This week — the second week of December — is the busiest week of the year on the South African social calendar. It’s normally the week when people in Joburg wrap up everything at work or school, celebrate at year-end parties and braais (barbecues), then pack their bags and leave town until January.
I was planning to be one of those people. A few weeks ago — when no one knew South Africa’s covid numbers were about to skyrocket again — I planned a multi-stop road trip to the Western Cape with a friend, leaving on 16 December and returning on 4 January. My week leading up to the trip (this week) was packed with activities — light festivals, meals with friends, holiday parties, book launches, and blogging missions. I woke up this past Sunday feeling super excited about the week ahead.
Then I found out I’d been in the same room with someone who tested positive for covid and had to go into quarantine.
In hindsight, I’m surprised it took so long for this to happen to me. I’m also surprised by how unprepared I was, and how quickly a brief encounter during a pandemic can upturn the lives of a whole bunch of unaffiliated people.
How Quarantine Happened
Last Saturday morning, a friend stopped by my house for coffee and brought along her seven-year-old son. They stayed for less than an hour. It was chilly and drizzling so we didn’t sit outside. We sat on opposite sides of the room, and a door was open, but we weren’t wearing masks.
Right after coffee, my friend and her son had covid tests. They had planned to take an international flight on Monday and needed to get tested before.
Around noon on Sunday, my friend messaged to tell me she had tested negative. But her son tested positive.
It took a few minutes for the impact of this news to sink in. My friend had to isolate, cancel her trip, and notify the families of her son’s friends, many of whom he’d played with that week. This really sucked. Then my thoughts turned to myself.
Although my friend’s son had not come very close to me, he had been in my house for a substantial period of time, sat on the couch, touched my things. There was no denying I’d been in contact with a covid-positive person. I was exposed.
Suddenly this word, EXPOSED — which already sounds kind of sinister when you say it inside your head — took on a whole new meaning.
My brain cycled back through all the people I saw and everything I did over the previous 24 hours. Right after my friend and her son left my house, Thorsten — of Dagwood sandwich fame — came over to make paper lanterns for the Brixton Light Festival we had planned to attend the following night. We spent the afternoon together inside my potentially covid-infected house. Thorsten was potentially exposed.
That night I had pizza with three friends from my book club, outdoors at a restaurant, obviously not wearing masks when we ate. Were they all exposed too? What about the sales people at Pick-n-Pay and PNA, where Thorsten and I went shopping for food and lantern supplies? We were masked and sanitized, but…hmm. How does this all work again?
The next morning I went briefly to an outdoor market, wearing a mask. I talked to a few people, bought a pair of earrings, touched the vendor’s card machine. At one point I took my mask off to fiddle with it, as it didn’t fit properly. Was the whole market exposed?
I sprung into action, calling Thorsten, messaging the book club, contacting the earring vendor. “I have people coming for lunch!” said one of my book club friends. “What should I do?” I had no idea.
Plans to attend the Brixton Light Festival were quickly canceled. This was perhaps the saddest cancelation for me, but it was only the first in a long series. Dinner plans, meetings, a book launch I was really looking forward to. Thorsten canceled his company’s year-end braai.
I wasn’t prepared to quarantine at home for ten days. I spent Monday morning scrambling to make online shopping orders. Trixie needed kitty litter but that would have to wait.
I canceled my December road trip. The friend I’d planned to travel with is diabetic and Cape Town is a covid hot spot. It suddenly seemed ridiculous that we had even been considering still going.
And then, the #funnynotfunny part: Three days later after the initial news, my friend’s son retested for covid and he was negative. He never had symptoms. All of his friends and family tested negative. That first test was clearly a false positive.
We all immediately freed ourselves from quarantine. It felt great to mask up and go food-shopping again. But, whoa: This was a reality check. Meanwhile, South Africa’s health minister has officially announced we’re experiencing a second wave. Today there were more than 8000 new positive cases nationwide.
I have an entirely new outlook on the virus after this experience. I let my guard down in recent weeks and I’ve suddenly realized how lucky I am not to have gotten sick — or been indirectly responsible for another person’s illness — until now.
I’m not sure what the point of this story is. After months of lockdown journaling earlier this year, I guess I want to put into words how it felt when lockdown suddenly returned for me. And maybe I just want to remind everyone, myself included, that this stupid pandemic hasn’t gone away.