why should we?

I spent the majority of the year working from home, which had many perks. I was able to use the time between when work wasn’t coming in to do useful things, such as shopping, fixing my home, making healthy food and — oh ja — after three years of hard labour, I finally finished writing a book. I didn’t miss the office at all until recently. Who wants to commute, pay R30 for a coffee, walk 50m through several doors to hit the loo, and mope around taking breaks in an ugly office park? Especially now that I no longer smoke.

But then … the walls started to close in on me. My neighbours are certifiable lunatics. They keep the exact opposite hours to my wife and I. Life is a party, except when they scream at each other. Everybody on our street and their auntie has a dog. The dogs never get walked and are bored senseless. They bark at every stranger, every truck, every time a gate opens or closes. Then they bark at each other, until they get tired and realise there’s nothing left to bark at. To put the cherry on the cake, a “Piet-my-vrou” (red-chested cuckoo) moved into the trees outside my home and began calling incessantly, from 4am till the sun went down. Skiet my nou. Ja, wag net.

There’s zero release from this claustrophobic madness, this cabin fever deluxe. I used to be able to enjoy a drink as the sun went down and the work pressure eased off, but no, having liquor available at legal outlets apparently fills our already overburdened trauma units. We’re a nation with no self-control. When Ramaphosa says “behave yourselves” we fill the beaches immediately. So, in the middle of holiday season, he bans beaches too. For a kilometre upstream on any estuary. 

When my neighbours went bananas, I used to go out and watch live bands, or occasionally play a gig. Nowadays such a gathering would likely be labelled a “super-spreader” event. In 2019, nobody would have even known what that meant: a competition to see how much Marmite you can spread from one jar, on how many slices of toast? How thin you can roll a pizza dough in just one minute? How many frogs your car can flatten after a Highveld storm without you throwing up? 

Ah, wait. If you’re not closing in on 60 like I am, you won’t remember spreading frogs into coaster shapes on the tarmac, any more than you’ll remember going on holiday and pulling into the garage because you couldn’t see a damn thing. Insects would make driving impossible; the windscreen would be a sticky yellow-green goo. The absence of this goo, also known as the “windshield phenomenon” is evidence that insect life has declined, by up to 80% in some areas. While this may make the lives of garage attendants easier, it’s worrying because after Covid-19 (if there is ever such a thing) we face a pile of other planetary disasters, chief among them being biodiversity collapse. 

And, when we finally beat the coronavirus, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot. Practising social distancing, washing our hands and using masks has resulted in the rate of other infections such as the common cold dropping, but when we relax our vigilance and remove our masks, our compromised immunity means there will be a surge of other viral infections, according to those pesky fellows, the scientists.

Death and loss are always around us, but they’re creeping in faster now, stalking us in fact. I’ve lost four mates in under a year, each one of them amazing, inspiring creative people. As Cape-based artist Belinda Blignaut writes: “We’ve been through collective loss in the world, living through one of the toughest times. We’ve all lost something, some more than others, some an unbearable amount.”

Those who have lost loved ones have also lost their old selves, writes American author Augusten Burroughs: “When the person you love dies … you die, too. The person you were when you were with them is gone just as surely as they are. This is what you should know about losing somebody you love. They do not travel alone. You go with them.”

While it’s best not to wallow in our mourning, we have to face it and own it if we ever wish to move on from it. There’s nothing worse than folk who post cheerful memes and pretend all is fine and dandy right now. This toxic positivity, the social pressure to be “okay”, invalidates the emotions you’re really feeling (and besides, if you’re told “you’re negative” these days it’s good news — if you’ve just been for Covid-19 test).

One way to ensure we get through all this change, this stress, might be to “go with the flow”, according to Russ Hudson of the Enneagram Institute. “This means relaxing our resistance to whatever shape life is taking. It’s normal that our coping mechanisms are in overdrive right now, but we are severely limited when that is all that’s driving us. We must question the ways that we use to cope that aren’t helpful and rather try to find what calms and nourishes us,” says Hudson. 

He advocates “presence”, which is about being aware, being in the moment and being in your body. Sitting quietly for 10 minutes each day may work for you, or physical activity, which helps us to feel embodied, even if it’s just taking a walk. Make the walking or sitting a routine, and your mind gets some downtime — every day. Remember this: if you don’t nourish yourself, you can’t help anyone else either.

Who feels it knows it, Lord

It’s astounding what we can get used to. I’ve seen photos of white Rhodesians sitting by a braai with a row of rifles lined up on the lawn next to them. It was “normal” for this community, in which I spent the first decade of my life, to be prepared for an attack at any moment, just as it became normal to drive in convoys in the countryside between towns and cities. As a child I did not question being at war, or why we were. As far as I knew, everyone was.

