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Covid-19

Despair, anger, loss and laughter: how two years of Covid-19 affected SA

On Friday it will be two years since SA recorded its first positive laboratory test for Covid-19. Sunday Times reporters who have covered the good, bad, ugly and funny aspects of the pandemic asked some of their sources to reflect on its legacy

27 February 2022 - 00:00 By TANYA FARBER, AMANDA KHOZA, CLAIRE KEETON and PAUL ASH
Masks: we've been wearing them — and washing them — for two years.
Masks: we've been wearing them — and washing them — for two years.
Image: 123rf/kellyermis

THE GOOD

The best moment of the pandemic was getting the J&J vaccines for SA’s health-care workers, said South African Medical Research Council president Glenda Gray.

These were the country’s first vaccinations and started being administered on February  17 2021.

“The biggest highlight was being able to commandeer those half-a-million doses of Ad26 (J&J) and deliver Sisonke, followed by Sisonke 2,” said Gray.

Glenda Gray and Linda-Gail Bekker deliver the first dose of vaccine in February 2021.
Glenda Gray and Linda-Gail Bekker deliver the first dose of vaccine in February 2021.
Image: Supplied

She and co-principal investigator of Sisonke Linda-Gail Bekker launched an implementation study of the vaccine at a time when doses were in short supply globally,  and did a follow-up trial with booster shots.

“The biggest breakthrough was that all the vaccines more or less worked ... showing efficacy against severe disease and death,” said Gray. “The breakthrough was having a tool that you could use to start to control this damn pandemic.”

The “decoupling of Covid cases from death” with the Omicron wave was also amazing, she said, particularly because there had been fears that its many mutations could cause problems.

“When Omicron came along, we were terrified because it had so many amino acid changes and this looked like a horrible mutant,” she said. “Seeing the decoupling of cases from death and hospitalisation was so amazing.”​ — Claire Keeton

THE BAD

Vaccinologist and Wits University dean of health Shabir Madhi said the lowest point was “unquestionably the bungling on the part of the national department of health in being proactive in vaccine procurement”.

He said it carried on “until we were at the back of the queue”.

Another low point was the government's “ill-informed decision” to halt the planned rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine because it didn’t protect against mild disease due to the Beta variant.

Professor Shabir Madhi has been a prominent critic of the way Covid-19 has been managed in SA.
Professor Shabir Madhi has been a prominent critic of the way Covid-19 has been managed in SA.
Image: Veli Nhlapo

“This went against the recommendation of the World Health Organisation, which stated that the vaccine could still possibly protect against severe disease,” he said.

This was subsequently proven to be the case but by then the stock had been sold. Madhi said: “This poor decision is estimated to have cost 15,000 to 20,000 lives in the country.”

Covid-19 is estimated to have killed about 300,000 people and destroyed a great many more livelihoods. SA and the region were also punished for good science when Tulio de Oliveira and his team discovered the Omicron variant, which led to widespread travel bans for SA. — Tanya Farber

THE UGLY

Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group’s Mervyn Abrahams said South Africans were hit hard by soaring food prices.

“It was disastrous for poor and low-income households. The bad hunger situation got even worse.”

The average cost of a household food basket in March 2020 was R3,221, said Abrahams. In January 2021 it was R4,051 and in January this year, R4,440. 

Because there were no informal traders during the lockdown, everybody had to go to retail stores, he said — and children who relied on school feeding schemes often went hungry. 

“The greatest impact of Covid-19 was not a medical issue, it was an economic issue,” he said.

Social distancing was difficult in SA's estimated 2,700 informal settlements.
Social distancing was difficult in SA's estimated 2,700 informal settlements.
Image: Werner Hills

Abahlali baseMjondolo leader Sbu Zikode said the pandemic had a devastating impact on shack dwellers in more than 2,700 informal settlements who were “hustling to put a plate of food on the table for their families”.

“The regulations made a laughing stock of the poor. You ask people to wash their hands regularly when you have not provided them with water. You talk about social distance, but what do you mean when people are squashed in a shack?”

He said it felt like “the government was foreign to its people and did not know their  challenges”. — Amanda Khoza

THE FUNNY 

It was 2am in the emergency room and Dr Suhayl Essa was battling to insert a drip into a patient when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to find one of the psychiatric patients who had been admitted to the ward due to a lack of beds.

“Don’t worry, doc,” the man said. “I’ll do it.”

Dr Suhayl Essa turned his frontline experiences into a Covid comedy show.
Dr Suhayl Essa turned his frontline experiences into a Covid comedy show.
Image: quicket.co.za

Essa remembered that as one of the lighter moments he experienced during two years on the Covid frontline.

“I was feeling defeated at that moment,” he said, but that simple act made everything better. “I told him ‘You can hold the patient’s hand’," said Essa. “And he did.”

Essa, who likes to joke that his Indian parents wanted him to follow a career in stand-up comedy instead of medicine, said humour helped him get through some of the darkest days of the pandemic.

The result is a one-man show, Beginning Again, that Essa has performed across the country, from Zeerust to Polokwane to Newcastle.

It’s his personal story, but the nature of the all-consuming pandemic means everyone can relate to it.

“I’ve had people who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 come to me afterwards and say my perspective helped them,” he said. “That really lifted a burden off my shoulders.”- Paul Ash

TO READ A HIGH-RESOLUTION VERSION OF THE BELOW GRAPHIC, CLICK HERE

Key milestones in SA's battle with Covid-19.
Key milestones in SA's battle with Covid-19.
Image: Nolo Moima

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