‘Does my chest sound tight to you?’ The first 40 days; notes from a South African lockdown, by Nadia Davids

At first, you wake up each morning determined to make something of the day. You will be your best self. You will feed your children, home-school without complaint, entertain them, be entirely present. You will work, exercise, meditate, practice mindfulness, make lists (both to-do and gratitude), clear clutter, take up an art project, read, bake, plant herbs, plan meals, set aside time to speak to your friends. You will obey all the instructions and injunctions of self-care; in doing so, you’ve been assured, you will build resilience, you will defend against despair. By the time night comes you never want to hear the word ‘resilience’ again. 

You return to Facebook after a two-year hiatus. You left to protest Zuckerberg’s tolerance of fake news. When you say ‘left’ what you really mean is that you stopped engaging but never actually deleted your profile. You find yourself back in that place of photographs of other people’s children, their book and film recommendations, memes, headline-hot-takes, only this time there are graphs and sourdoughs and more exhortations than ever to ‘stay positive!’ (It’s the exclamation marks that hurt; they prompt exactly the hysteria they’re trying to assuage.)

Your day takes on a new rhythm; each morning is thus: Read news; heart cracks, mind scrambles, chest tightens. Close laptop. Wash hands. Bake. Smell your baby’s sweetly damp head. (He’s new to the world, just arrived; his age and the length of the lockdown will become intertwined). You draw him close at every opportunity and wonder what sort of world you will show him while you try to explain to your six year old that he can’t go outside, ‘for a few days’.

You go over every interaction with maskless persons during those rare forays when you do go out. Did they come too close? Did they cough/sneeze/wheeze, close in beyond two metres? You resolve never to leave the house again. You bake. Read news. Home-school. Bake. Wash hands. Allow yourself to entertain conspiracy theories. Berate yourself for entertaining conspiracy theories. Think, ‘I really should write about this.’ Try. Fail. Think, ‘Actually, it’s hard enough to live this, I don’t want to write about it.’ 

You feel wild flashes of jealousy towards people who have big gardens followed by waves of guilt about people who have nothing. This disorientating toggle between opposing states becomes the most predictable thing about your day. 

You think, ‘Is my chest tight?’ and ask your husband, ‘Does my chest sound tight to you?’ 

‘You’re fine,’ he answers, ‘you’re okay, I promise.’ 

You listen to your six year old tell you about last night’s mare when a giant fly (‘the bug’) crawled up the side of the house and into his room and even you couldn’t defeat it. He looks worried as he tells you this. 

‘It’s okay,’ you say, ‘it was just a dream.’

You bake. Read the news. Close laptop. Re-open. You rewatch Gilmore Girls, seasons one through six (even in this crisis, you refuse to admit season seven into the canon). You also refuse to watch Tiger King (it’s these small refusals, these minor assertions of the self, that seem to keep you going). You take a deep breath. Was that a normal breath? You notice that the air is clean, cleaner than it’s been in decades. You feel a sudden giddy elation (begone demons of climate change!) until you remember why the air is so much cleaner and the giddiness is replaced with the same dull thud of dread.

Your body is soft and achy and bloody for weeks after you give birth. There are no visitors, no gifts delivered, no flowers or endless pots of tea. Instead there are video calls with forced gaiety where everyone attempts to reframe what’s happening as an opportunity to ‘connect’. 

It’s a time exclusively for you and your child, they say. 

It’s a gift really, they say. 

Around the frayed edges of this talk the virus stalks. 

You tell your husband that the words ‘connection’ and ‘resilience’ have been banned in your house. He replies that he would like to excise the phrase ‘in these extraordinary times’.

But in the small hours, when the night is old and the day is young, you nurse and rock and you feel yourself and the baby soothed. In these moments, in the thick fullness of milk and the hush of early morning you believe this to be absolutely true; there is no one and nothing else, it is only you and your baby. This is the world and its new quiet stillness is extraordinary.

When you go back to hospital for your six-week check-up you see a long line of people waiting to be tested for the virus. The walk between the front door and your doctor’s offices is an unexploded minefield where danger lurks unseen and everywhere. Bag on one arm, baby in the other, you use your elbow to press the lift-button, your foot to kick open a door. You make a mental note to add ‘contortionist’ to your list of skills in the brave new world to come. 

Your doctor is surprised to see how very dark your linea nigra—the line that runs from mid-chest to pubic bone, dividing you in half—still is. ‘It’s almost as though you are still pregnant,’ she says and then laughs a little self-consciously because it’s something a midwife might say, someone of science who still makes room for folklore. 

She is not wrong; when the baby rests on your chest as he sleeps, it is as though he is still a part of you, still growing from you, and anything he feels—hunger, discomfort, rest—enters your body immediately. As you leave she tells you that she worked in HIV obstetrics in South Africa for years, ‘That didn’t scare me,’ she says, ‘but what’s coming does.’

That afternoon you stand on your stoep holding your baby towards the still-bright autumn sun as your other child tips out an old pot-plant and makes new meaning out of a heap of soil. Your neighbour stands on her stoep and says, ‘Christ, you must be terrified.’

