Special Report

Shutdown: The Coronavirus

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

Life returns to the East Village

Quincy Walter May 5, 2021

Reopening for Ramadan

Hassan Abbas May 4, 2021

And the band played on

Xavier Bartaburu May 2, 2021

Queens residents mourn at Covid vigil

Annie Burky May 2, 2021

Floating for Free: COVID and the Staten Island Ferry

Trish Rooney May 2, 2021

COVID-19 has left many Black and Hispanic landlords in serious debt

Norah Hogan April 24, 2021

Village East movie theater reopens to the public

Inga Parkel April 13, 2021

Chinese adoptions halted by COVID

Inga Parkel March 24, 2021

Remote is the new workplace normal

Courtney Guarino March 24, 2021

One year of COVID-19 in New York City

Michelle Diaz March 16, 2021

COVID long haulers deal with lingering symptoms and doubt

Kaity Assaf March 5, 2021

Pandemic Weddings

Chuyan Jiang March 2, 2021

Pandemic fatigue 101

Chuyan Jiang February 28, 2021

Yankee Stadium becomes COVID-19 vaccine site for Bronx residents only

Michelle Diaz February 24, 2021

The queer community rallies behind their sacred spaces closed because of COVID-19

Inga Parkel February 23, 2021

Street vendors struggle as New Yorkers and tourists stay home

Norah Hogan February 13, 2021

Keeping the faith in COVID-19

Courtney Guarino February 3, 2021

Little Italy’s restaurants need indoor dining to survive pandemic

Michelle Diaz February 2, 2021

Stray pets find homes and love during pandemic

Inga Parkel February 1, 2021

No Actors, But the Show Goes On

James Pothen December 5, 2020

New York City, a place of refuge 

Edith Rousselot December 4, 2020

Commuting in a pandemic world

Michelle Diaz December 3, 2020

Battling food insecurities during a pandemic

Courtney Guarino December 3, 2020


Justin McGown December 3, 2020

Honk!: Cars earn a special spot in 2020

Luana Harumi December 3, 2020

Working out looks very different during a pandemic

Chuyan Jiang December 2, 2020

One kitchen’s transformation in the age of isolation

Isabel Beer December 2, 2020

Nursing homes are filled with sadness and loss during pandemic shut down

Inga Parkel December 1, 2020

The show goes on

Norah Hogan December 1, 2020

Loyal members help keep independent cinemas afloat

Courtney Guarino December 1, 2020

Musicians deal with the reality of no live shows as covid takes center stage

Paola Michelle Ortiz December 1, 2020

 Black Friday’s Aftermath

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi November 30, 2020

The Spirit of Little Haiti

Savannah Daniels October 14, 2020

Small business owners hope for future relief

Courtney Guarino October 2, 2020

Brooklyn Book Festival held virtually

Chuyan Jiang September 28, 2020

NYC Restaurant owners worry about maintaining business during winter 

Isabel Beer September 27, 2020

The pandemic is causing mental health struggles for many Latinos

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 24, 2020

Politically divided family can agree on one thing, rallies are bad during a pandemic

Michelle Diaz September 23, 2020

New Yorkers are vulnerable to mental issues due to pandemic

Sughnen Yongo-Okochi September 23, 2020

Healthcare professionals struggle with Trump’s decisions during pandemic

Tori Luecking September 23, 2020

Some Americans Say “Not So Fast” on Operation Warp Speed

James Pothen September 23, 2020

Trump voters unfazed by morality of Trump’s Covid response

Norah Hogan September 22, 2020

Trump rallies continue, despite the rising Covid-19 death toll

Isabel Beer September 22, 2020

Latinos weigh in on President Trump’s management of the pandemic

Paola Michelle Ortiz September 21, 2020

Fast track vaccine causes fear

Kaity Assaf September 21, 2020

It’s business as usual at McSorley’s Old Ale House

Tori Luecking September 20, 2020

Trump defiance to hold indoor rallies amidst COVID-19 sparks polarized responses 

Courtney Guarino September 20, 2020

NYC Cafes and restaurants try and survive the pandemic

Isabel Beer September 19, 2020

A typical afternoon at Shade Bar NYC

Kaity Assaf September 19, 2020

West Village staple, Caffe Reggio, remains open for outdoor dining in the wake of coronavirus restrictions 

Norah Hogan September 19, 2020