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.


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