What is it REALLY like living with Covid-19? Tim Modise interviews survivor

In May, news channel Newzroom Afrika  made headlines after its staffers tested positive for Covid-19. Months into lockdown, the diagnosis underscored how vulnerable South Africa’s media workers and journalists are as they continue to cover the debilitating effects of the disease on society and the economy at large. This was shown in the death of eNCA cameraman Lungile Tom which was felt deeply by the South African media industry. Here, Athi Mthongana talks to veteran broadcaster Tim Modise on being told about her diagnoses while mourning Tom. Mthongana, one with no pre-existing conditions, gets to grips with her own side-effects of coronavirus and the impact its had on her health. More of Modise’s work can be found under the SA Renewal banner on BizNews.com. – Nadim Nyker

Tim Modise: We can talk about the statistics, but there are individuals, real lives here that are affected by the spread of coronavirus throughout our nation. One such person is the journalist with Newzroom Afrika, Athi Mthongana, who revealed in May that she and other colleagues may have contracted the disease. She was placed under quarantine and she’s talking to me now about her experience as well as the work that she’s been doing in the Western Cape, covering Covid-19 and other matters. Athi,thank you very much. Being in Cape Town give me your sense of what you think is going on in the Western Cape?

AM: I really appreciate this opportunity to talk about this disease that has really shaken the world at large. Behind those figures and behind those numbers are people, are individuals like me who have been affected by Covid-19.

Covering this entire pandemic for me as a South Africa journalists have been quite interesting. I remember when the first few cases were reported in South Africa. At that stage, a lot of us, as journalists in the country, were already looking at developments in other parts of the world where we were seeing large numbers of people testing positive for coronavirus.

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By the time we had our cases, we had been trying to grapple around the information that was coming through from the World Health Organisation, from the NICD, from our own health department and from our minister.

We’ve been looking at how this pandemic has been covered in other parts of the world. When we had our first cases, of course, we jumped at the opportunity of making sure that we tried to cover the story for South Africans so that they, too, understand that the reality of it all is that South Africa will also be in the same shoes that we’ve seen other countries, other nations like the UK, the United States of America, are currently in and have been in.

Interestingly, throughout the pandemic and the outbreak of the virus in South Africa, the Western Cape has come out to be the epicentre of the virus. Initially, Gauteng was recording more numbers until the Western Cape took that first position. This speaks to how the Western Cape has a lot of people who were travelling overseas who came into the country. Soon enough we started seeing the outbreaks within communities where you don’t have people who travel internationally.

A lot of people saying that the Western Cape or Cape Town is ‘the Wuhan’ because we all know where this whole virus started in China. There’s a stigma that is attached to this virus. It has been interesting to speak to families of people who were affected by this virus, people who have lost their loved ones.

The amount of time and or other people not having enough time to even wrap their heads around, say, a family member that has tested positive to the time when they passed away, to them having to arrange funeral arrangements. Not having enough time and considering that we’re still under lockdown and the restrictions that come as a result of that, it’s been quite challenging for a lot of people.

Let me talk about your own experience. How did you learn that you had contracted Covid-19 when you did? I would like to believe that from your point of view, you believe that you had done everything possible to avoid contracting this infection but can you recall what do you think might have happened?

It was very unfortunate for us to test positive. It was at a time where we were mourning the death of our fellow colleague at eNCA. He was a brother to me, he was very well known within the media space here in the Western Cape. May his soul rest in peace, Lungile Tom. We were still mourning his death, in fact, we were told on the day of his death that he actually had the disease and he didn’t have enough time to fight it.

We’re just still trying to wrap our heads around it because we knew as journalists when this thing hits South Africa, we are going to be in the frontline.

Doctors, nurses and everyone that’s working as an essential service worker will be at higher risk. We knew that as journalists we’d be at high risk and so we tried to take all the precautions that we could. I was one of the first people to jump onto wearing a mask. I was one of the first people to ask for that extension, in terms of the mic when we interview our guests we can keep that one to two metres distance.

