This is the Covid we always feared

Jeremy Gordin writes on the new variant that has swept through SA, claiming the lives of some 75 000 people


In March or April last year, when Covid-19 started revealing its little bat face or rather its malevolent spikes, when I first heard about Covid-19, I was frightened about the immediate future – terrified, though few people, including me, were prepared to admit this publicly, and are still uncomfortable doing so.

I was scared especially because I am an oldie with a comorbidity or two, and because I am clueless when it comes to “science” [i] . To think or talk about viruses, DNA, RNA, or antibodies (for example), I need to check the definitions of each (again) – and I still don’t completely get it. 

A year ago, I also thought a lot about Armageddon, The Black Death (1347-51), the Spanish or 1918 flu pandemic (from which a maternal relative had died in Windhoek!), the movie World War Z (2013), and above all Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), an account of one man's experiences of the year 1665, in which the bubonic plague struck the city of London [ii].

It was the almost palpable fear (“something mysterious is killing me”), ignorance, horror, chaos, and anguish that struck me most about Defoe’s book – and, similarly, about World War Z, whatever its demerits (e.g., zombies [iii]).

I shall return to a year ago. Meanwhile, if I may, a short summary.

I was an ordinary, common or garden-variety person. I was scared and ignorant of the core issues regarding Covid-19 (the “science”). I also live in Joey’s, SA – i.e., I am legally and societally subject to the control of an incompetent and clearly venal government. The bungling and thievery – and flowing from these, the outright cruelty to the country’s citizens – are common cause. No need to dilate on them now.

Nevertheless, perhaps because I’m a glass-half-full type of person, bred on porridge and sunshine, I felt that humanity as a whole and particularly Seffricans would win through (whatever that means).

So, if (for you, dear reader) the cap fits, please feel free to share it.


Soon enough (we have now moved into the middle of 2020), Covid-19 began spreading in Europe and America. The eminent scientists here – and abroad – told us they understood what was happening – and tried to explain things as best they could. We learned about “R”. We also recalled Lord Byron on ST Coleridge: “I wish he would explain his Explanation” (Don Juan).

Then it started arriving in South Africa as travellers returned from abroad. Well, said the government command council – or whatever pseudo-Stalinist name it had (and has) – we’ve talked to the scientists and we need to stop this Covid thing in its tracks. We need to lockdown good and proper.

But this is Seffrica – we can’t do things rationally and sensibly. We must have a shot-gun approach. So, the government issued strictures about t-shirts and what-have-you – and, fearful of the high rate of violence and car crash casualties flowing from alcohol consumption (and which fill up wards), they banned all alcohol. (They also banned tobacco sales – why is not entirely clear, but so it goes.)

This is Seffrica, you see. If you’re going to ban booze in shebeens, you must ban it in restaurants – including fancy restaurants in the winelands, for example – and in bottle stores too. You can’t treat fancy restaurants differently to shebeens. Not fair; racist.

So goodbye to the liquor industry, hospitality trade, hotels, and tourism. Worse – all other businesses and spheres of economic activity were kicked in the proverbial. The country was shut down. For those without any savings or a little extra money, for those needing to go to work (mainly black people) – hunger and privation.

Meanwhile, many of the usual suspects were taking every opportunity to steal money, lots of it. It seems to be just the ol’ ANC way. Cf. Bandile Masuku, former Gauteng MEC for health, Khuselo Diko, the president’s erstwhile spokesperson, and whomever has cashed in from the recent discovery that between June and August 2020, the Gauteng Department of Education spent more than R431-million on deep-cleaning schools. Panyaza Lesufi, MEC for basic education, should be expelled; don’t hold your breath.

We were told to wash our hands, wear masks, and “socially distance”; and “our” government would purchase PPEs and prepare facilities to take care of the sick. Besides, we were told, young folk might get a bit ill, but they’d be okay. Maybe people didn’t listen. Perhaps some people, those without water or soap, or those who perforce live and travel in taxis cheek by jowl, heard but couldn’t do.

Anyway, infections (and deaths) started climbing up through the winter. But then, having burnt through a section of the population and with the advent of warmer weather – which meant that people spent less time inside together, with the windows closed – infections started dropping, the economy (such as was left of it) re-opened.  

In what has surely been a stupendous and remarkable achievement – if we’re still here in 50 years’ time, we’ll be able to look back with pride – the doctors, biotech people, etc., put together a number of vaccines in record time. The first promising results of these trials were announced in early November. 

