In late March, South Africa started one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. President Cyril Ramaphosa told his people it would last 21 days, and they were only allowed to leave home if they needed healthcare, groceries, petrol or medicine. Dog walks and exercise outside the home are not allowed. The sale of alcohol and cigarettes is also banned.
As a developing nation, the country faces a number of unique challenges. Many of the wealthy live in spacious homes with large, walled-in gardens, while millions of underprivileged South Africans live in cramped, informal settlements without proper sanitation.
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American blogger and photographer Heather Mason, who moved to Johannesburg in 2010, lives with her two cats in a middle-class suburb. Here, Heather shares her diary of what it’s like living alone during this time.
Day one of lockdown (Friday, March 27)
Today feels scary. After much anticipation, lockdown finally started and now I feel… helpless. Everything is out of my control. South Africa has 1,170 confirmed cases of Covid-19. We also had our first death.
At 6.30am, I read the news/social media. Worry about the safety of disadvantaged South Africans. Make coffee. Sit outside with the cats. Look at the sky.
It’s rubbish collection day, so I drag the bins outside, and stand there longer than necessary. The street is empty. I see Donald the security guard at the far end of the block. Wave and yell good morning. A few buses and taxis speed past on the main road.
At 8am, I meditate, stretch, look at phone. I have breakfast. Make phone calls with friends. There is both so much and so little to talk about. It’s 11am, and I am still wearing pyjamas. I sit at the computer and think about working.
At noon the power goes out. I swear to myself. Power outages are common in South Africa, although we’ve been promised there won’t be any during lockdown. When the power goes out, my phone signal drops, which means I’m cut off from the outside world. I’m usually able to handle this by leaving the house. But not today.
I get dressed. Walk outside, stare around in desperation. Look at the little sandstone hill next to my house. Suddenly, a revelation: I climb up. There’s phone signal up here! I can see the street! I’m euphoric. I sit on the rock and virtually commiserate with my friends while petting Trixie (my cat). I watch a few people walk by.
At around 1pm, I climb down, go inside and eat a cheese sandwich (not toasted). I try not to panic and return to the hill (my new happy place). Watch street. Look at phone. At 2.30pm, the power returns (hallelujah). I climb down. Work, read the news, worry, and write in diary.
After dinner, I FaceTime with Dad in America. Say I love you, which feels more important than before. After a Zoom happy hour with friends, I write. I try to control my racing thoughts. Just 20 days to go.
South Africa now has 1,187 confirmed cases of Covid-19. I feel calmer today. I like being alone. I could almost enjoy this if I wasn’t so worried about what’s happening outside my little sanctuary. I feel guilty about being comfortable when so many others don’t have that luxury. I’m more busy than I was before lockdown. It’s hard to keep track of all my virtual appointments.
I’m hyper aware of how much food I have, so I’m eating more intentionally than before. I keep a mental note of everything I’ve eaten, trying to balance between making things last and using up everything before it goes off. Maybe I’ll lose weight!
At 7am, I get a WhatsApp message from Xolani (my boxing trainer). “Morning Heather,” he says, which is code for, “Are you exercising yet?” Get up, begrudgingly. Make coffee. Don workout attire.
Xolani messages, asking if I have two five-litre water bottles. I do. He sends a video demonstration of six vigorous exercises to be performed with the water bottles. I run 20 laps around my house. Skip 1,250 times with skipping rope. Perform water bottle exercises. Cats, confused by my behaviour, scamper about.
Afterwards, I triumphantly message Xolani: “I’m done!” Reward myself with coffee and biscuit. By 11am, I’m at my computer. Work. Lunch. Lay on the couch and knit. FaceTime with Mom. By 5pm, I’m writing the diary. Make dinner then Zoom with an old friend. It’s a wild Saturday night.
I wake up with back pain at 3am. Might have strained it while climbing my hill on day one. If anything bars me from exercise during this lockdown, I may truly lose my mind. Can’t sleep.
At 7.30am I get up, make coffee, eat breakfast, take ibuprofen for sore back. Read news, feel depressed. Walk around garden with cats. Feel better. At 9am, I meditate, stretch, bath, wash hair. Stare at ceiling. Brunch-time Zoom with friends.
At 1pm, I hear the garbage truck. Excitement! I rush to open the gate and wave to thank them for their loyal service. One worker sees me and walks toward me. I realise he’s hoping for a tip, and I don’t have one, nor do I want to walk close to another human. I wave again, back away, say thanks, close gate. Feel guilty. At 1.30pm, I eat salad. Work. Read the news. Cry. Diarise. Eat again.
