I watched incredulous as people in Ireland scrambled for toilet paper and canned food

Days later I did the same in South Africa – where, thankfully, Covid has been less deadly than feared

Sean Campbell: a strong support network ensured I didn’t go hungry or become homeless, as many did, but my already modest income was shot to pieces

Sean Campbell: a strong support network ensured I didn’t go hungry or become homeless, as many did, but my already modest income was shot to pieces

 

Sean Campbell, originally from Co Tyrone, lives in Cape Town. South Africa has been battling a more contagious variant of coronavirus that has now been detected in Europe, Asia and the Americas, including Ireland. On January 26th, the Irish Government announced additional travel restrictions, including mandatory quarantine for all passengers arriving from South Africa and 32 other countries

A year ago I messaged a friend in my old home of Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam, to hear his thoughts on a “mysterious pneumonia” outbreak across the Chinese border. His reply was foreboding. He knew as little as anyone, but Vietnam was taking it seriously. They’d just banned all flights from China and were on the cusp of shutting their borders completely. I offered a few worried platitudes – “stay safe and good luck” – and went about my Friday in downtown Cape Town as normal, visiting a humid indoor gym, a bustling cafe and then a heaving pub.

Tucked away here at the very base of Africa, more than 12,000km from Wuhan, I didn’t register that the danger was only a day’s travel away.

South Africa’s struggling economy had just been downgraded to junk status. It seemed that if Covid didn’t do enough damage, poverty might finish the job

Fast-forward to March and South Africa felt on the brink of war. We saw China, Italy, France and Spain on the news every night and wondered when our turn would come. I watched incredulous as newsreels from home in Ireland showed people scrambling for toilet paper and canned food. Alas, it was only about a week later that I made my own dash for loo roll and hand soap.

When the country’s first case was detected, on March 5th, 2020, a lockdown became imminent. Almost everyone I spoke to was in favour, too, happy to give up a few weeks of social freedom for the protection of a population with poor overall health. South Africa is still a mix of developed and developing country, with health outcomes that reflect the latter. HIV-Aids affects about 20 per cent of people; the country’s biggest killer is tuberculosis. These diseases tend to be commoner in more crowded, underdeveloped townships, which still abound three decades after apartheid.

To make matters worse, the struggling economy had just been downgraded to junk status. It seemed that if Covid didn’t do enough damage, poverty might finish the job. Who knows? It still might.

It was no surprise when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a five-week national lockdown. What did cause surprise was its severity: no one was allowed outside except to get groceries or medical treatment. Very few goods and industries were deemed essential; the rest were banned. To the horror of a population confined to their homes, even delivery meals, and alcohol and tobacco sales, were culled, and calls of government corruption arose as the black markets did a roaring trade. You could buy alcohol and tobacco again in August, but the queues were long.

I’d a roof over my head, food in my belly and a bed to sleep in. Too many here can’t even say that. I could still work, albeit in bad circumstances, and thankfully there’s barely an inch of Cape Town without a view of Table Mountain or the Atlantic

For me, a freelance copywriter, it was tough. A strong support network ensured I didn’t go hungry or become homeless, as many did, but my already modest income was shot to pieces. For three weeks straight I worked 18-hour days at massively reduced rates just to cover the rent.

Still, I considered myself very lucky despite the stress, anxiety and at times, depression. I’d a roof over my head, food in my belly and a bed to sleep in. Too many here can’t even say that. I could still work, albeit in bad circumstances, and thankfully there’s barely an inch of Cape Town without a view of Table Mountain or the Atlantic Ocean.

As winter faded and the quare stretch in the evenings got longer, the first wave reduced to a steady trickle. Way fewer people had died than originally feared, and there was a collective sigh of relief. In fact, southern Africa’s puzzlingly low death rate was discussed at length by international media.

People tentatively dipped their toes into public life again, then plunged in head-first. By October, bars and restaurants were back in business. By and large, people approached this opening up with some common sense. There weren’t many complaints about masks and sanitisers here, thankfully. No one likes wearing them, but it’s a small price to pay.

Then, in December, the inevitable second wave reared its head, and, just a few days after Christmas, lockdown came calling again. It’s not as strict as the first, not even close, although beaches have been closed, booze is back off the agenda and there’s a 9pm curfew.

When one minister, Bhekhi Cele, declared that we must all be in bed by 9pm on New Year’s Eve, everyone gave a chuckle and shake of the head. Nobody listened, but most did stay home

There have even been a few wry laughs amid the darkness: When police minister Bhekhi Cele declared with absolute conviction that we must all be in bed by 9pm on New Year’s Eve, everyone gave a collective chuckle and shake of the head. Nobody listened, but most did stay home.

On the whole, despite some arbitrary rules and significant economic damage, I do think South Africa is making a decent fist of things. There have been about 44,000 Covid deaths so far, roughly half the total of the UK, which has a similar population but much better healthcare and less poverty. It is little to boast about, but it could have been much, much worse.

I do look at my old home of Vietnam with envy, with their total death toll of only 35 and a society returned to qualified normality (minus inbound travel). But I suppose it does us no good to dwell on what could or should have been; we need to focus only on what is and what might be. While a long-overdue trip home is off the table for another while, my family and friends are in rude health, and for that I’m incredibly thankful.

As for me, I’ve still a roof over my head, I’m still scraping the rent together, and I still have that view of Table Mountain. In times like these you’ve got to focus on life’s little beauties if you can.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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