You begin to understand that the real domestic threat is not dust or dishes or endlessly unmade beds, but laundry. Laundry. Laundry. Regardless of how often you do it, laundry seems to reproduce itself, push out of baskets and swirl around you like a material soup; sheets, clothing, babygrows. You spend days in the same sweatpants and spit-up stained T-shirt but still, there is laundry. 

You think about the virus every day—it’s become the focus around which you organise your attention; you realise that this kind of attention is a way of managing a phobia but phobias have always struck you as specific to the individual and you wonder if it’s still a phobia if everyone is doing it and for good reason. There must, you think, be a moment where being alert dips into being pathological but you’re not sure when that moment comes.

You write up all recorded Covid-19 symptoms:

Most common: fever, dry cough, tiredness; 
Less common: aches and pains, sore throat, headache; 
Serious: difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, loss of speech or movement.

You tape the list to your bedroom wall and consult it whenever you feel a slight tickle in your throat. The list is a talisman; it consoles you as you run a check through your body. You are perfectly reassured by the list until you hear of its growth in the outside world. You feel betrayed. To the list you must now add a loss of smell and taste, diarrhoea, a stroke. Later, you will read about how traces of the virus can now be found in the semen of men who have recovered, making it a potential STD. You read that it can last weeks. No, months. Possibly forever. You begin to understand that the list may, in fact, mean nothing because all around you people may be asymptomatic carriers, that you may be one yourself, and that in contradiction of all existing medical knowledge this virus allows people to present as fairly normal, happy even, at thirty per cent lung capacity. You take the list down. 

Two days later you put it up again.

Your hands smell like sanitiser. Of course they do. 

You remind yourself daily that your country has not yet hit peak infection. That will come, the experts predict, between July and September. You’ve all been in brace position for months now and you think about how South Africa has always been a place of waiting, always been a place on the precipice of disaster or miracle, always in limbo between now and what is to come. 

The army and the police have been given new powers: they stop you on your way to buy food, they arrest the family of a toddler who runs onto the beach, they kill an unarmed a man named Collins Khosa by slamming him multiple times into a cement wall because he enjoyed a cold beer on his own stoep. There are photographs of police whipping people into line as they crowd around the entrance of a township supermarket and stories about them using rubber bullets. None of this is happening close to where you live. 

On the 27th of April you mark twenty-six years of democracy; that day there are miles-long lines for food that mimic the lines that once formed to vote. ‘Nothing has changed,’ sighs a friend, ‘we have failed.’ Usually you hate this kind of pessimism, you try not to dabble in defeatism, but the virus has made things plain, there is no looking away. Not that there ever was. 

You speak to people in other countries and time zones. Your national lockdown is one of the toughest in the world and there are moments when this becomes a weird point of pride, a test of endurance, proof of how much more difficult things are, how much more your country stands to suffer. At other moments the world has been flattened and there are only gradations of difficult; there is no escape, not even in conversation. You must speak of only one thing and even when you speak of other things, you will find yourself speaking about that thing through the prism of this other thing. 

You see people who live five miles away as frequently as you do those who live five thousand; the screen is everything. 

You tell yourself to stop reading about the Spanish Flu and you do stop, until your start reading about Europe’s Black Death. You read about fourteenth-century biological warfare when invading armies would throw diseased dead bodies over town walls to infect those on the other side. You’re shocked to learn that the last few cases of the bubonic plague were not several hundred years ago but in 2015, caught by hikers in a California national park. Suddenly you’re an amateur medical historian who specialises in plagues. This is another pandemic twist; that you’ve simultaneously expanded your knowledge base (the plague! virology!) and completely narrowed your focus (it is impossible to speak, read or think of anything else).

You want to smoke again though you gave up smoking years ago and anyway the government has banned the sale of cigarettes. 

You look at a graph. You worry that you should be able to read graphs better, and then you remember that you never could read graphs and that this was the reason you dropped Science and Biology in high school and did only the most basic Mathematics on offer. You admit to yourself that you don’t know anything about pandemics, epidemics, intubation or viral transmission, though all around you people seem to have acquired this new language with the same speed as downloading a new app they may or may not use.

During a buoyant conversation, a friend remarks that you are curiously optimistic and you reply that you are hopeful because you have to be, and that this should be a coronavirus proverb. And there are days when you are hopeful, filled with hope, hope and all its bright feathers is the thing you hang on to. You are hopeful for yourself, for your city, for the world, you are hopeful that all lessons—political, social, ecological—will be learned and that together you will emerge from this intact, sane, alive, more equal. You are wild with hope, full of it, drunk on hope and you recognise that, while useful, the hope is a form of denial, that this is just another moment in history and that history has no reason to spare you when fate has already given you so much.

You notice that (so far) it’s the academics in your circle who are fairly quiet and the theatre folk who are posting scrambling, anguished updates. You decide this is because the former have more job security than the latter and they feel guilty, though they shouldn’t and you do.

