🔒 Early Covid-19 sufferer Old Mutual exec Andrew McPherson: ‘I still can’t smell’

Old Mutual’s Andrew McPherson was among the first South Africans to test positive for Covid-19. He reflects on what life is like three months later and says he still has problems connected to the disease. Although he has suffered from Covid-19, and wears a mask to be a responsible citizen, McPherson believes the world has had an over-reaction to Covid-19. He speaks to BizNews founder Alec Hogg. – Editor

It was back in early March, we spoke with Andrew McPherson, who is an executive with Old Mutual, when he tested positive for Covid-19. Andrew, at the time, you were very much an outlier in a South African sense. I remember you picked it up on an overseas trip. How long did it take for the virus to work out of your system? 

Sometimes I don’t know if the virus is out of my system because I still can’t smell. People say they get tired and stuff, sometimes. I feel a bit tired, but I think it takes a while. It took a good 20 days before I tested negative, so the 19th day I was still positive and 20 negative. 

You still can’t smell? It is interesting, I had an interview today with Dr Jo Barnes who was saying that we don’t yet understand the longer-term impact of this Covid-19. She said there are very serious after-effects that are coming from elsewhere in the world. You are still relatively young, how old are you? 

I am 45. I agree with that, but this is what I struggle with sometimes, it’s not unique. In 1968, there was the Hong Kong flu, which I think got to South Africa about 1974. My mother actually contracted it when she was pregnant with me and she still got a hearing problem from that virus, viruses do have effects like that. 

That’s so important because many people are of the impression that, oh, well, I’m gonna get it and then I’ll shake it off and no harm done. In fact, we don’t really understand. In your instance is now showing that because you’ve healthy you are 45, there’s no reason why you should have after-effects. 

I’m asthmatic and I’ve had bad sinuses my whole life, maybe that’s got something to do with it. There’s a self-help group somewhere for people who haven’t got this smell back, so it sounds quite common. 

What happens now, you’ve had the virus, presumably, you’re immune to getting it again? 

This is one irritating thing, is no one wants to stick their neck out and say that. Based on science and based on the way the body reacts to a virus, your body produces antibodies. Those antibodies circulate your body and attack cells with the virus in it and they kill cells and so the virus never replicates within your body.

They’ve done a drive recently to donate plasma. I went to donate plasma and they checked my body, I’ve got the antibodies.

Therefore, for a period of time, while the antibodies in my blood, I shouldn’t contract the virus again and I shouldn’t be able to infect anyone again. 

Do you walk around as per normal, no lockdown for you? 

No, I don’t, because I’m trying to encourage responsible behaviour as well. I wear a mask and I try to do my best. I just think this country sacrificed so much for this virus that I want to try and play my part. I just think, if I’m running around without a mask on, it’s I’m seeing other people. People are going to get scared, nervous and angry and justifiably so. 

Are you back at work? 

I work from home, so I am back at work but not at the office. I think Old Mutual will remain closed for the rest of the year. 

We heard today that Alan Winde, your premier in the West Cape, has tested positive. He’s 55 years old and a type 2 diabetic. Have you got any suggestions you give to someone like him or indeed anybody else who’s tested positive, given your experience? 

The thing with this virus is how it impacts on people is completely different. I know a friend of mine in Joburg whose aunt has it, her aunt is 75 years. Her aunt had a cough and it’s gone, it went straight through. Another friend of mine’s father is 86, it hardly affected him. There is a person I know, a production manager. He’s very overweight, high blood pressure and with diabetes in his 50s, he would be a key case for coronavirus and the virus and it didn’t affect him at all. Then you get healthy people who get really sick from it.

I don’t know what the answer is, I don’t think anyone does. I’m probably the wrong person to give anyone advice. The one thing I found with myself was because I never really got that sick. I had a headache and I had some aching muscles, but I can continue to do some exercise. I find that exercise is good, it gets everything in your body going. Now, I heard there was someone else who was in the hospital who continued to get out of bed and do their push-ups and sit-ups every day, so maybe some gentle movement as opposed to just laying in the bed, if you can get out and move around a bit and do some exercises. 

You’ve lived personally with this virus for longer than 99.9% of people in South Africa. How are you reading the great debate, as it were? The guys from PANDA who say it isn’t a big deal, we must open the economy and get back to work again because relatively speaking, not that many people are going to die. Then the epidemiologists who are saying there could be long term impacts from this, don’t get it if you possibly can. 

When we had that first interview, my view was that we had to lockdown, we had to keep everyone safe, but if you go through the history of humanity, in 1918 you had the Spanish flu, the 1940’s you had the Asian flu, 1968 you had Hong Kong flu. Hong Kong flu killed a million people in the world, it killed more than 100,000 people in America. If you adjust the demographics and you adjust for globalisation, this is probably gonna be similar numbers. In 1968, they had Woodstock, the Vietnam War, free love and everyone carried on.

These viruses, they come and go. I’m not an expert, but the more I look at it, herd immunity in a responsible manner is probably the way to go.

That doesn’t mean that we all go running out into bars and gyms acting crazy. I just don’t think you can afford to keep your economy locked down because the other impacts of that are far worse than the impacts of the virus. At the same time, we can’t just live our lives spreading the virus.

I just think it will have a detrimental impact on society and on the health care system and the impact that you have on other people’s lives.

The biggest take out from me on this whole thing was if I look back on my behaviour, I had a business trip. I quickly decided to do a ski trip, which was probably in retrospect a selfish thing to do.

I came back, my mother wanted to fetch me from the airport and I said no, but I couldn’t live with having killed my mother if she fetched me from the airport because I went on the ski trip.

That’s the biggest risk I think we ran from our behaviour is if you’re not responsible, the impact that you can have on other people. I don’t know what the answer is, but I just think we can’t afford to go back into a lockdown. If you look back over time, humanity, our immune systems adjusted this virus and this virus won’t go away. It will be here forever. 

From your perspective, even though you can’t get sick again or are likely to get sick again because you have antibodies, you still want to set an example by wearing a mask, which I guess many people would think is rather strange. 

Yeah, I think that so many people have made massive sacrifices for us to slow this virus down, not to go running around and having like, I don’t care. I just think it is irresponsible. I sometimes think I’m a bit of a mixed bag because I’ve got very different feelings on this whole thing, but I do think we need to try and be as responsible as possible while getting on with our lives. Conscious of the fact that never in the history of my life has my actions been able to have such an impact on other people. If I look at it from my personal experience, I feel that the world has completely overreacted to this.

Even if I look at my parents who are in their 70s, who are my biggest concern. If my parents were to contract the Covid virus, the mortality rate of 70 to 79-year-olds is 6%.

Even if my parents contracted the virus, they would be very unlucky to die from it because 93, 94% of people survive. I think at my parent’s age, driving a long distance in the car is probably as greater of a risk, if not more of a risk to them.

I just think that the way to completely shut the world down, to close supply chains, to create poverty, to subject the poor to what they have. Job losses, people lose their businesses that they’ve spent their lifetimes building. I don’t know if that was the right way to go. I can’t say, but then, on the other hand, there was a terrible story about that young girl who lost both their parents within the space of a few hours. I’m sure she’s got a very different view on this virus to what I have.