Couple sitting on a bench in Delta Park during the COVID-19 response in Joburg

Life in Joburg During COVID-19

Yesterday, when I decided to write this, my idea was to make it an upbeat post about things to do in Joburg while “social distancing” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I posted on my social media channels asking for suggestions — especially suggestions for things to do that will help small businesses — and I received quite a few. I also started jotting down my own ideas. Number one on my list was visiting Joburg’s beautiful public parks.

Then I saw the announcement that Joburg’s parks were closing.

I jumped in my car immediately and headed to Delta Park, where huge banks of cosmos flowers bloom every March. The cosmos form magical clouds of pink and white petals, floating just below the Joburg skyline.

I tried to stay calm as I drove, barely able to speak to my friend Julie, who I picked up on the way. I had to get into Delta Park to see the flowers. I had to. I didn’t know what I would do with myself if I couldn’t walk among those pink and white clouds at least once in 2020.

The gate was still open. Delta Park was open. Thank god thank god thank god.

Cosmos flowers
White cosmos
Cosmos
Field of cosmos at Delta Park
Delta Park

After enjoying the cosmos, my friends and I walked through the rest of the park. We took our time, admiring the changing leaves, passing other people and dogs, stopping frequently for photos. The weather was perfect. The light was perfect. The colors were perfect. It was exquisite.

Couple sitting on a bench in Delta Park during the COVID-19 response in Joburg

Sometimes we don’t know what we got ’til it’s gone.

A few hours ago the majority of Joburg’s public parks and nature reserves closed — at least officially. (I haven’t gone myself to physically check, but on Facebook I saw a photo of the gate to the Wilds, locked up tight.) I’m despondent.

[UPDATE AS OF 21 MARCH: Although many of Joburg’s parks, including Joburg Botanical Gardens/Emmarentia Dam and the Wilds, are indeed closed, Delta Park is still open. Go and enjoy it while you can.]

But as we all know, there are lots of people in the world right now with bigger problems than getting locked out of their local park.

COVID-19 in Joburg

For those of you who don’t live here and are wondering what the situation is in Joburg, here’s a brief summary:

According to the official numbers, South Africa has 150 confirmed cases of COVID-19 today (19 March). Gauteng province, the most populous province in the country, has 61 cases. We don’t know how many of those 61 cases are in Joburg, but Joburg is the largest city in South Africa with 8-10 million people. So far South Africa does not have any documented deaths from COVID-19.

I think it’s safe to surmise the official COVID-19 numbers don’t come close to revealing the actual scope of the pandemic in South Africa. I have four friends who have already been exposed to someone with the virus, and I am one person out of 60 million. Do the math.

While Joburgers are worried about all the same things that people in other places are worried about when it comes to COVID-19, we are particularly concerned about how fast the virus will spread once it hits densely populated townships and the Joburg city center. A majority of South Africans live in poverty, many in woefully inadequate housing without running water or proper sanitation. Many people live in very close quarters and “social distancing” is impossible.

Most Joburgers commute to work in informal minibus taxis. Taxis are glorified vans, often in poor repair, which are meant to carry 14 people but often squeeze in many more.

It’s early autumn in Joburg and winter is approaching fast. Our winters can be bitterly cold. The healthcare system is not prepared to handle the numbers of COVID-19 patients the city is projected to have.

The economic consequences of COVID-19 are nearly unimaginable here. South Africa was already in an economic recession before the virus hit, and again, the majority of South Africans were already living in poverty. Businesses operate on razor-thin profit margins. Many of those businesses — especially restaurants and tourism/event companies — have already been forced to close. Yesterday evening I drove down Melville’s 7th Street and about a third of the restaurants were closed.

I have many friends — writers, photographers, tour guides — who have lost literally all their business in the past four days, since President Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster and imposed travel bans.

And we only have 150 official cases so far. We’ve hardly begun to feel the impact.

Privileged Joburgers like me live in wealthy, middle-class suburbs, in spacious homes behind high walls. We can isolate ourselves, stock up on food, and access private healthcare if necessary. We have the luxury of debating whether closing Joburg’s parks was a wise move or an over-reaction. We can sit at home looking at Facebook and judge other people for buying too much toilet paper or refusing to give up their yoga classes.

We’re the lucky ones. The unlucky ones hardly have time to think about COVID-19 because they’re already too busy struggling to keep themselves and their families alive.

So that’s where we stand.

Telkom Tower top

COVID-19 and Me

Even before the park closure announcement, I was feeling acutely anxious and sad about COVID-19. I’m worried for the country. I’m worried for my family in the U.S., who I know I won’t be able to see if they get sick. I’m worried for myself. I’m worried for the world.

