One day in the distant future I will be napping in a chair, book on my lap and reading glasses perched at the tip of my nose. One of my (hopefully many) grandchildren will sidle up to me and say, “JoJo*, what was it like to live through the pandemic of 2020?” My memory—already a somewhat redundant asset in my late-40’s—will be even hazier then and I might struggle to mutter more than, “a difficult time, my dear…yes, yes, very difficult indeed.” Which is why I have decided to write my grandchildren a letter now … in 2020, the actual time they will one day ask me about.
And this is what I want them to know:
30 April 2020
My dear one…
I wonder how our world looks now in 2035 or 2040, or in whatever distant year you might be reading this. Today is a beautiful Autumn day in Johannesburg. The sky is that warm expansive blue you find yourself staring at, losing yourself in. The trees are in flux. Some are still proudly clad in green, while others are changing to yellows and browns. A few have relinquished their crisp, dry leaves and stand stark and exposed. The scene is deceptively peaceful, but it holds undertones of unrest. Perhaps it is just my own mind that makes it so, for we live in a particularly restless time.
At the beginning of this year I began to hear the occasional mention of an illness. They called it the corona virus. It was far, far away in Wuhan, China. I carried on living my life as I always had done. Going to the shops. Meeting friends. Eating out. Going to church. If I thought of the virus then, it was only to pity those affected by it or locked in their homes as China tried to contain it. I remember a fleeting thought in those early days—this could reach us—but I dismissed it. It all felt surreal then, too distant, too theoretical.
But my dreamlike bubble would not last long. Soon the news was reporting daily on the spread of the virus. It was in South Korea…then Iran…then Italy. Some were saying it was nothing more than a slightly bad case of seasonal flu. This contradicted the reports of hospitals running out of beds and of ICU’s with too few ventilators, where doctors had to choose who would live and who would die.
Then the virus reached South Africa. It was just one man in Durban, though, still far enough away for me to feel a little safe, a little complacent. Still, there were connections. Someone at Gramps’ work had been in the same office the man worked in. My friend’s colleague had been doing training for a company the man had visited.
How very strange that there were so many thin threads tying us all together. Slowly these threads tightened and knotted into a sense of unease that has only grown with each passing day.
From that single South African case in the beginning of March, we now have 5,350 cases and the graph continues a steady climb, despite the fact that we have been in lockdown for 35 days. We are not allowed out of our houses, except to buy food or medicine. We watch church online and talk to friends on Skype or Zoom (are they still around?) We wear masks when we go out and have to sanitize our hands in every shop. I try not to think too much of everything I touch in the shop and who has touched it before me. You can go crazy if you think too much.
I do not know what lies before us and the uncertainty is frightening. You—looking back on these times—already know. Do we contain this virus and protect our people, or does it ravage our vulnerable population and bring our health system to its knees? If we do manage to contain it, do the restrictions on movement and work cause such economic hardship that the very foundations of our country are shaken beyond recognition? It feels like we are standing on the edge of a ledge, holding our breaths, not sure if we will stand or fall.
But do not think that to live in such times is a curse, for I am very grateful to be living through them.
They have taught me much already, and I think they will teach me more before this is over. I have learned that we have very little control…of our health, our jobs, our finances. Any sense of security we may have is false. Our only security is found in the One who holds everything in his hands. I am grateful that I know him and can call him my Father and friend, for every day I find strength and peace in his arms.
I have learned that we are all much closer than we think, and that communal well-being is more important than individual well-being. If I am well, I need to protect those who are vulnerable. If I have much, I need to share it with those who have little. If I feel hope and encouragement, I must pass it on to those who are struggling.
I know I am not the only one who has grown quieter and more reflective in this time. Others are learning these valuable lessons too, and that is why—even through the unease and restlessness—I have a sense of hope. Hope that we are going to come out of this time changed for the better.
We will be stronger, because we will no longer be relying only on ourselves. We will be closer, because we have learned the value of relationship and community. We will be deeper, no longer charmed by the silly, superficial things of the world.
And writing to you has filled me with hope too as I cast my eyes to the next generation—not yet born—who will not have to battle this illness, but will hopefully live in an era that has been transformed by it. May that transformation be for good!
All my love,
(*JoJo is what I currently think my grandkids might call me. The alternatives just don’t work for me – Granny is Roy’s mom and Oma is just too Dutch!)