We were taking all the precautions, we were doing everything in our power to try and make sure that we don’t contract the virus. I was not in contact with Lungile when he passed away, even the days before he passed away. Unfortunately, one of our colleagues might have been in touch with him during some story that they were covering here in the Western Cape.

It’s a disease or a virus that needs one to be extra careful. If you are someone that is ordinarily used to being in close proximity with people in touch with people, you have to let go of those things because now it poses a risk of you contracting the virus.

When I tested positive, I think because I had been covering coronavirus for a little bit, I had the knowledge of what to do in the event that I do test positive. Like I said, frontline workers, essential service workers are at higher risk.

So when everyone was at home during the lockdown, we were out there covering all the stories that we could. By the time I tested positive, I had already understood how or what it would take for someone like me who does not have any underlying health conditions, someone who was still under the age of 30 and what they need to do to ensure that they fully recover from the virus. I’m very happy and very pleased and thank God that we have recovered from the virus.

Did you develop any symptoms? How did you manage that period of isolation and recovery?

Before going to test, I had been experiencing mild fever symptoms. I started having headaches and when I started having congestion around the nose area may not, I was starting to feel a little bit tired or fatigue is also one of the symptoms. I was just generally feeling very feverish.

I spoke to my editors at Newzroom Afrika, who have been so amazing in terms of the support. I called them and said, listen, my colleague and I who my camera operator who I work closely with, we’ve been experiencing some mild flu-like symptoms, I think we should go a test. They said go ahead. We went for the tests. When we were waiting for our results I was already at home isolated, just waiting for my results. By the time I was called and told that I’ve tested positive, my spirit was already settled.

I have a strong belief and God and so my faith immediately came into play where I was like, you know what, there is no weapon that is formed against me that will prosper. I will recover from this virus. I had been experiencing those symptoms, during my isolation period I started obviously feeling it even more. It went from the feverish, mild symptoms to me every morning, waking up with a tight chest.

For someone like me who does not have any comorbidities, it was something that showed that this virus is something that exists, it’s a respiratory disease. For someone who’s never had chest problems before, I’d wake up with a tight chest every morning.

“I would do all the things that I’ve seen to work for other people…it felt like there was a ton of bricks on my chest.” – Athi Mthongana

I would do all the things that I’ve seen to work for other people who have recovered from coronavirus like steaming and trying to ease the pressure of my chest because it felt like there was a ton of bricks on my chest. I would have slight breathing problems. Those were the things and indications that showed that this is really a respiratory disease and it does affect your chest and your lung area.

Given its coverage, South Africans think that once you contract coronavirus, that it’s going to be your death sentence, yet that’s not necessarily true. Can you tell me your view of this attitude that we have towards COVID-19? How else can we cope, as we tried to understand how it spread, what we need to do to protect ourselves, yet we live in fear? I’m talking about trying to minimise the fear.

It’s very worrying to see that we still have a huge proportion in society that believes that this virus is not real. We’ve seen that throughout the Western Cape, we’ve seen that throughout the country, we’ve seen it on social media, we’ve seen it in other parts of the world as well, where people still believe that this virus is true.

Often in other cases, people only realise that coronavirus is real when someone they know or a loved one or a family member dies or contract the virus and then it hits them. I don’t think people should wait for that to happen. I think they should realise the urgency of having to take matters into their own hands by trying to reduce the spread of the virus.

We go around in a township hotspots here in the Western Cape and even in suburban areas where you see some people not wearing masks, for instance. That’s just one of the ways in which you can minimise the spread and you try to protect yourself and those that are around you. You see people not wearing their masks and it’s very concerning, it’s very worrying because you look at our health system in South Africa, you look at each and every province and its capacity to deal with any other virus.

Without the pandemic, all our health systems and all our health departments throughout the country are really under pressure. For them to also now have the added load of coronavirus is quite worrying because we have a healthcare system that would not be able to cope with the number of people that will test positive.

We know that even when you do test positive throughout your journey in isolation or in quarantine, you do subsequently test negative if you’re likely someone who does not have any underlying health conditions and even people who had underlying health conditions, some of them have recovered.