I feel shocked and bewildered. I can’t stop looking at social media. I can’t focus. I can’t sleep. I cry a lot.

Almost 20 years ago, I lived through Sept. 11th. I worked in Washington D.C., a few blocks from the White House, and had to flee the city after a highjacked passenger jet crashed into the Pentagon a couple of miles away. That day was the most shit-scared I’d ever felt, until now.

Am I over-reacting? Maybe. But my gut tells me I’m not.

In more frivolous news, I had to cancel my #10SouthAfricanTowns trip to Philippolis and Prince Albert, which was planned for next week. This is a huge bummer. The #10SouthAfricanTowns campaign has been the highlight of my year so far and I was so, so excited about my upcoming trips. I hope I can pick it back up later in the year but at this point there are no guarantees. Everyone in South Africa is having to let go of things this week.

A Few Tips

Shoot. I was supposed to give you that list of fun things to do/ways to help small businesses. I’m struggling to be positive at the moment (can you tell?), but here are a few ideas:

1) While others may debate this, I still think it’s ethical to order food for delivery or take-away. Many restaurants are offering special curb-side pickup or meal delivery services. Here are a few: the Roving Bantu Kitchen, the Leopard, Sweet Tea and Chickadee, Flava and Co., Chez Fong, Umami Studio, the Green Room. There are many more. If you have a favorite restaurant, call and ask if they’re delivering because there’s a good chance they are.

2) JoburgPlaces is also offering meal delivery service, plus they’re selling “futures” for walking tours post-COVID-19. Learn more on their Facebook page.

3) Gilda from Eenblond Tours is selling hand-sanitizer in partnership with an entrepreneur from Soweto. Contact her on Whatsapp at 082-472-6414.

4) Gerakaris is delivering wine and Sin + Tax is delivering cocktails. Enough said.

5) Three Gentlemen Barbershop has set up a mobile barbering clinic for old age homes at discounted prices.

6) James Findlay Collectible Books and Maps will deliver one-of-a-kind antique books and maps to your door.

7) Visit an unfenced public park. James and Ethel Gray Park is a good option.

The Johannesburg in Your Pocket Guide has a ton more great ideas along these lines, as well as a list of South African podcasts to listen to at home.

South Africa’s Department of Health has created an information service on WhatsApp offering all the latest news and updates on COVID-19. Check it out here: https://wa.me/27600123456?text=hi.

Also, reach out to people. Messages, calls, and Zoom happy hours with friends and family are keeping me afloat right now.

Tonight’s happy hour with friends around the world.

Stay strong, humans. Or as the Afrikaners say: Sterkte. Love in the time of Corona.

Joburg skyline
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21 Comments

  • Reply Catrina March 19, 2020 at 9:59 pm

    Well-written, Heather, thank you!
    This pandemic is a disaster for developed economies. I can’t even begin to imagine what it will do to this beautiful country. Cape Town has become quite empty. Tourist attractions such as the Table Mountain are closed. There are still some tourists around, but far less than usual.
    My heart goes out to the South African people. I firmly believe they will overcome this challenge, but it’s going to be a rough ride.

  • Reply Terry Turner March 19, 2020 at 11:06 pm

    Thanks for your insightful post.
    I fear for the most vulnerable people in SA. What disturbs me is the number of people closing up business and not even considering the impact of not paying their staff. It’s horrifying. I know a couple of people who are popping off on holiday for a couple of weeks after closing while their staff are unable to buy basic necessities like food. Many, many businesses have not even registered their staff for UIF.

    I’m afraid most workers in SA have been screwed over. The Department of Labour (and those of us who are privileged) have a lot to answer for – not much point in passing laws and then not enforcing them.
    I feel completely powerless and desperately sad.

    For those of us who can afford to order food, the MBA (Melville Business Association) will be sending out a list of businesses who will offer deliveries over the next few weeks. Oh – and Ziggy’s Pet Pamporium will deliver pet food in Melville too.

  • Reply Peggy Laws March 20, 2020 at 3:00 am

    Great article Heather. Very concerning. My daughter in Southern Ireland is being tested at home tomorrow by the Ambulance Services as she has been in direct contact via one of her patients. At least we are able to communicate via wattsapp and video. But yes – we have never experienced a pandemic of this proportion before. I shall keep admiring your beautiful photos of the cosmos to keep my spirits up!! Stay well.

    • Reply 2summers March 20, 2020 at 3:10 am

      Thanks Peggy. I hope your daughter is okay.

