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COVID-19 seemed so far away – until it wasn’t

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It’s Sunday, 14 June, just more than 11 weeks after South Africa has gone into full lockdown, and so far, no one I know has COVID-19. My husband was working from home, my three little girls are going completely out of their minds. We all feel trapped and bored, getting on each other’s nerves.

We’re bitter about missed holidays, netball tournaments, birthday parties, spending time with family from overseas. We missed a family wedding that after months of planning, was reduced to 20 people. We miss our friends, our activities, restaurants: normal life.

Besides being bitter, I’m full of fear and anxiety. I’m worried about my children’s education. I have a clear picture in my head of their rotting brains from hours of TV and internet, lack of socialisation, stimulation, and organisation.

I’m neither teacher nor therapist. I’m not their school chum who can play all day. I can’t relieve their loneliness. I can’t manage their meltdowns.

My four-year-old doesn’t want to do her lessons on the computer, and I haven’t the time or the energy to force her. Never have I felt like a worse mother.

Then there is the fear for my father, who is diabetic, and for my in-laws, who are also in their 60s. One of the biggest sources of fear is going to work.

You see, I work for the Chevrah Kadisha in the programming department (the department responsible for all the activities across the group) at Our Parents Home (OPH) as well as the Sunshine Circle (the dementia facility at OPH). I have come to love the residents with all my heart, like my very own bobbas and zaidas.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, these people became the number-one enemy of this disease, and here I am, going in every day, trying to make their lives better, but unavoidably putting their lives at risk.

The inherent challenges of an ageing facility are real and compounded when you work in a dementia facility, where distancing and mask wearing is hard to enforce with residents in spite of the staff being vigilant in wearing PPE (personal protection equipment) and taking all necessary precautions.

The Chevrah Kadisha has been extremely proactive, instituting an organisation-wide lockdown on 13 March prior to the president’s first address to the country. The home has very strict policies on access control, sanitisation, distancing, masks, and shields.

Instead of playing bingo, quizzes, karaoke, organising outings and entertainment, I brought a tuck-shop trolley to the residents to buy various items, with daily activities that the programming team put together. I went from room to room, careful not to go close, sanitising constantly. Just wanting to make sure they had some relief from the depressing loneliness of being confined to their rooms even though video calls with family were organised for them.

In spite of all of this, the virus still seemed far away from me.

Back to Sunday, 14 June. My nose was a bit runny, body a bit achy. I get flu pretty often, so I didn’t feel like it was anything different. Unfortunately, that night, the symptoms got worse, shivering and shaking, pounding head, and extremely cold feet.

So the next day, I went for a test, thinking it was probably just flu and I was probably overreacting. Less than 24 hours later, I got my positive result.

I was in shock, I felt like a leper. “Where did I go wrong? I tried to be careful!” Of course, I hadn’t been perfect, but I tried the best I could! What about my father? My heart sank. What if I gave it to someone, what if someone died because of me?

The next week was a blur. I felt really sick for three days, and slept the rest. My husband was holding the fort with no help. I tried to isolate from him and the children, but it was impossible.

My husband took them all for a COVID-19 test, and they all tested positive. So it was official – we were a COVID family. And we faced another two weeks of isolation. Now that I was out of my sickly haze, two weeks stuck at home seemed like torture! But the truth was – it wasn’t.

There was so much support and love from friends and family, making meals and doing shopping, from Dr Daniel Israel and Hatzolah monitoring our health, to the people I work with at the Chevrah Kadisha, their concern for me, and their swift action in protecting staff and residents as best they could, knowing I was positive.

We learned to pull together as a family, and I feel so much closer to them because of it. We learned to make do, to enjoy each other’s company, puzzles, books, games, art, drinking tea in the sun and chatting, watching the kids play in the garden. I was actually a bit sad when the isolation ended.

During our isolation, COVID-19 began spreading like wildfire through the Jewish community. My father tested negative, baruch Hashem! A few of my colleagues from OPH had contracted the virus at the same time as me.

I was grateful that we all made sure to wear full PPE when around the residents. There is no way of knowing who gave it to whom, and I stopped playing the blame game.

Unlike many, we survived. This, we learned from this experience, is the most important thing! We got off lightly. However, the fear and worry for our loved ones continues, and we pray for an end to this insane pandemic.

  • Elinor Sassoon is a programme and activity coordinator at Our Parents Home and Sunshine Circle. She is also a wife and mother of three.

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