My 2020 plans had changed overnight. What would this mean? Flying out of Indonesia, I had no idea that I would not see my partner again for quite some time. I was about to experience a journey into and out of a countrywide lockdown, a time of confusion, emotion, reflection, and personal growth.  

After my South African trip, I had planned to fly back to Indonesia. My plans now organized, It was going to be an exciting year, I thought. All my travel plans for 2020 are on hold. Normality had only been a few weeks ago, with reality stretched into the distant future.

Arriving at Johannesburg airport beginning of December, my partner and I were finally on African soil. In the next half hour, we would catch our flight down to Durban. Stepping off the plane at Durban airport, we smelt a whiff of rain before a storm. A local African band greeted us as we walked through arrivals, with sounds of drums, flutes, guitars, rattles, and shakers resonating around us. These were the sounds of the rhythm of the African spirit. A strong aroma of coffee wafted through the air from the Mug and Bean restaurant. We looked forward to spending Christmas with our families.

We planned to spend a couple of weeks with my partners family before I headed to Pietermaritzburg, a large and vibrant country town in the midlands of KwaZulu Natal, to spend Christmas with my mother. Driving through the suburbs on our way home, we could smell a hint of spicy samosas and smoky boerewors braais in the air. These were the smells that reminded us of South Africa.

Unfortunately, just before Christmas, my partner had to return to Indonesia for work. He suggested I stay a little longer in South Africa and spend quality time with family. Unbeknown of what was going to be ahead of us.

There had been much talk and reporting of a virus called COVID-19 from China. The reports were frightening, and I felt a low level of anxiety starting to grow. 

Since there have been many theories where this virus originated from, but really, where did it originate?

Being aware of this new virus, I continued with day to day activities, shopping, going out to lunch, going to parks, beaches, and spending time with family and friends. I could feel my anxiety growing as I watched the statistics escalate around the world.

There was a relaxed atmosphere milling amongst the people in the supermarkets. Before the South African president’s speech, South Africans were aware of “corona.” Still, they weren’t too concerned about it, as there were only a few cases reported, of which were international travellers. “What do you think about this coronavirus?” I asked a local in the Supermarket. “ I don’t think Africans will be affected. It is quite serious; I think we can still go to church and pray,” he replied. It was going to be a challenge, changing the behaviour amongst South Africans who felt it was necessary to still go to church to pray, defying the appeal to avoid crowded spaces. Were these people in denial, or just didn’t know what they didn’t know, or understand?

As this virus rapidly spread to different countries around the world, people started dying. With heightened anxiety, every morning and evening, we watched the news wandering what was going to happen.

I witnessed hundreds of people queuing down the roads in Pinetown, waiting to collect their pensions from South African Social Security Agency. Some people would stand there all day. There was no social distancing. How would this be controlled?

South African health workers decided to be proactive by going from house to house, looking for positive cases before hospitals became overwhelmed. Triage field hospitals set up to treat people who tested positive. Hospitals would receive critical instances only. These are still early days and a long hard struggle ahead.

Finally, the South African president announced the lockdown for the country. I was dreading having to remain in lockdown for 21 days, not being able to go out. It was going to be a challenge. Fortunately, I had a large garden to walk around and a swimming pool for those hot African days. So many people didn’t have these luxuries.

Fear started to rise within me, and I prayed that I would not lose any loved ones or close friends during this crisis of the COVID-19 virus.   

A large percentage of people in South Africa have no health insurance and rely on public clinics and hospitals. These facilities are overcrowded, understaffed, and unhygienic. Hundreds of people of different cultures sit shoulder to shoulder waiting, being aware of possible TB and HIV cases amongst the crowd. Now Covid-19. Some people in wheelchairs and walkers. How would these people get their medications in the future?  

Compounding the situation that there is a high unemployment rate in South Africa. Expecting these people not to go to work is not going to be an option as they needed the money to support their families with food. Education was critical, but how would this be possible for people who had no access to information or social media?  Explaining to people why they mustn’t shake hands, hug each other or go to gatherings, that this was not acceptable anymore. Local people did not know where to seek help. So many of them didn’t even have the basics. 

We decided to help our security guards in our suburb by making them face masks and buying them hand sanitizer, supporting them and our domestic staff by continuing to pay their wages until they could return to work. We would get messages from the guards and staff thanking us for looking after them.  

I was pleased that I had made a trip to Pietermaritzburg to spend Christmas with my mother three weeks before returning to my partner’s family in Durban and then on lockdown. I was not going to be returning to Pietermaritzburg for quite some time. Neither was I going to be flying back to Indonesia, let alone visit my family in the U.K. 

I now had to make plans for groceries and pharmacy home deliveries, as well as for my mother in Pietermaritzburg. My 2020 plans had changed overnight.  

Elderly poor people who were reliant on an income to support and feed their families were going to suffer the most and could starve during the lockdown. Whole families living in one room cannot distance themselves from each other. Poor people living in squatter camps were so close to each other. Their shacks made of wood, cardboard, tin, and other scrap material. The size of a garden shed. These people would use fires for cooking and candles for light, often causing accidents and fires. If one person got sick, it would spread rapidly like wildfire amongst these people. Thousands would die.

