Until quite recently, many of us still hoped that our lives would soon revert to how they were before Covid-19, when we lived life spontaneously, in the present and enjoying memorable times with precious friends and family. Sadly, this is not what has transpired. Instead, we continue to be challenged by new and evolving uncertainties in our relationships, at work, and at home.
As a therapist, it has been fascinating to listen to the humble views of both experts and people who live on the streets. In the words of Michael Rosen; author, poet, and survivor of near death due to Covid–19; ‘…What we always have is now. The moment before the next moment. It’s only the next moment we’re not sure about.’
Some of my story
Two years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic hard lockdown in South Africa, my partner, Neville, and I tentatively and excitedly left our sanitised bubble in beautiful Langebaan. We have been vaccinated and double boosted and felt relatively safe from serious illness, hospitalisation, and death. We both felt particularly strong and healthy. So once again we relocated, to our apartment in Cape Town. We could now visit most of our children and grandchildren, who had all grown so big in this time of intermittent visits and no hugs. The virtual messages sent between us lacked the energy of their warm laughter and sharing.
Courageous client stories
My wonderful colleagues from my practice in Sea Point welcomed me back to work for some hours a week. Until then, I had not worked face-to-face, only online. I had been anticipating a space where I could see my clients; offer and share coffee, chai tea with honey or filtered water whilst we unpacked their work and home relationships, and their existential crises regarding their hopes and fears for the future. I brought my spare Mini Nespresso machine, a box of Rooibos Chai Tea and an extra folding table from Langebaan and put these into what was my old office; now bare from any furniture, bar a plastic chair, a kettle, and a pile of books above the unused fireplace. I longed to be able to sit opposite my clients, in full view of each other’s verbal and non-verbal cues. During our time apart we talked about the pros and cons of online therapy. On the upside they didn’t need to find parking and since we were often at our respective homes, we could save time and dress comfortably. By now it seems that most of my clients have contracted Covid–19, some before the availability of the vaccines or after being vaccinated and boosted while others were infected with the virus both before and after being vaccinated and boosted. One young professional has had each of the variants of Covid-19, up to and including the latest Omicron variant: twice without any symptoms. Some had mild or no symptoms and some were quite ill for a short or longer period. Others had relatively mild flu-like symptoms that were followed by fatigue, anxiety and/or depression. Clients who felt anxious and depressed following their Covid–19 illness were often unsure whether their symptoms were from underlying existing anxiety and depression or a function of long Covid–19, of which we know so little.
With or without getting ill with Covid 19, there was a sense of isolation and craving for social contact. As at the beginning of this pandemic, there were those clients who preferring not to have the pressure of socialising. Some of these people found, with time, an intense need for some social contact. For myself it was about connecting in person with special people, one-on-one or in very small groups, preferably outside. There were those clients who had lost family members, work colleagues or friends to this virus. These people were very frightened of getting sick, infecting others, and possibly dying themselves, that they remained isolated and anxious. Then there were those who were ‘done’ being careful and threw caution to the wind, going out in large groups. Often some of them and their friends and family became very ill, and it was not necessarily those with co-morbidities. Very few of my clients were anti-vaccination but what became clear was that whichever camp the clients were in, they wanted me to agree with their black and white stances. I agreed when I could honestly do so and avoided committing when I could not, such as with the anti-vaccine stance. I did however urge those who were anti-vaccination to consider the safety of people around them. There were others who were convinced that their recently diagnosed cancer or early pregnancy was a sound reason not to get vaccinated. In those cases, I referred them back to their medical specialists for an opinion, whom they generally trusted. Then very recently I met a client who had two bouts of Covid–19: in December 2020 and in December 2021. She felt less ill with Covid–19 than she did immediately following the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. She had a severe anaphylactic reaction to the vaccine and up until the present is still struggling with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. This is an allergic reaction in her body. Six months later she is still on chronic medication and under the care of an allergy specialist. Interestingly, her medical aid is refusing to pay for her medical care including her very expensive medication despite receiving a letter from her specialist confirming that her condition is as a direct result of the Pfizer vaccine.
