Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 25 March 2020

Covid-19 and me: It’s like we’re made for each other

I have shut myself off from the world, in a small village by the sea. I see no one, I speak to no one. And I try to go nowhere. Even when I do go out, to the shops, I have become a monster.

I thoroughly enjoyed Marianne Thamm’s essay, Ramblings: The Stick. It made for good reading during a time of death and dying. It is a reminder that we are, after all, human, and take pleasure in what may seem, to others, to be the most anodyne of activities. Like Marianne, I too am not a beach person, and prefer the solitude of the woods and the whispers of the trees. In fact, I seem to have taken Søren Kierkegaard too seriously, when he said:

Like a solitary fir tree egoistically separate I stand, casting no shadow, with only the wood dove building its nest in my branches.

As we hunker down and settle into our nests, we have more time to think about the things that matter to us. I do, too. I think about lost time, of redamancy, and of abandonment – I can’t hide from my own misery – but mostly I am afraid. The coronavirus is the only story that matters today. It is what we hide from, and it is what we fear. I know I do. Although I am not paranoid, nor superstitious, and, for that matter, have yet to be convinced that I have a soul. And yes, I think too often that too much thinking is agonising, and causes pain that is never enough.

So, from the beauty of Marianne’s thoughts… I have always known how I will die. It will be in a pleuritic mess brought on by pneumonia. It will be, when you open my chest, a gurgling gumbo of pus and blood. I have lived with that since childhood.

My mother used to tell the story better than I ever could. When I was three months old, she always said, I had five serious illnesses at once, double pneumonia, meningitis, pertussis and some other diseases that escape me now, but I always remember those three. It was a bitterly cold day when I was born, smack in the middle of the year, in the cold heart of winter. By the spring, in September, the doctor closed his portmanteau for the last time.

“There is nothing more I can do for him. All that is left, is to pray,” he told my parents.

For the rest of my life, thereafter, I have lived with the havoc that those diseases caused in my chest. Throughout my childhood, and into my teens, I had bronchitis, or an upper-respiratory infection, as regularly as everyone had the flu. 2017 was a bad year. The doctors declared that I was “physically and mentally” burnt out and the therapists explained PTSD to me. I was hospitalised. I think I nearly died. The recovery took nine months. Nine months of unemployment and a lot of isolation. If you sneezed near me, I would walk away. If you coughed, I would walk away. If you breathed heavily on me, I would turn my face. I rarely tell these stories. Right now I am afraid.

It’s alright to be afraid, the person in beads, a turban and a kaftan may say. “Embrace your fear.” I can’t. A day after Marianne’s piece appeared in Daily Maverick, Christi Nortier explained that the chronically ill are most vulnerable to Covid-19. Yes, I am most vulnerable. There are times, like now, that I believe, that I know for sure, I will not make it through the virus.

So I have shut myself off from the world, in a small village by the sea. I see no one, I speak to no one. And I try to go nowhere. Even when I do go out, to the shops, I have become a monster.

Where the road out of my village meets the highway, I always used to collect two or three women, domestic workers, who hitch a ride to their village 10km away, and we have a jolly laugh. I drive past them now.

Every other day, a man, or two different men, come to my front door and ask for food, or money. Sometimes I gave food. I can’t always afford money – this struggling writer thing is not the best of times, it is the cause of my sense of abandonment – but when I do I buy electricity for their homes, or pay for their children’s transport to school. Sometimes I give cash.

These days, I keep my curtains shut, and speak to them through patio windows. I turn them away. Yesterday, one regular, who is almost always drunk, walked back to the road, turned back and looked at me, standing behind my windows, and shook his head. He couldn’t understand why I had turned him away and wouldn’t open the doors to speak to him. I don’t have a helper at home, I can’t afford one. Once, though, when I had a good month, I called someone to help me clean.

When she left I gave her R500 and an old microwave oven. I carried it into her ramshackle home in an informal settlement, and plugged it in. She asked me to show her how to use it. I would like to call her, and find out how she is coping, with a microwave oven, for goodness sake, and to ask how her three-year-old daughter is doing. But I don’t. Because I know that I will offer her money – and I don’t have money. My gig work has dried up. I rely now only on the columns that I write. It’s enough to pay my medical aid, car insurance, and other basic stuff. The young students I have helped since I left Nelson Mandela University in October 2017 can no longer rely on help from me.

This coronavirus has changed my life. It’s an old phrase, but fear and loathing sounds about right. I am scared the virus will come to me, and I loathe what I have become. Selfish. I speak to beggars from behind closed doors and turn them away. I leave women stranded by the side of the road.

It’s strange, though, this fear. After having the lobectomy in my teens, I have never looked back, well, not really. I have done things, risky things – they call it adrenaline sports – in almost every corner of the world. (Except Australia and Japan.) I have sat on rooftops, on several occasions, in Iceland, in freezing cold, sometimes, watching the sun’s particles attack the earth’s magnetic shield and crash into atoms and molecules in our atmosphere, then give off spectacular displays of light in the night sky. I have dived into caves in Mexico (when I told her I couldn’t swim, she paid for swimming and diving lessons), and I have been tangled in tree branches in Borneo… This chest never kept me away from anything.  Until now. I am dead afraid.

All the roads I have travelled, and the mountains I have climbed. Angel Falls is magnificent. The Pantanal does not need humans. The Danakil Depression makes you feel insignificant. It is magical watching the Tonlé Sap change direction. Lake Louise is probably the most beautiful place in the world. All of that has brought me here, to fear. This virus reminds me of how little time we have on this Earth. I will probably come out on the other side of this virus, but for now, I live in fear and loathing. Perhaps, like Marianne, I need a stick to talk to. DM

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