Covid-19

‘I’ll worry when we get it’ - Business as usual for many amid coronavirus fears

22 March 2020 - 00:00 By GRAEME HOSKEN and Belinda Pheto
The Sunday Times this week visited Diepsloot and other densely populated areas of Johannesburg to find out what residents know about Covid-19 and how to contain its spread.
The Sunday Times this week visited Diepsloot and other densely populated areas of Johannesburg to find out what residents know about Covid-19 and how to contain its spread.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

While the coronavirus is all many South Africans are talking about, some haven’t received the news.

Witness Mpungi, a resident trader in Diepsloot, Johannesburg, was confused when asked about the coronavirus this week.

“What is coronavirus? Is it like HIV or TB?” she asked.

Her confusion was not unusual. Of the 12 people the team spoke to in Diepsloot — one of  the city’s most densely populated areas —seven had never heard of the virus.

The country’s economic hub, Johannesburg, could be a catalyst for the spread of the novel coronavirus. As South Africa prepares for a potential spike in locally transmitted Covid-19 cases, we take a closer look at the most vulnerable areas in the province, which currently has the highest number of confirmed cases in the country. Residents in Diepsloot and Alexandra, both densely populated areas, are concerned about the lack of information they are receiving from the government during this time of fear and uncertainty.

The Sunday Times travelled through some of Johannesburg’s busiest areas this week, including Alexandra, Hillbrow and the Bree Street taxi rank, observing what people were doing to protect themselves.

For many it was business as usual: children played in the streets, traders and taxi drivers did brisk business. In Hillbrow, police officers wore masks,but most people on the streets ignored the government’s plea for “social distancing”. Hugs and handshakes were common.

Diepsloot ’s 400,000 residents — and others living in high-density areas — face an increasing risk of infection as the virus spreads across the country, with Gauteng having recorded the highest number of infections.

Mpungi said she is not scared of Covid-19 because Diepsloot residents have not been infected. “Maybe I will worry when people here start getting sick. I don’t know how people get sick from it. You say you must wash your hands but I don’t have a tap at my shack so how do I stop myself and my children from getting it?” she asked.

Diepsloot student Joseph Mgodi said he’d heard of Covid-19 but knew little about it.

“Maybe it kills people, but I don’t know. This place is really dirty, with lots of rubbish and sewage, but no one has called a community meeting to say how you get sick and how to look after yourself. If water and soap make you safe, when are we getting that?”

Fix Mudimba said he had learnt of the virus two weeks ago. “It is dangerous here in Diepsloot because there is not enough information. We are trying to get information wherever we can.”

Diepsloot mechanic Thabo Ramperiknew about the virus, saying it was “very bad”. He said the “difficulty is government says we must wash our hands, but the problem is that there is no proper running water here. We also don’t have the money to buy facemasks. All I can do is carry on and hope I don’t get sick.”

Alexandra pensioner Molly Mpande said she thought the virus could only be caught through sex. “I am scared because I don’t know what it is or does. Everyone knows what HIV is and you can protect yourself, but not with this virus. It sounds like we are all going to die, and I am scared for my children and grandchildren.”

But resident Vuyani Ndebele knows of it,and said he was starting to panic.“I thought the virus was small, but it’s expanding.

Alex is so overpopulated. If this virus comes here it will explode. Just look at how many people are on the streets, how many houses on the same stand, all the shacks. I can’t keep this two-metre distance from people. My neighbour’s front door is less than a metre from mine.

“We live on top of each other and won’t stand a chance. There must be testing of people on every street like they do with HIV. The government must provide free soap if they want to stop this virus.”

Witness Mpungi of Diepsloot, Johannesburg, was confused when questioned about the coronavirus this week.
Witness Mpungi of Diepsloot, Johannesburg, was confused when questioned about the coronavirus this week.
Image: Supplied.

Sanele Zuma, wearing a mask and rubber gloves, said the virus came from Sandton and OR Tambo International Airport.

“It’s those people who brought it. Now we have to live like this,” he said.

At the Bree Street taxi rank, commuters said they had not been given any sanitisers and were worried about contracting the virus. Taxi marshal Mandla Khoza said he now washes his hands frequently.

At Park Station, commuters also said they were washing their hands more often.

Letlhogonolo Moagi said: “I tried to buy hand sanitisers but there were none at my local shop. I can’t do much with social distancing because I use a train to go to and from work.”

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