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When COVID Hits Too Close To Home

Schools opened back up in South Africa for in-person attendance around a month ago. We decided it would be safe to allow the kids to go back for myriad reasons. The total student population at our school numbers less than 100, physical classes would be offered on alternate days and the department of education had provided our facility with a certificate confirming the premises had been sterilized. In the long run, none of these measures matter because no one has the power to police what folk do or what they are exposed to off campus. One of the parents – it was revealed on WhatsApp – had tested positive for COVID. We could do with that information what we wanted. We chose to continue to allow the kids go show up on scheduled days.

Wednesday, July 22nd was a typical day in the carpool save one thing: Stone was not wearing his mask. His lead teacher is a delightful, grandmotherly lady who loves to give hugs, sends us videos of the kids conducting science experiments and playing games, all smiles…and never wearing the masks and face shields I’ve supplied him with. I’ve showed my ass so many times at that school over one infraction or another this year that I didn’t have it in me to drop trou yet again. I would have to find some way of getting through to the people responsible for ensuring my kids’ safety. I didn’t have much time to contemplate my next steps because the boy was now in the car, looked tired.

“How was school today?” 

“Fine,” he said. “My body just hurts and I have a headache.”

“Oh yeah? When did that start?”

“Just today.”

“OK. Take a nap when we get home.”

Stone prepared lunch and remarked that he couldn’t taste his food. I don’t know what he said to my husband after that, but the man began to Google COVID-19 symptoms with worry painted across his face. (Stone has bronchitis.) Marshall doesn’t read the school’s WhatsApp messages and wasn’t aware of the positive parent. He freaked.

When did this happen? Why were they still letting kids go to school? Why was this not a big deal to anyone else?     

You may all recall from my bouts with meningitis and the brain tumor thing that Mr. Grant doesn’t cope well with illness and usually adds to the anxiety we all feel. This was one of those times. 

Based on the symptoms he was exhibiting, the government website instructed us to call a hotline, where an unsure call rep told us to go to the local hospital, where testing hours were from 9am – 5pm. It was now 5:23 and the window was closed. We told the kids they would have to stay home and Stone would be isolating in his room effective immediately.

“I’m scared, Mommy,” he said.

“I know, son.”

“I don’t want to die.”

“You’re not going to die,” I replied benevolently. As though the idea had not crossed my mind. As though I too wasn’t frightened witless. “You’re going to be fine.”

You know how it is when you’re a mother. Call it lying, call it prophesy – but we say whatever we must to bring comfort and speak strength to the ones we love the most, especially when we feel it the least. Hugging him was out of the question. The best I could do to shore up his spirits was to lob a ridiculous smile from his doorway and wait for the long night to end so that we could get to the testing center early the next morning.

I might not be lying, right? It could be fatigue. Maybe the boy just might not have been getting enough sleep. Maybe he was just unwell because it’s cold season. Maybe, maybe, maybe… But that’s the terrifying part, isn’t it? In this environment, you just don’t know. Ignoring symptoms and delaying action can have (and for some people has had) catastrophic consequences.

The three of us arrived at George Hospital the following day. An old woman with a bowl cut intercepted us before we could get to the reception area.

“What do you want here?” she asked flatly.

Was Karenjie joking? This was the COVID testing area at the back of the hospital. What else did she think we wanted here? Marshall answered her question, or at least tried to.

“We need to get a test -”

“We are only giving tests to the elderly, the very sick and the most extreme cases,” she barked. “Do you have symptoms?”

You know what it’s like dealing with people who have been given the power of gatekeeping. I’ll spare you the details of the stereotypical interaction between an old white woman with power and Black people seeking medical care. Your assumptions about her tone, approach and condescension are all correct.

When it eventually became clear that only one of us was seeking a test, she practically tried to give Marshall COVID, all because he mentioned he had a headache and had had strep throat in the past. He must come back if he felt unwell.  But seconds ago Karenjie was telling us how dear the tests were-

“And you,” she said, pointing at me, “you’ll have to monitor them both. You’ll have to assume responsibility for their total isolation. Do you know what that means? I-s-o-l-a-t-i-o-n?”

I tuned her out after that.

I’ve had week-long constipation that was more pleasant than this unnecessarily long wait.

Marshall was allowed to go and fill in the medical forms and sit in the reception where there was one other patient. I went to sit in the sun. An hour passed. No word on next steps. My husband’s impatience grew. I told him to go home, since I’m an African and used to waiting around on nothing. Another hour passed. What was the hold up? We will never know. All I know is that two hours and fifteen minutes into our wait, a young white man appeared carrying files and the erstwhile idle staff sprang into action, attempting to look busy.

Young Blonde Man was the doctor on duty. He had incredible bedside manner and treated us as something other than a bother, which you can only imagine was refreshing, given the frightening circumstances. Unable to resist one last attempt to demonstrate her self-importance, Kanrenjie rounded the corner to add her 2 cents further to the doctor’s already clear instructions. I wouldn’t look at her.

“If he’s positive, you will receive a phone call. If his result is negative, you will get an SMS. The results should come in two days.”

Stone got his nose probed and we went home, praying for a text message.

It came last night while I was sleeping.

Yay!! We’re negative!

The mood around the house has been one of cautious celebration. The whole ordeal has only solidified in my mind how vulnerable we all are. My family –like many others – has been doing its bit by staying at home and only going out when it’s truly necessary. But even then, we share public spaces with people who think that the pandemic is a ‘hoax’, whose insistence on living as though these are normal times put everyone in danger. There’s little I can do to mitigate the consequences of someone else’s selfishness…and that’s what I wish more people understood. Your actions and mine have ripple effects far beyond the scope of (y)our comprehension.

Today, we can take comfort in knowing that our family is healthy. But we cannot rest on our laurels; not when the virus is has already been this close to home.