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
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:

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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