What I learned from my nightmarish battle against Covid

The virus was always Someone Else’s Problem, until one day, it was mine.

By Tanya Farber

We were standing by the printer in that place we once called the office.

“You’re the science reporter. Tell me, is this weird new virus ever going to come to South Africa?”

I shrugged.

“I’m sure it will spread to some other countries but who knows where it will land,” I said.

My colleague seemed neurotic. The mysterious disease was in a place far away. It came from a “wet market in Wuhan”.

I had to google Wuhan and discovered it was a city in a different universe. Even a few weeks later, the World Health Organisation was refusing to call it a global threat.

But like a bird of prey, it would first paint circles in a faraway sky before closing in. It would leak out of Hubei Province, and then cross the borders out of China.

It would hitch a ride on planes, trains and automobiles – and soon, South African hospitals would begin prepping. But for some time still, it remained an SEP – Someone Else’s Problem.

Then, on a warm day in mid March, my car broke down, and as I sat in the back of an Uber en route to fetch my daughters from school, the news broke. South Africa had diagnosed its first “patient zero”.

Soon after that, the country got locked down in a freeze-frame of empty streets. The city appeared as a child’s board game, flattened into a two-dimensional world.

For the next few months, I would do nothing but churn out Covid-19 stories from every angle, and though I was immersed in the pandemic, keeping my finger on the pulse of research and innovation data, it still remained theoretical.

My knowledge of the disease grew exponentially and I became evangelical, maybe even a little aggressive, about promoting mask wearing and social distancing.

But then, on a sticky Sunday afternoon in Cape Town just before Christmas, I got a sore throat and a thumping headache. And thus began my journey of Covid hell.

That “strange virus from a wet market in Wuhan” was breaking into the cells inside my own body in a suburb in a city on the tip of Africa.

On the night I received my results, I sat in my isolation room at my house. The one minute I’d be terrified, the next I’d soothe myself, as one might a toddler scared of the dark.

“It is going to be okay. Most people have a very mild form of the disease. Just breathe.”

Breathe I did, but in constant fear that this most basic human function would desert me as the disease got worse. My body became a theatre of war.

I tried to stay ahead of the virus, anticipating its next location for an attack. The headaches came and went, and the sore throat intensified, but the virus added so much to its arsenal, and its cunning war strategy seemed to shift from day to day.

Or maybe its very strategy was just that: surprise your enemy. My sense of smell and taste were stolen. You’d be amazed at how these senses not only orientate you in everyday life, but also bring you immense pleasure.

I missed them dearly, but they were the least of my problems.I was more aware of my limbs made of lead. I couldn’t hold my arms up to read a book, let alone exercise in my isolation room.

With those leaden limbs and aching muscles came a toxic mix of fear, discomfort, and exhaustion. The days blurred into one another.

Then, one morning, as I stood up, the enemy engulfed me in a wave of nausea. I felt that way all day, and drifted in and out of sleep.

Only when night fell did the true horror come: violent vomiting, convulsing muscles, chills, diarrhoea. And on top of that – utter loneliness.

The three masked faces of my family members appeared at the door. They said some kind words and left a bucket and mop.

Unable to stand, I sat under a stream of water in the shower, and cried. When was this going to end? How was it going to end?

Two days later, the virus finally went to my lungs. Every breath was punctuated with a spongy feeling that made me feel dizzy and weak.

The hospitals were full, and this only made me panic. It wasn’t a case of, “don’t worry, if you can’t breathe, an ambulance will whisk you away to the nearest hospital and oxygen will be at hand.”

My mind was crammed with images of people gasping for air and being turned away and worse yet, dying alone in a hospital, barricaded from loved ones who last saw them through the glass of the hospital entrance.

Over the next few days, however, the fear subsided. My body felt battered, but it was finally winning.

My health returned and just as excitingly, my freedom of movement.

Not to travel the globe and see the fjords of Patagonia, but instead, to an enchanted world where there’s a pale green couch, a kettle that’s always warm, a few dogs mooching about, and three people I love more than life itself.

I now know for sure. The mundane is a magical thing.

  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.
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