Gracious, generous stories and some of greed too
Through these two plus years, I sat in the front row seats observing the courageous frontline workers, the regular and irregular philanthropists and the ordinary people in the street giving to their communities in any way that they could. From doctors, nurses, cleaners, and others in the hospitals, to workers in essential industry, to those wonderful people who help in big and small ways whenever they see a disaster; like Covid–19 in their communities or further abroad. These wonderful people put themselves in the face of danger; be it in close contact with the virus or in war zones, like Ukraine. They have little regard for their own safety and are drawn to help in whichever way they can. For example, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers. I read about him looking to help in disaster areas; with floods, drought, war, Covid–19 and much more. He sends money, goods, and people with expertise to help. I believe that he is an angel and I messaged him to say how impressed I was with the work that he does. I recently heard him speak at an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this remarkable organisation. He is an ordinary human being who goes out and does extraordinary things to help communities in South Africa and overseas. Then I saw the man who came to the soup kitchen where Nev and I were helping to prepare and serve the poor and cold people who are homeless in Cape Town. Nev’s hands generally shake and when he served a plate of food to this man, the latter said something like ‘shame man Oupa, jou hande bewer so’ (your hands shake a lot). He was hungry and cold and was about to eat the first and probably the only meal of that week and he was concerned when he thought Nev looked frail. I am so humbled by the goodness of humanity. I am also hugely angered when the opportunists take advantage of disasters and steal PPE and are corrupt in the granting of tenders to certain businesses; sometimes those belonging to their family members. While some people are beyond gracious and generous, there are others who display such greed. I prefer to focus on the good of humanity, rather than on the bad and the ugly. But sadly, the latter too occupy some space in my head and heart.
Stories from ‘A Working Dinner’ and global humanitarian leaders
Besides the experiences of Covid–19 expressed by clients, friends, colleagues, and family, I also remained in regular contact with my cousin who works for the Gates Foundation and has done so for many years. Through this contact I gained insight into a world view of the pandemic. I also hear what the Gates Foundation is doing in terms of vaccine production and distribution to poor countries in Africa, India, and others. Then when vaccines were freely available, we talked about how best to get protection from this virus with its multiple variants. These conversations offered great insights into how the Gates Foundation handled the pandemic; what they did well and where they can improve in their preparation for the next pandemic. It seems the question is not about if there will be other pandemics in the future, but rather when we shall face them. From a world view, they say that no one is safe until everyone is safe. Therefore, there is no logic to wealthy countries protecting their citizens without making sure that poorer countries are protected too. In a series of three YouTube episodes called ‘A Working Dinner’, Bill Gates, Belinda Gates, Keith Klugman (my cousin), other members of their staff, and those working in poor countries with vaccine inequities, discuss the pandemic. What struck me when listening to this very smart group of people, is how open they are to admitting to their early mistakes and missteps in the handling of Covid–19. They were all impressively humble and authentic and were focused on what they can do better. These informative YouTube videos avoid taking a political stance on the acknowledgement and management of Covid–19.
The unexpected and sentimental story of Cousin Keith’s babotie
In episode three of these YouTube videos, I was touched when it seemed that Keith had cooked the dinner of babotie and a delicious desert. When he was complemented for the meal, he gave credit to his late mom. I grew up in their home in Johannesburg and was very close to my young cousins and aunt (my mom’s sister) and uncle; now 98 years old.
Nontembiso Nquolodo Patu’s story of wisdom, generosity and so much love
At a micro level, I listened to my friend, Nontembiso Nquolodo Patu; aka Sisi Musikanth because we regard Sisi as an integral part of our family. She has, over the past 48 years imparted her wisdom and a healthy dose of guilt-tripping onto all of us, as well as delicious food. So Sisi relocated to her house in Whittlesea; a township in the Eastern Cape. She told anyone who asked that she was going to a family funeral (in hard lockdown) and stayed in her bubble until the vaccines were available. I registered her to receive the first dose of the Pfizer Vaccine once it became available, and since Sisi is, and always has been, a trail blazer in all aspects of her life, she went at the first opportunity to her local hospital/clinic to receive her shot. We talked about her registering her siblings to go with her. She convinced her sisters and brother to go with her to receive the Pfizer vaccine in a most remote part of our country before anyone that I know of got theirs.
