In the middle of 2020, I started seeing social media posts about the fence outside St. James Presbyterian Church in Bedford Gardens. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the staff at St. James were tying one white ribbon to the church’s palisade fence for every person in South Africa who died of covid-19.

I thought many times of going to see the fence. But my motivation was at an all-time low last winter. Then South Africa’s first wave waned and I thought I’d missed the right moment to write about the St. James memorial. Subconsciously I thought South Africa’s covid-19 story was over — or at least drawing to a close.

Oh, how wrong I was. I finally went to see the fence this morning and it’s clear covid-19 is far from finished with us.

The fence in front of St. James Presbyterian Church
The fence in front of St. James Presbyterian Church. The front section of the fence, spanning an entire block, has long been filled with ribbons.
In memory of those who died from covid-19
Entrance to St. James Church
Ribbons stretching down the side of the church
The ribbons stretch around the corner and all the way down to the end of this large church property.

Every morning since the pandemic began, I’ve checked South Africa’s covid-19 numbers on the Whatsapp feed for the National Department of Health Coronavirus web site. The daily number of deaths stayed low for months — single digits for a bit, then double digits for a long time, then finally climbing to triple digits. At the height of the first wave in July, there were a few hundred covid deaths a day in South Africa.

Earlier this week, on January 19th, South Africa recorded its highest one-day total of covid-19 deaths: 839. The government did say this especially high number was partially due to “data reconciliation”. But there is no question we’re losing a staggering number of people to this virus. I think most South Africans know at least one person who has been hospitalized or died due to covid-19. Government minister and respected anti-apartheid activist Jackson Mthembu died of covid-19 complications yesterday. He was only 62.

Yesterday, January 21st, South Africa reported 11,381 new covid-19 cases and 647 deaths. In total, South Africa has reported nearly 1.4 million cases, nearly 40,000 deaths, and nearly 1.2 million full recoveries.

We’re bombarded by covid-19 statistics like these on a daily basis, and there’s no end in sight. I think many of us have become desensitized — at least I have. Unless I hear about a friend getting infected with covid, or someone’s relative dying of covid, or I find out I may have been exposed myself, my daily perusal of the numbers is just that: a list of quasi-meaningless digits.

But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to feel desensitized while looking at the ribbons stretching around St. James Presbyterian Church. That’s the whole point. As I stood in front of that fence this morning, watching and listening to tens of thousands of ribbons flapping in the breeze, I couldn’t avoid thinking about all of the actual human beings who have died during this pandemic.

White ribbons near the entrance to St. James Church
White ribbons near the entrance to St. James Church
White ribbons near the entrance to St. James Church

My friend Gail and I arrived at the church early, before it opened. We took a few pictures, went for breakfast, and then went back about an hour later to meet Leonard Makuya, the church caretaker, who ties up a new batch of ribbons every morning.

Since the outer perimeter is full, Leonard is now working on a section of fence that stands inside the church property.

Leonard Makuya tying ribbons to the fence at St. James Church
Leonard works on today’s batch of ribbons.

At the beginning of January, Leonard began tying up blue ribbons instead of white. The reason for this change is not a nice one:

South Africa’s covid-19 death numbers have soared in recent weeks, and the St. James staff realized they would run out of space imminently if they kept hanging one ribbon for each person who dies. So now, each blue ribbon represents ten covid-19 deaths instead of one.

Today Leonard hung 64 blue ribbons.

Blue ribbons at St. James Church
Pretty ribbons for an ugly disease.

“I just pray I don’t become part of these ribbons,” said Leonard. Gail and I nodded in agreement. We bade Leonard goodbye and left him to his work.

St. James Presbyterian Church is at 3 Oxford Road, Bedford Gardens.

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