I decided to head for Checkers first thing in the morning to get some supplies. It seemed everybody had the same idea. I have never seen so many people and ques going all the way to the back of the Shop. People were emptying the shelves, panic buying, standing trolley to trolley. 

There were reports of people fighting in Supermarkets over items. People were panicking. Fear would become more dangerous than the virus itself, as it affects our immune system and mental health.

The virus had now changed my day-to-day routines, leaving me with more time to start new routines and habits.  My partner and I sent messages via WhatsApp and connecting via facetime. We were lucky to have social media to communicate, where so many people didn’t. We discussed our days, work, and new projects and online courses we could do.  

Now was a time to reflect on our lives and what was important to us. Reassess our priorities, learn new things, reassess medium- and long-term plans, and revise our goals. We encouraged each other to keep a positive attitude, as this would be a period of fear amongst many around the world. “ This seems like world war three,” I said to my partner. “Yes, and we can’t even see our enemy,” he replied. Though we were both anxious, it was essential to know that we were both safe.

I seized this opportunity to help struggling friends. It was vital to express our concerns to one another and feel heard. There were feelings of frustration, struggling with long-distance separation, and mental health issues. I felt motivated by helping my friends by improving my journey through positive mental health. Knowing I could make a difference and making my life meaningful during this time of struggle. I would talk to them weekly to see how they were coping, giving them support and encouragement when feeling down, and sharing with each other what we were doing. Some of my friends also had partners working in Indonesia and they were happy someone else understood what they were going through that they were not alone.  

During this time of crisis, we would see selfishness and generosity, compassion, and bravery amongst people around the world. In some countries, local people have reported seeing many more dead bodies than the number of deaths reported via media. Were these additional deaths from the coronavirus? If the reports were not correct, the general population wouldn’t be aware, and so the death rate would continue to escalate.

Amazing things were happening around the world in many countries. Wild animals came out of forests and roamed the streets of towns. Was this because there are no traffic or people? Shaggy mountain goats strolled down a sunny lane in Llandudno, Wales.  Grazing on grass verges and in gardens. Coyotes were roaming streets in San Francisco. Monkeys by the hundreds running across streets in Thailand, scrounging for food outside shops. Some monkeys even took to street brawling, tumbling, and screeching –  Sika Deer in Nara, Japan, wandering the streets, standing outside shops. New Orleans had swarms of rats roaming streets for food. A wild Puma in Chile walking down the streets. A female wild boar and her six baby piglets trotted down a street in Bergamo, Italy. Wildlife had total freedom, and nature was thriving. Mother Earth would continue to survive if the human race disappeared. What would happen after lockdown, I wondered when all the people started appearing again?

I appreciated living in the 21st century, where I could communicate with my partner via facetime, or WhatsApp. Thousands of poor people didn’t have these privileges. Though we are thousands of miles apart, we still feel connected, sharing how our day has been and giving support. During this time, it is vital to show empathy to our loved ones and family.

Life is a journey. There are times when it teaches us many lessons, reflecting on the values of life. Now will be one of those times for people to reflect, appreciate their families, and loved ones even more. Accepting the situation we are in and how fragile we are. A time to heal, practice gratitude, continually being aware of our attitude. During this time of crisis, I continue to document my personal experiences in a diary. Journaling and sketching as I gain knowledge through direct experience. This COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly go down in history.  

I could find some positive things in this situation. If anything, at least I would have had quality time spent with the family in South Africa, creating precious memories.

Older people will feel lonely and isolated. Living on their own without internet access. Not being able to see children and have a hug can lead to depression, anxiety, worry, and feelings of being exceptionally cut off. It is vital to create a check-in rota every day. Regular phone chats can be a lifeline for the elderly, especially parents in age care. 

Phoning my mother daily, kept her positive and talking about fun and distracting things. Encouraging her to play music, do something in her flat and go out into the garden and just potter, getting some exercise, explaining that sunshine is essential for her mental health. I ordered her groceries and medications online, adding little surprises like chocolates, biscuits, and lovely hand lotion. These little surprises would lift her spirits.  

“I’m finding it hard dealing with this lockdown, not being able to see friends, go out to shops. I’m so used to being independent, now I have to rely on my children for help. I feel I’m being a burden,” she said.  I explained to her that asking for help did not make her a burden on anyone.

I encouraged my mother to talk to the nurses at the aged care anytime she felt she was struggling for any reason. Having feelings of isolation and anxiety was ok as this was not a healthy situation we were going through. I reminded her that I would visit as soon as it was safe to do so. 

Arriving in Johannesburg beginning of December seemed so long ago, as the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. Skies remained bright and roads clear and quieter, birds continued to sing, nature grew like never before. Life appeared simple, calmer in a better way, but for how long. Now was a time to heal ourselves and heal our planet. I had no option but to be patient and guard my mental health and attitude against fear, knowing that someday this would end and there would be a new beginning.

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