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‘We’re all mad here’: Gaze through the looking glass a year after SA’s first COVID case

  • Our journalists have been reporting on COVID-19 (exclusively, almost) for a year. A lot of the time, they’ve felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland.
  • Only the world of COVID reporting isn’t a wonderland – it’s hell.
  • A year later after South Africa’s first COVID case, our reporters have scars but at least they’ve got more answers than in 2020.

COVID has been in South Africa for a year, and it’s been an outrageous 365 days. 

We’ve got some scars for sure, but at the very least we’ve got more answers than we did back in 2020.

Case in point: South Africa’s second batch of COVID vaccines arrived from Johnson & Johnson on Saturday. So far, the country has immunised 83 570 health workers.

Johnson & Johnson is one of six vaccines that is being rolled out globally, a feat that seemed impossible a year ago.

Alongside these groundbreaking jabs, scientists are also seeking to answer key questions about the ever-changing nature of the coronavirus.

As we entered the festive season last year, South Africa’s scientists announced that a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 had emerged in the country and was driving what turned out to be a devastating second wave of infections.

This news was a reset on the pandemic – and arguably the worst Christmas present to date. 

Despite the progress made over the year, it felt like moving back to square one as researchers tried to figure out what the changes in the virus meant for our epidemic, how the differences impacted people getting sick and what ramifications this would have for existing vaccines. 

Almost three months later, the country’s second wave of SARS-CoV-2 infections has come and gone and President Cyril Ramaphosa moved the nation back to alert level one of lockdown on 28 February. 

Click here to see what Gauteng’s hospitals looked like during the second wave.

South Africans now move easily between ever-changing COVID-19 prevention regulations, curfews, and the fluctuating accessibility of alcohol

A lot has changed in the past 12 months. Take a look back at a year with the virus that brought modern life grinding to a halt.

How it all began

A year ago, on 5 March 2020, South Africa recorded its first infection with a new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. A week later, the virus had spread to 107 countries and the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

The virus had gone from being a story on the periphery of the news cycle to a rapidly approaching existential threat within a couple of weeks.

Locally, we watched our case numbers rise. These infections were largely driven by people returning from international travel, but by mid-March, the first cases of local transmission had been reported.

Slowly, over 18 days, South Africa’s cases began spreading across the nine provinces — in part helped by our first superspreader event in the Free State. Go inside the hurried lives of the coronavirus contact tracers who tried to contain infections in a race against time. 

We had no idea what South Africa’s epidemic would look like, but the Bhekisisa team started tracking local cases. Two hundred and forty maps later, this is now a daily activity where we end every evening going through the latest case numbers and provide a snapshot of COVID in South Africa.

Bhekisisa has been tracking the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Click here for our breakdown and spreadsheets.

At the time, there was widespread confusion about the virus. We were trying to learn as much as possible from other countries but everything was still brand new. 

Since hindsight really is 20/20, Bhekisisa partnered with Media Hack to retrace our outbreak and see how COVID really took hold in South Africa.

We had seen other countries enter hard lockdowns to contain a potentially explosive outbreak, but there were fears about whether similar measures could be adopted in a country like South Africa where not everyone has access to running water or the ability to isolate in their homes.

Looking back on South Africa’s lockdown

In February, Bhekisisa reporters were already in touch with South Africans trapped in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the first outbreak of coronavirus disease was recorded. 

We listened in awe as a South African student there told of the harsh lockdown conditions he was experiencing, as he described militaristic daily roll calls, repeated COVID screenings and queueing for stale food. 

On some days, he said, he just binge-watched television, and on other days he would try to find out where one of his friends was being kept after she “cracked” under the mental strain of being far away from home in a crisis. 

In the second week of March, we reported on the repatriation flight that brought a group of 114 South Africans home to be quarantined at a resort near Polokwane in Limpopo. 

Even then, as we sat watching our phones for signs that the plane had landed, we could not yet quite conceive the extent to which our lives would begin to resemble the experiences of the Wuhan student we had interviewed. 

It was only when images of overwhelmed Italian hospitals began to emerge that the eerie reality of the future became clear, as our sources began to murmur that the government was planning extreme measures to prevent the country’s already depleted health system from crumbling, should any cases of COVID-19 reach our shores.

By midnight on March 26 2020, South Africa’s streets had emptied for what was supposed to be a 21-day lockdown. 

People retreated into their homes with full pantries if they could afford to stock up, and with worries about how they would feed their families if they couldn’t. 

One fear was universal: That of a new virus with an expanding list of symptoms and no cure, that could pass over some people undetected, and leave others gasping for air. 