The story of sourdough success
When we returned to Cape Town I unpacked and stocked the fridge with food that I had cooked and baked and frozen in Langebaan, from chilli con carne to tuna lasagne to delicious sourdough bread and artisan ciabatta. With its magnificent view of the lagoon, our kitchen in Langebaan had a magical energy that compelled me to express my creativity. While there were many apple crumbles that I made for guests who stayed downstairs at my house, I also used Nev’s daughter’s recipe to make very light and smooth cheesecakes. But it is the sourdough bread that deserves its own story. It started with an old and dear friend of Neville’s, who visited us in Langebaan. He had been very ill and was recovering well. On the advice of his nutritionist daughter, he ate only sourdough bread. I bought a loaf of this bread at the local bakery and then got a bee in my bonnet that I needed to know how to bake sourdough bread, with its delicious taste and its healing health properties. After googling ‘how to’ for making the culture or starter from scratch, I flopped the bread on too many occasions to mention. And almost gave up on this pursuit. It was taking most of three days to feed the culture and prove and bake these breads. I had managed to practice and successfully make dozens of very good artisan ciabatta breads but there was something that prevented me from successfully making the sourdough bread. Then a few months later one of my sons encouraged me to join Instagram when by chance I came across a sourdough kit that included a dehydrated starter called ‘Eve’. It had an old-fashioned Gillette blade on a round disc for scoring or decorating the top of the dough before baking. There was also a proving basket with a lining and two instruments for cutting and dividing the dough as well as a brush for brushing the flour out of the proving basket. I was properly excited and taken by the fact that it came in a gift box. This turned out to be nothing more special nor long lasting than a cardboard box with some writing on it. The exorbitant price of this kit was R850. I didn’t care, I was now, at long last, going to successfully make the best sourdough bread ever. I practiced and practiced and even went on a sourdough experience that was recommended by a chef who had attended with other chefs. I’m very happy to say that after probably 25 loaves of okay, average, and relatively good quality, the bread is now quite delicious and a regular staple in our diets.
A sobering story about knowing nothing about anything
Now being back in Cape Town, I once again booked to see a few clients face-to-face, starting slowly, one afternoon a week. Neville was looking so well and happy in Cape Town that I believed that this was now our permanent abode, with visits to Langebaan as was the case pre the pandemic. I believed that I could now plan my life. Over the past two years words like ‘planning’ and ‘plans’ were not used lightly. This time, however, things were going to be different. In the past I had been very dependent on my reliable ‘gut instinct’ for decision-making and would advise my clients to also feel and acknowledge their ‘gut feel’. It was akin to my religion and never let me down. Why then has my ‘gut feel’ been so ‘off’ over the past two years? Life was getting back to normal for me and for my clients. Some of them were starting to travel locally and overseas to see children and grandchildren. They attended weddings and family celebrations or simply visited dear friends they hadn’t seen for too long. Some of these planned trips happened and some were cancelled due to one or another of the parties getting sick with Covid–19. I went to my granddaughter, Ella’s batmitzvah. It was so special and so precious, with just a few guests who really wanted to be there. She gave a heartfelt speech, that touched all who were there. I ‘knew’ that I wouldn’t get Covid or if I did it would be so mild and over within a few days. In fact, I knew nothing about anything, and my carefully laid plans crumbled in front of my eyes when I became sick with the Corona Virus Omicron variant. I caught it from a cousin who visited from Johannesburg. We spent the day together and went to visit our special and very elderly uncle. Two days later I woke up with a very sore throat. I messaged my cousin to check in that she was okay. She informed me that she was ‘manned down’ with Covid and had been in the hospital the day before with dehydration. Before I knew that my cousin had Covid–19, I drove with a friend to our house in Langebaan with no masks; we were ‘safe’. Since I had woken up with a sore throat the next morning, we drove back to Cape Town with windows open and masks on – just in case. This friend had recently had a heart attack and a few years before had had cancer. Thank goodness neither my uncle, my friend nor Neville became sick. Again, my plans came to nought. I needed to cancel the clients I had booked to see face-to-face. I tried to work online with those who were overseas or in other provinces, but my head was not clear, and I decided that it would be unethical and unprofessional of me to work with what was being termed ‘brain fog’.
The response from my cancelled clients was very supportive. They all wished me a speedy recovery and offered advice that had worked well for them in their recovery. Most of these clients had recently experienced Covid; some for the second time. As far as plans went, I had planned to travel to Langebaan to take apple crumble for my Airbnb guests. I explained my situation to these guests and got an interesting response. The lovely woman of this family had had Covid as had her husband. The latter recovered well whilst the woman, who is a photographer, thought she was well until she started lugging her photographic equipment around to various shoots. Two weeks later she had a relapse when
her cardiac and lung functions were severely compromised. She was recuperating at my home in Langebaan and implored me to do what she had not done; rest and rest and rest some more. She was convinced that had she rested when she became ill, that she would have fully recovered. So, after a week of rest and good medicine; including antibiotics, pain medication for sore chest muscles due to a dry cough, and cortisone liquid to ease my chest discomfort, my racking dry cough felt a little easier as did my throat infection. I thought that was it! How wrong was I? After a few more days my taste and smell disappeared. This, on top of a poor appetite, did not bode well for my sense of wellbeing. Even the successful sourdough bread tasted strange for quite some time as did my daily cappuccino. The sourdough tastes delicious once more but the cappuccino still tastes like bitter water.