  • Reply Graham Burgess March 20, 2020 at 6:40 am

    Great story, love your work

  • Reply Nikki Brighton March 20, 2020 at 6:49 am

    A lovely article. Hope you find some lovely places to wander. In the KZN Midlands, everyone is working in their food gardens, dropping excess produce at one another’s gates and the new feeding schemes, sharing gardening/foraging tips on WhatsApp groups, donating seeds and seedlings to gardeners in vulnerable areas and going for walks in open spaces. Yoga class is on Zoom.

    • Reply 2summers March 20, 2020 at 8:48 am

      This sounds lovely, Nikki. Thanks for sharing 😊

  • Reply Lani March 20, 2020 at 8:31 am

    The scientific community has alerted folks of the very real and horrible threat to Africa’s nonexistent health care system if the pandemic should hit, but beyond that, I don’t know what the WHO or any governing body has done to prepare for this. I remember reading an article about what was going to happen when Chinese workers returned to Africa? so you’ve confirmed some of the fears.

    In SE Asia, despite the high volume of travelers we receive, is only now getting a rise in cases. Schools were on summer break, but now the school I work for has closed down, complete with the BF’s surgery, as you know, so with all of this and the fear of COVID, it’s shit-storm season. And like you, I’m wondering about future plans to see my family.

    I really do appreciate your update and attempts at being positive and productive. I think if there’s a silver lining in any of this, it will be that the world will no longer operate in the way that it has. Health must be a global priority, businesses will have to think twice about exploiting cheap Chinese labor, and hopefully, more sanitary measures will be put into place surrounding our livelihoods.

    Take good care, Heather. See you out in the world wide web. xo

    • Reply 2summers March 20, 2020 at 8:50 am

      Thanks Lani. Thinking of you guys. How’s the BF doing?

      • Reply Lani March 20, 2020 at 9:21 am

        Better and better, thanks!

  • Reply Louise Whitworth March 20, 2020 at 10:40 am

    Hi my dear, this was a great read!

    I am oscillating between get quite upset and worried and then I will have an amazing idea for something and be really excited about that. I also feel super philosophical these days and quite hippyish, like really really – I am a massive hippy now! Getting out of the now is difficult to imagine but I know we will do it together – I feel united in South Africa

    The idea was today – if parks be closed what about golf courses? Joburg has 2 public courses I think… Huddle and Roosevelt park… Will check in person now for you re James and Ethel. Peace! ✌️

    • Reply 2summers March 20, 2020 at 10:45 am

      Thanks friend. Golf courses are a great idea. I saw someone else post from James and Ethel this morning. My new regular spot is going to be the Westcliff Stairs, as it’s a short jog for me 🙂

  • Reply eremophila March 20, 2020 at 11:53 am

    I can understand you feeling that way Heather.
    But I’m still damned angry at all the misinformation being pushed out and the suffering it’s causing to innocent people. Some farmers markets have been banned yet supermarket can sell. Not right.
    Heard today of two states in your home country that’s now under martial law. More people die from violence and other trauma, including malpractice by medicos, than from this alleged virus.
    But then again, I’ve been predicting something like this for years now. 😉 interesting times.🤔🌻

    • Reply 2summers March 20, 2020 at 11:58 am

      Yeah, there are so many distressing aspects to this story, it’s just terrible terrible terrible. I also find it quite irksome that parks have been closed while restaurants are still allowed to be open. I mean not that I necessarily think all restaurants should close — the impact on small business is already beyond devastating — but surely this is counter-intuitive? Anyway. It’s all horrible.

      • Reply eremophila March 20, 2020 at 12:51 pm

        Yes, many many contradictions, so much nonsense. Here folk are told to stay inside, when we all know that exercising is good for health. At least away from the city, I see plenty of older people out on their regular bike rides😁

  • Reply zanele innocent sidzumo baqwa March 22, 2020 at 10:51 am

    Well written and inclusive article. Thanks, from a Sowetan living in Oslo.I worry and am concerned by those in the townships, informal settlements and rural areas, whom poverty have deprived of choices. I am now in self imposed isolation, day 9 of the required 14. Age and cardiac op. The young tenants who have moved into our share housing cooperative, do the shopping for me. We observe the social distancing but still feel our togetherness in these times. Before this, I just knew a few and greeted still fewer. But now, ubuntu fills the sunfilled atmosphere. Sunshine for the last whole week! I mean, this is the best. Otherwise the greedy ones who almost emptied the stores of essential goods and had escaped to their cabins, thereby congesting the health facilities in those communities have been rapped on their knuckles. The people trust their healthcare authorities.

    • Reply 2summers March 22, 2020 at 10:56 am

      Thanks so much for the update from Oslo, Zanele! Perhaps you have similar mixed feelings as I do: Happy to be where you are but also concerned and anxious about the situation back home. I’m glad your needs are being taken care of 🙂

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