Down the rabbit hole: Muddling through the COVID confusion

Queue the honeymoon phase of lockdown. For some, this was the baking, cooking, DIY phase of the global lockdowns when everyone was watching Tiger King on Netflix.  

At Bhekisisa, we switched into “explain” mode, rushing to expand our own vocabulary of COVID terms and searching for easy ways to get the message across to readers, with the help of patient experts who tolerated repeated requests to “explain it like I’m five”.

First up: Understand the basics (sort of a COVID 101 crash course).

Now that we had COVID cases in the country — what was next? Testing.

So our team set about trying to figure out how a PCR test works (the type of machine used to test if someone has COVID). 

But we soon discovered that learning about COVID was an epic journey, not a marathon, nor a sprint — and the route was filled with twists and turns. 

Think Alice, trying to navigate Wonderland. Only, reporting on COVID is not a wonderland, it’s hell. 

We’re stuck in our houses with that Eat Me Cookie Alice finds — expanding both literally as we eat our way through the days, and metaphorically as the walls start closing in from cabin fever. 

Not to mention that there’s never enough time (I’m late, I’m late!) and we took it in turns to embody the Cheshire cat’s crazed motto – “We’re all mad here”. 

We even had our own version of the Mad Hatter’s riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” 

So, here’s why a PCR test is like a photocopy machine.

Once we thought we had mastered all things swab-related, a global shortage of COVID testing materials meant rethinking South Africa’s strategy — and eventually adding new tools to our belt.

Back to the harsh stuff: Isolation and its mental health toll 

For many South Africans, however, lockdown was horrifying.  

People in abusive relationships were now trapped with their abusers 24/7.

Calls for help streamed into call centres, and we followed the story of a woman who had meticulously planned her escape from her abusive husband when the President extended the initial lockdown in April. 

Meanwhile, as South Africa was ramping up to its first peak, we headed into a COVID-19 ward or “Red Zone” at the Nasrec field hospital, which was mostly empty. 

Curious what it looks like inside one of South Africa’s field hospitals during the country’s first wave? Watch this video.

Despite the deserted field hospitals, South Africa’s first wave was reaching its peak. The more people got sick, the more people died, leaving a wave of grief in the pandemic’s wake and upending family structures that the HIV epidemic had already toppled once. Read the Julies family’s story here. 

A year of learning — and we’re still facing the unexpected

We’ve come a long way in the past year and are now armed with new knowledge about the virus — including the details of the science and logistics behind making vaccines at breakneck speed.

But the discovery of a new variant, called 501Y.V2, in South Africa meant it was back down the rabbit hole once again.

The virus had changed and we had to figure out what that meant — was it more transmissible and could people get re-infected? Scientists were working around the clock to find out, and our team was following along with them.

Read more about what we found out in this Q&A.

Find out what you need to know about the new COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa, called 501.Y.V2.

Even as our first vaccines touched down in the country, there were lingering questions about if they would work against this new, more cunning form of the virus.

First up to bat was the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Just as quickly as the jabs stepped up to the plate, they struck out when new data showed that they couldn’t offer enough protection against the variant in South Africa.

Then came Johnson & Johnson’s jab. Just a week after the blow that South Africa had 1.5-million doses of a vaccine that the country could no longer roll-out, a new jab hit our shores

The single-shot from Johnson & Johnson could not only protect people from the new variant, but also prevented severe disease. 

The country is now in its second week of delivering the jab to healthcare workers — under a new strategy using a research study and there seems to be a silver lining to the cloud of doom and gloom that followed the variant’s discovery.

Are you a healthcare worker? Check out where you can get the jab in this interactive map.

It’s been a dizzying year of discoveries that has pushed our tiny team to its limits. Clearly, it’s far from over.

This week, a team of scientists announced that there’s something special about the antibodies created in people who were infected with the new variant –  they’re protected against infection from other variants. 

So far, researchers know this is true for the original virus that was behind South Africa’s first wave, and for the variant first found in Brazil. 

This incredible finding shows vaccines designed with the 501Y.V2 variant could result in a jab that protects people from existing forms of the virus currently in circulation around the world. 

With this, COVID-19 has once again proven that when it comes to solving the virus’s riddles and trying to understand its effect on our collective future, it’s probably safest to assume the Hatter’s position. 

When Alice asked him what the answer of his famously unanswerable conundrum was, he said: “I haven’t the slightest idea.” 

Aisha Abdool Karim was a senior health reporter at Bhekisisa from 2020 to 2022.

Joan van Dyk was a health journalist, senior health journalist and news editor at Bhekisisa between 2017 and 2023.