From what I have seen and heard from clients, friends, family, and granddaughters, all of whom are on the other side of at least one bout of Covid–19, this virus shines a very bright light on the quality of our relationships. Over the months and years of living with the stress of this pandemic some clients have separated or divorced their partners, and some have resigned from their jobs.
A concerning story of more stress, anxiety, and depression
From speaking to nearest and dearest and to clients, the word that comes to mind is ‘weird’. This virus is weird. It seems to follow no logic whatsoever. Those of us who were previously strong and healthy; albeit with one or another comorbidity, catch this virus. Whilst those, like my vulnerable Neville, with many comorbidities escape the virus; this after having had dinner with his children and grandchildren who all had symptoms of Covid-19 the day after our dinner. We were both unvaccinated at the time and whilst exposed at the most contagious time of the family’s illness (the day before they exhibited symptoms), we did not, as far as we know, get the virus. It is also weird that neither my friend, my elderly uncle nor Nev contracted Covid when I got ill. It is weird too that my sister who is older than me and has cardiac and cancer comorbidities, only knew that she had Covid when she travelled to Abu Dhabi and tested positive. Once again, I recovered and slowly started to work in my colleagues’ rooms a few times a week. It has been wonderful, better than I could have anticipated.
Offering kindness as we write our own story
What should we and others around the world do at this stage? We know that Covid-19 is still very much around, and we are going to learn how to live with it. We know also that there are other variants; some more contagious than those we have thus far experienced. We also know that viruses like Monkey Pox are spreading around the world. With all of these in mind people are challenged by less money, more anxiety and depression. I heard a person on Talk Radio saying that she was sick and tired of hearing about ‘resilience’ and ‘courage’. She was exhausted from trying to be resilient and courageous and did not want to be resilient nor courageous anymore. She wanted a softer and easier life. It felt too hard and too tiring to be strong. What we can do is to live in the present without planning too far into the future. There is nothing wrong with planting seeds of hopes and goals for the future but at the same time knowing that change can happen at very short notice and that we are able to change or adapt these hopes and goals and morph them into something different. We can also let go of feelings of resentment and anger or other negative emotions. It is important to acknowledge them and to decide if they need to be expressed or if we can let go of them without taking further action. As many of us have needed to manage with less money and have seen so much amplified and desperate poverty around, we have cut down on our own unnecessary expenses and donated more of both our time and money to those in desperate need. Also, hearing the caller to the radio station talk about her resilience/courageous exhaustion makes me think that we will benefit from showing kindness towards ourselves at this time and into the future. One of my colleagues talked about making ourselves a cup of tea before and in between giving to others.
Let’s start by taking the word ‘should’ out of our vocabularies and giving ourselves permission to refrain from guilt. It is such a waste of time. Time is so precious, and this does not mean that we need to use all our available time to produce, perform or to do measurable things with our lives; unless we need to and want to produce or perform. We’ll know when that need and/or want is bubbling up. Two of my clients needed to complete high-level degrees in the time of Covid. One a master’s in applied therapy and another, a doctorate that she had been wanting to complete over the past four years. I felt privileged to be part of their academic journey and enjoyed sharing in their ups and downs, and their ultimate courageous triumphs. Others have spent this time home schooling their children, working online and trying to juggle home, work relationships and parenting and now transitioning back to some work in an office and some at home with children back at school, which closes on a regular basis when one or more of the kids are sick with Covid–19.
Stay tuned to this unfolding Covid-19 story ….
Additional pieces of interest
Clients, colleagues, and cousins sent these to me. I found them insightful and informative and wanted to share them with you too.
Lest we forget – Covid-19 and the many different kinds of love it brought us.
Mark Heywood, Daily Maverick, July 2022
Where’s the herd immunity? Our research shows why Covid is still wreaking havoc
Danny Altmann, The Guardian, July 2022
The Working Dinner Episode 1
Gates Foundation, March 24, 2022
The Working Dinner Episode 2
Gates Foundation, April 7, 2022
The Working Dinner Episode 3
Gates Foundation, May 4, 2022