Covid-19 has become pretty normal now after a year, and there’s myriad press releases telling us that this is the new normal; things will never go back to the way they were. I’ve even become used to remembering to don a mask before I hit the shops. That took months. I guess part of me never wanted to accept this new, crappy normal, where most of us are much poorer, except for a few rich folk who, as usual, just got richer.

It’s now becoming accepted or normal for South Africans to expect the power — or worse, the water — to go off for at least a few hours, pretty much every day, as Eskom struggles to plug the leaks of its fast-sinking ship of fools. After years of being gutted by corrupt management, poor planning and nondescript maintenance, as soon as one station comes online, another dies. It’s like trying to keep a row of candles lit in a strong breeze.

My house is filled with extension cables, as a neighbour kindly allows us to share his generator. Those who can afford alternative means of keeping their computers and routers on are installing solar panels hand over fist; if you can sink your own borehole, you need never worry if the municipal taps run dry. But most of the folk on Africa’s southern tip can’t afford an uninterrupted power or water supply any more than they can afford fibre or uncapped data, which are fast becoming as essential as water or food.

A few weeks ago I stopped to help a carful of pensioners with a flat tyre. They had pulled their beaten up old car over at the side of the road, in the scorching sun, near Hartbeespoort Dam. They had a tyre, but no wheel spanner or jack, and, as I was on my bike, neither did I. Nobody else was prepared to stop: I waved my arms at passing motorists, but our problem, it seemed,  was not theirs.

The flat happened because of a pothole, which the pensioners told me about before I left (they thanked me for stopping, and said a cousin was on his way to help). That pothole, which they told me was deep and sharp-edged, would never have been there, had those in the relevant authority been doing their jobs properly.

This is one tiny example of how incompetence affected the lives of a few elderly citizens, who sat in the sun for an hour or two; a minor inconvenience. A more extreme example is the cops who heard the complaints from KwaZulu-Natal environmental defender Fikile Ntshangase, and did nothing. She told them she was receiving death threats because of the opposition by her movement (the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation) to the expansion of the Somkhele coal mine. The police chose not to act. She was gunned down.

Driving or walking past those in need is part of being middle or upper class. Like the biblical pharaoh, you must have a hardened heart. If one has means, to dispose of it upon every beggar or homeless person who swims into view would soon dispose of those means. The dispossessed have been pleading for alms since the aristocracy began riding past them in carriages, periodically tossing a coin into the scrabbling crowd. If you can feel no guilt about having more than others, and filling your mouth with delicacies at a street-side restaurant as starving folk pass by without guilt or remorse, you qualify to be among the chosen few.

Most people of means do have some heart. Their compassion is chosen, I’ve noticed among my circle of middle-class friends. It may be a family who grew close to one’s own — perhaps the domestic worker’s — thrown by circumstance into awareness, into focus. They may be given a home, or their children supported through university.  It’s the starfish principle: you can’t save all the starfish stranded by the tide, but you can save one or two.

Compassion is different for the poor, although I cannot speak for them. I will never forget seeing a ragged fruit vendor in Yeoville at a street market give one of her few pieces of limp fruit to an even poorer homeless person, without thinking twice about the decision. And right at the other end of the scale, there’s the fabulously rich, who may avoid taxes and underpay their workers as Jeff Bezos does, or, as Elon Musk has chosen, between launching rockets, to provide internet for the world.

The divide between the rich and the poor is vividly illustrated in Ramin Bahrani’s film The White Tiger. Its brutal portrayal of India’s caste system shocked me. Slavery is not something that disappeared hundreds of years ago, it seems — it’s alive and well in many parts of the world. Without giving the plot away, by the time you near the end of the movie one could easily believe that to steal from the opulently rich if you are piss-poor is morally defensible, even justifiable.

But back to the pothole. There’s supposed to be a social contract taking place here. Citizens are supposed to pay their taxes and, in return, the state should provide certain amenities such as lights, water and decent roads. Aside from VAT, very few South Africans (about three million) actually pay any — and those who do are being milked by the state at every available opportunity — but that’s not the issue at stake here. This contract between state and citizen has been strained, if not severed, ever since this country came into existence. South Africans have, as a whole, had to make do with poor policing, education and healthcare.

Like the rich family gangsters in Bahrani’s movie, those who rule this country (and these days, pretty much every other country) think they are above the “lower castes”; they shamelessly choose to share “their” largesse with just a select few. When they are caught, they also think they are above the law. We’ve lived with this state of affairs for so long that we’ve come to regard it as normal. And while we can do tiny things like vote every four years, or attend a protest here and there, perhaps the only way to come to terms with our powerlessness to change this system is to not let it get to you. If you do, well… it’s really not good for your mental health, or that of those close to you.

These articles first appeared in the Mail & Guardian and Thought Leader