By 7pm, my back feels better.
Today was harder than yesterday. I am afraid for my city. The stories and pictures coming out of downtown Jo’burg and other densely populated areas are heartbreaking, with police treating people very roughly. It’s hard not to be consumed by fear and grief.
As of today, there have been 1,326 Covid-19 cases and three deaths in South Africa. I’ve been reading about the dire situation in the United States, especially in New York. I’m so afraid for my home country and all of my family and friends there.
I try not to think about the fact that if something happens to one of my parents, I won’t be able to fly across the world to be with them. There’s no point worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. But it’s hard.
Xolani messages me at 5.55am asking if I am up. At 6.08am, I get a video call from Xolani. This man takes his job seriously. I don’t answer. 6.09am: message from Xolani: “How many skips are you doing today?”
Okay, okay. I get up. Make coffee, get dressed. At 6.55am, I run 20 laps around the house. 1500 skips, counted out in sets of 500. Complete Xolani’s water-bottle workout. Triumphant.
At 8.30am, I have another coffee, breakfast, bath. Skype therapy session (highly recommended for lockdown sanity). Work all day. At 6pm I eat macaroni and cheese. (Don’t worry, I added vegetables.) Diarise. Today was a pretty average day for a lockdown.
My muscles are sore from all the skip-roping.
I’ve been trying to save my sourdough bread, bought from the local baker before lockdown, for as long as possible. Today, I noticed there was mould on the outside and instead of throwing it away, as I would have before, I just cut the mouldy crust off. These are like medieval times.
“Clean bathtub and toilet” has been on my to-do list for the past three days. How many more days before I actually cross that one off?
Some of my blog readers are concerned I’m getting too wrapped up in the “negative” stories — like the scope of Covid-19 in America, or the harsh treatment of disadvantaged people by the South African police — and should focus on positive things. But we all have different ways of coping.
My morning routine is pretty much the same. I wake up. Read news. Meditate, stretch. Make coffee. Get dressed. Messages with Xolani. 20 laps around the house. 1750 skips. At 9am, I eat breakfast, listen to podcasts, have a bath. Procrastinate. By 10am, I do some work, chat with friends, eat lunch, do laundry, read news. Diarise. At 7pm, I eat dinner. Read a few pages of a book.
My diary entries seem to be growing shorter. I guess I’m developing a lockdown rhythm.
Happy April Fool’s Day! I wish this whole year were an April Fool’s joke. I’ve stopped reporting the daily South African Covid-19 case stats for now. The numbers have been holding steady for several days, and while I hope that continues, I fear it has more to do with access to testing than the spread of the virus itself. We’ll see.
At 6.20am, I get a video call from Xolani. Don’t answer. At 6.40am I get up, promise Xolani I’m getting dressed. Feed cats, make coffee. At 7am, I run 22 laps around house. Get leg cramp after 600 skips. Perform water-bottle exercises set by Xolani. I eat breakfast, bath, podcasts, procrastinate. Work at computer.
At 11am, I decide to walk to Spar (my local grocery store). Create carefully curated grocery list. Put on jeans for the first time in six days. It’s almost like a I’m going on a date! Pack money, grocery bag, sterile gloves, mask.
I open the gate. Step tentatively outside. Walk half a block to the main road. It’s pretty much a normal day out here. Cars, taxis (although not as many), pedestrians (although not as many). I crest the hill to the Spar parking lot. Surprised to see it’s nearly full.
Spar is crowded. Many people are shopping with month-end social grant money, and I’m happy the store is fully stocked, but disappointed there aren’t better crowd controls in place. I chat with Nelisiwe, one of the cashiers, who looks different behind her mask. I walk home, unload groceries, wash hands repeatedly.
I actually couldn’t wait to get back inside. I feel like I’m developing an OCD-like obsession with my comfortable, always-home routine. Self-isolation is almost too easy. How hard is it going to be for me to leave the house and do things like a normal person again after this is over?
At noon, I do some work. Talk to friends. Blog. Argue with people on Facebook about proper grocery store crowd control protocols. Dinner and diary at 7pm.
Tomorrow it will be one week since the South African lockdown began. For me, it already feels like the new normal – I feel productive (albeit scared) and I’m enjoying my own company. But I still haven’t cleaned the toilet.
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