The Western Cape has recorded the highest number of recoveries in the country. We’ve seen fewer infections than we did before, Gauteng is now exceeding the Western Cape in terms of daily contractions of the virus. It’s going to be an attitude that has to change from society, from communities right there at the bottom. They have to change their mindset, how they think about it and how they respond to it. It’s really going to be like they said, in South Africans hands to ensure that they do everything that they can, from their own personal spaces to prevent the spread of the virus.

We’re very pleased that you finally did recover. How you’re doing now, when did you know or feel that you are now fully recovered? I suppose you went for tests, but you also felt better than you did. What happened?

I was very careful with my isolation period because I didn’t want to rush things. I wanted my body to fully recover, I wanted to ensure that by the time I go back out in action I am 100% fine. I don’t want to fall back into any kind of illness that is related to Covid-19.

I made sure that I took enough time to try and boost back immune system to function properly again, I had to do a lot of resting. I know a lot of people when they think about coronavirus, they think about their bodies, they think about the immune system and how they would be able to fight it and how they’d be able to fight the symptoms. What a lot of people are forgetting to do is to ensure that they also prioritise their mental health.

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A lot of people who test positive, they worry. They worry about whether they will be able to recover or not. That element of worrying puts a strain on your immune system, it makes you even sicker.

The consultations that I’ve had with the different doctors, my family members who are doctors and even private doctors here in the Western Cape have told me repeatedly that stress really does contribute to weakening your immune systems. For instance, that period of waiting for results is one that would really require someone to be mentally fit.

I know it’s very difficult because people are still scared. People still don’t understand a lot of things around the virus but ensuring that you’re in a good, healthy mental state will obviously be a positive for you. It will be beneficial for you in fighting the virus, even if you do test positive.

People need to look at their mental health during this period. A lot of people are having problems with sleeping, they are worried because our economy has taken a huge knock and so a lot of people are not getting money or salaries. Then on top of it, having to worry about whether you are positive or not, will add strain to your immune system. I know it’s hard, but people need to try and exercise a lot of caution around what they open up themselves to in terms of the psychological impact of this whole thing. People have to look at other activities that they can do to ensure that they don’t put themselves in a negative mindset during this period.

Are you feeling strong now?

Feeling 120%. My body feels like it has conquered this thing, and it’s given me so much hope because there’s a lot of stigma attached to this virus. I covered a story not so long ago, on the first case in Khayelitsha which is one of the biggest townships in the country.

When she tested positive as the first case, the stigma that she experienced was very harsh. She was thrown out of her living situation. Her landlord kicked her out, community members were very hostile towards her. A lot of people blamed her for bringing the virus. She was left to fend for herself in terms of trying to find a place to live. She’s a very young woman. She has a two-year-old daughter who tested negative. She has subsequently recovered from the virus.

It was very difficult to even tell people that story, to say listen, people who do test positive eventually, some of them really do recover from the virus. I am 120% better, I feel like my body is back to normal. I feel my mind, my body, my soul, everything has recovered from this virus.

It takes a lot of support as well from family members, from colleagues, from people, just generally strangers coming out to show their sympathy and support. It has been absolutely amazing. If South Africans can show that with other people within their communities, it will help us to deal with this thing quicker. It will help us to understand this thing quicker and it will help families to wrap their heads around this virus.

As far as people who have lost loved ones, they’ve have been isolated from communities, where people don’t even want to go interact or even go pay their respects to families who’ve lost their loved ones. They’re thinking, if someone in that family has died of Covid-19, the possibility of other family members having the virus is high and well.

We need to show empathy to people who are affected by Covid-19. People forget that some people who have not tested positive, who don’t have symptoms might have the virus but it’s those that come out to speak about it that receive the stigma, that receives the scrutiny.

If you show empathy, it will help a lot of people understand how to deal with others.

Thank you very much for talking to me. I appreciated this conversation and I think it’s very timely and a lot of people will draw inspiration from it, all the best to you.

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