The next winter was six months away. Everything was looking good. We all smoked and drank and congratulated ourselves. Ordinary people stopped socially distancing. School pupils, and their parents, threw caution to the wind during end of year parties.



In November, my 22-year-old daughter and two buddies, down in Cape Town, got Covid-19. No big deal. I “have” a GP in Johannesburg who kindly offered sensible counsel telephonically and, after a week or so of minor discomfort, all three were fine. But do remember that my daughter’s daddy pays a goodly rent for her to live in a comfortable and safe house in CT where the three young women could rest and “isolate”. Not all Seffricans have such a daddy. Also, you know all those promises about how rapidly, efficiently, and carefully test results would be communicated – especially by “private” labs? Dream on.

But never mind this trivial personal stuff. What soon transpired was that there is a new super Covid-19 variant. It spreads like wildfire; it is more infectious, more resistant to pre-existent immunity, and it can affect younger folk (certainly from 16 upwards). But is it (a) more deadly and (b) will vaccines (which we’ll get to) be effective against it?

The answer to (a) is that the scientists don’t seem sure, though they’re palpably nervous about it; and, in any case, whether it’s per se more deadly or not, it is, by spreading so fast and imperceptibly, causing more infection and killing more people. (This is happening world-wide – but that is another story).  

So, we locked down again. Curfew, no booze. And the good ol’ shotgun approach again – because it was the festive season, and we didn’t want people breathing on each other on the beaches. But the fact that you could, for example, control the people on the beaches along the Garden Route much better than, say, on Durban’s main beaches, couldn’t be considered. Not fair; racist. Shut down the whole bang shoot. Not to mention the whole hospitality and liquor industry (again).


Where are we now? After an apparently inexorable increase from November to early January it seems infections are finally now in decline. As of 27 January, we have, according to minister of health Dr Zweli Mkhize, a total to 42 550 Covid-19 related deaths. But according to the South African Medical Research Council, during the time Covid-19 has been visiting SA, the number of “excess deaths” (“the number of deaths that have happened above what one would normally expect”) was, as of 26 January, 125 744. That represents about 75 000 extra dead in the past two months.

I’d say the situation is far from hunky-dory. I’d also say that there are, alas, going to be more “waves” of Covid-19 in the years to come. It’s just how the virus rolls.

At least now there are vaccines available. How these differ, what their different efficacies are said to be, the argument between the UK and EU, and so on and so forth, you have surely read about – and I shan’t get into those. What we do know is that short-term side-effects have been minimal. What we don’t know is whether the various vaccines will be effective against the new variants – and the other new variants that are still to come.

What we also know is that the beauties in charge of this country cocked it up with aplomb. I don’t need to get into these details either. DA leader John Steenhuisen and others have spelled them out clearly several times.

Bottom line: despite the one million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which the Germans recommend against when it comes to oldies, and which are due to arrive here on February 1, we remain far, far back in the queue. And, according to Mkhize’s own stats, we require another 38,5-million doses to achieve population immunity.


Going back to a year ago. I was frightened of what might happen in South Africa regarding the controlling and defeat of Covid-19. Well, everything I feared a year ago is now taking place: ignorance, chaos, anguish, not to mention wholesale theft and misdirection of money. And wait until this coming winter.


[i] When I was a budding young poet, it was considered a badge of honour (well, by some) to do badly at science, biology, Maths, etc. Or, given that my father was a chemist, maybe it was simply an Oedipal thing. My own son, for example, is presently completing his PhD in astrophysics and prefers soccer to sonnets and rugby – this preference being, as he knows, heart-breaking for me.

[ii] Although Defoe’s book is a startling “eyewitness [sic] account” of the year 1665, when the bubonic plague struck the city of London, those who did better at Maths than I will note that 67 years passed between 1655 and 1722. That’s right, 250 years before Hunter S Thompson, Defoe was a Gonzo journalist. In 1665 he’d been only five and the book is probably based on the journals of his uncle, who lived in Whitechapel during the Great Plague.

Still, the book is justifiably celebrated for its “systematic and detailed verisimilitude” and “likeness to the dreadful original [events]”. If this book had been written nowadays, Defoe would doubtless be attacked as a Leftie (because they could afford to do so, the rich fled London at the time, and it was overwhelmingly the working class who died) and as a Woke purveyor of fake news.

[iii] On this subject I defer to the superior knowledge of my learned friend, Andrew Donaldson.