Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

Going Home

Nightime view of South Africa from a plane. Photo by @criene via Twenty20

The masked health official makes no attempt to reciprocate my small talk as she methodically reads my temperature and accepts my health form. She has a few hundred more passengers to check before any of us are allowed off the plane and pleasantries aren’t going to make it go any faster.

After a 23 hour journey from an eerily empty Newark airport, I have landed in my home country of South Africa on the last flight out before all major airlines discontinued the route due to concerns over the coronavirus. I still have another domestic flight to catch in order to get home, but it’s looking unlikely that I’ll make it after a two hour wait on the tarmac as health officials check the temperatures of all passengers onboard the plane ahead of us.

I breathe a sigh of relief as the official marks down my temperature and moves on, without forcibly removing me from the plane and ushering me into a forced quarantine detention center. Of course I wouldn’t have a temperature yet if I’d contracted the coronavirus during my long journey surrounded by a planeful of nervous mask-wearing and hand-sanitizing passengers. Or from the lovely gentleman sitting next to me who coughed about 42 times during the flight (not that I was counting). But for now I’m temperature-free and allowed to enter my home country.

It’s funny how a global pandemic forces you to rethink a lot of questions, including where home is. After six years living the United States, I generally consider it to be my home. But when the government tells all Americans to stay put and those abroad to return “home” – it doesn’t include me, a non-resident and non-citizen. 

Fully aware that I may be stuck out of the US for months, I made the decision to return to the place where I grew up and where my family still lives – the closest thing to home despite having spent most of my adult life abroad. Upon arrival, I was told that having come from a “high risk country” (the U.S.), I would be required to immediately self-quarantine for two weeks.

This isn’t easy when you’re staying in the same household as your 65 -year-old, at-risk father who doesn’t know what hand sanitizer is and who rolls his eyes at the mere mention of the term “social distancing”. After managing to escape his welcome home hug and cut the greeting short to an awkwardly polite wave, I then embark upon two weeks of avoiding the kitchen or any other communal living areas, and eating meals at a distance of 4 meters apart. 

I see his face wince at the sight of the terribly environmentally unfriendly foreign Clorox wipes that I have smuggled from the U.S. and am now asking him to use liberally. He politely nods, but I notice the supply hasn’t decreased at all besides from my own regular wipe downs of the fridge door, light switches, sink faucet, and trash can lid for on the odd occasion that I absolutely have to enter the kitchen.

Four days after arriving, the whole of South Africa was placed under a three-week national lockdown. No dog walking, no beach visits, no alcohol sales. In a country where health services are grossly under resourced, over 13% of the population has HIV and almost 1% has tuberculosis, coronavirus could hit hard. But with over 50% of the population living in poverty, so will an economic shutdown.

Right now, there are no flights between South Africa and the U.S. So if my boss requires me back at the office in New York City, it’s not going to happen any time soon. But when a global pandemic strikes and you’re forced to choose where you’re going to be stuck for an indefinite period of time facing a potentially deadly virus, home quickly becomes more than where you live or work, but where you’ll find the people you love most.


Other Stories in Special Report: Shutdown: The Coronavirus

During pandemic, Rio de Janeiro residents fear police

Marina Guimaraes May 27, 2020

Recovering from drugs during a pandemic

Kyla Milberger May 26, 2020

  Covid-19 takes away the communal joy at Eid-al-Fitr celebration

Narkwor Kwablaa May 25, 2020

Beloved old school game sees boom in numbers during coronavirus quarantine

Michael Yang May 15, 2020

Coronavirus leaves the fate of some beloved New York events uncertain

Emily Glass May 15, 2020

South Africa’s lockdown exposes inequalities

Kathleen Taylor May 14, 2020

Churchgoers find spiritual growth through virtual services 

Harrison Tsui May 14, 2020

” I’m working with COVID patients tonight”

Margaret Guzman May 14, 2020

Singles connect on Tinder to fight quarantine blues 

Yaroslava Bondar May 14, 2020

Jewish traditions during a pandemic

Sydney Fishman May 13, 2020

The Bible and Coronavirus

Jonathan Sarabia May 13, 2020

Doctor uses social media to give advice and hope

Sope Aluko May 12, 2020

First Sandy, Now COVID: Lower East Side Activists Grapple With Construction for Climate Project

Izzie Ramirez May 12, 2020

Dating during a pandemic

Bessie Liu May 12, 2020

The last reponders

Shiyu Xu May 11, 2020

When the pandemic hits a shelter for abused boys 

Amanda Perez Pintado May 11, 2020

Portugal contains the coronavirus despite Spain’s woes

Catarina Lamelas Moura May 11, 2020

Warm weather brings crowds to Prospect Park

Bessie Liu May 11, 2020

New York coronavirus numbers continue to fall

Jonathan Sarabia May 10, 2020

Living through the pandemic while a loved one is behind bars

Amanda Perez Pintado May 10, 2020

Pandemic ends all high school senior year traditions

Jonathan Sarabia May 10, 2020

Coronavirus might have caused the death of many children who were misdiagnosed 

Ximena Del Cerro May 9, 2020

Farmers destroy staggering amounts of food even as food lines grow

Karen Camela Watson May 9, 2020

Coronavirus pandemic threatens border towns in Mexico

Sydney Fishman and Ximena Del Cerro May 9, 2020

Pence’s press secretary tests positive for Covid-19

Shiyu Xu May 8, 2020

During pandemic NYC tenants in limbo

John DiLillo May 8, 2020

Llamas could be coronavirus heroes

Catarina Lamelas Moura May 8, 2020

Lawmakers, Legal Experts Clash Over Much Needed Business Interruption Insurance Coverage for Small Businesses

James Duffy May 8, 2020

Rent relief in NY, JetBlue’s flyover and Trump’s valet tests positive for coronavirus in today’s news

Amanda Perez Pintado May 7, 2020

Coronavirus tears through the Navajo Nation 

Amanda Perez Pintado May 7, 2020

In Singapore, spaces close, but restaurants open

Yifan Yu May 6, 2020

Press secretary calls Fauci testifying before congress “publicity stunt”

Kathleen Taylor May 6, 2020

Harry Potter and the Magical Malady of the Movies

Ahad Sanwari May 6, 2020

Trump speaks to human loss, Cuomo lashes out at President’s comments

Catarina Lamelas Moura May 5, 2020

PPE in the city

Narkwor Kwabla May 5, 2020

Boring Politics is Good Politics – Especially in a Pandemic

Serafina Smith May 5, 2020

Stuck: Life under quarantine in Rio de Janeiro

Marina Guimaraes May 5, 2020

New York’s Emptiness

Maria Abreu May 5, 2020

In an Airbnb Room During Lockdown in Jamaica, Queens

Dayo Paul May 4, 2020

What Temporary Means: Portraits of family at home

Guillermo Manning May 4, 2020

Stockholm Stays Open

Tatiana Kireeva May 4, 2020

NYC now producing its own coronavirus test kits

Maureen Mullarkey May 3, 2020

Miss you, mom: Spending Ramadan together through a screen

Maznah Shehzad May 3, 2020

Life in front of a screen

Patricio Zenklussen May 3, 2020

Coronavirus and the Shincheonji

Bessie Liu May 3, 2020

It’s The Little Things

Sope Aluko May 3, 2020

Days In, Days Out: A doctor’s life during Covid-19

Elsa Benamouzig May 2, 2020

Contactless: Food Delivery amid COVID-19

Keighton Li May 2, 2020

Hasidic South Williamsburg Resists the New Reality

Leo Schwartz May 2, 2020

Solace in Suburbia

Susanne Schweitzer May 2, 2020