When Level Four comes you rage at the restrictions on exercise hours. ‘The window of six a.m. to nine a.m. is absolutely ridiculous,’ you tell your husband, ‘particularly given that the sun only comes up at seven-thirty. You listen to the radio and realise that the people who are saying that ‘the window of six a.m. to nine a.m. is absolutely ridiculous particularly given that the sun only comes up at seven-thirty’, the ones who are focusing the full measure of their indignation on circumscribed physical activity (we miss the promenade!), are for the most part white, privileged and supporters of the opposition party. You turn the radio down and resolve either to get up earlier or to stop complaining. 

You worry about the arts, specifically theatre, which is your milieu. You fret about live performance and what may be lost in the absence of public assembly. You think about the shape and weight of that moment when the lights dim and the audience gathers itself and how it can never be replicated online. You mourn the end of a discipline you have devoted your life to. Your husband gently suggests this is another form of ‘anticipatory grief’. You’re sad about the jobbing actors you’ve known for decades who suddenly have no form of income. You want the government to fix this. You know they won’t. You want them to fix everything. You know they can’t. You don’t want to rehearse those tired old arguments about how the arts may not be life-saving but that they are what make life worth saving, but you find yourself doing this anyway. You point out that everyone on lockdown is consuming culture. You quote Kafka—art breaks the sea that’s frozen inside us—and then feel slightly ridiculous when you remember that only a tiny percentage of your country can actually access the films or the books you’re so keen to protect, that the ‘everyone’ you so easily invoke is not everyone at all. You turn to news from a First World country and read about how without PPE frontline NHS workers are down to kitchen gloves and bin-liners. You wonder who you were trying to convince with that Kafka quote and you realise it was yourself. You feel ashamed. You bake. Somewhere between shame and scones you think about how in Italy people sang on their balconies as a way of comforting each other. 

You hold your baby and think, ‘This wasn’t the way your beginning was supposed to be.’

You call your parents, hold the baby up in front of them and hope feebly that virtual family life will be an adequate substitute for now. You ask your six year old to come over and say hello—he manages a brief interaction before he’s bored, distracted, angry, sad, worn out and down by it all. You’ve spent years trying to keep him away from screens—this has been a boastful cornerstone of your parenting—and now you spend a significant part of your day coaxing him into online relationships and learning.

You bake. You get on the scale. Your body feels strange as though the extra weight is the sum of all the sadness you’re feeling right now, as though you’ve made more of yourself to make up for what’s been lost. 

You speak to a friend who lives, and has a business, in your city’s largest, oldest township. ‘People are not social distancing here,’ she tells you. And together you say, ‘How does one social distance in a shack?’

Your six year old tells you he misses school. The next day you hear him promise his weeks-old baby brother that he’ll take him to the park when ‘the bug is gone’. You think, with relief, well, there is this; in the midst of everything there are still-points and early mornings and little boys who make hopeful promises to infant siblings. Your children are indoors for hours and hours, days and days, weeks and weeks, and though it’s no real hardship (or not one you feel entitled to measure), your jealousy of people with gardens sometimes borders on rage.

Your friend’s wife, an anti-vaxxer whom you know only vaguely, becomes, along with Elon Musk and Donald Trump, the main target in your daily rants. Her conspiracy memes keep popping up on your Facebook feed. ‘Just unfriend her’, your husband suggests, ‘or unfollow her’. But you don’t; you read her posts compulsively as though in doing so you’re keeping an eye on the rising threat. 

A friend posts a photograph of their neighbour’s house in Brooklyn, New York, where a huge homemade banner has been placed in the window. On it, the words, ‘Feel the city breaking and everybody shaking and we’re staying alive, staying alive.’ 

There’s something about the way they’ve repurposed the song and the memory of Travolta (all strut and bounce and id) as an anthem of defiance against death that makes you sit down and weep. 

You hear that male academics are writing and publishing up a storm while women academics have grown silent. Overwhelmed by additional hours of household jobs, they’re consumed by the domestic, not the intellectual. They’re too tired or too worried (or both) to write or even to think. 

Your parents are in the age category of the most vulnerable. They are seventy and seventy-eight and they are at once scrupulously careful and remarkably sanguine about it all. You read about children developing a sometimes life-threatening inflammation response to the viral infection and a part of your brain shuts down even as your heart rate spikes.

A theory circulates that the mandatory BCG vaccine every South African child has had since the nineteen-seventies may offer some immunity from the virus. You remember lining up at six years old to receive it at school, the multi-pronged needle, the pain, the crying of the other children, the scar you still carry on your left arm, and as you run your fingers lightly over those old indentations, the theory makes you briefly optimistic. A government report has fatality projections in the tens of thousands, infection rates in the millions. This strikes you as an exaggeration. You go searching for information that will confirm this and find yourself surrounded by denialists. This is not where you want to be. 

In another part of the city a temporary hospital is built. Thousands of beds are prepared. 

The streets fill up with more people that you’ve ever seen hungry and without homes. When you drive the short distance between your home and the supermarket there is no intersection without someone begging. And those who beg have already adapted, already found scraps of cloth to double as masks, already put a long wooden handle on their plastic container to offer the requisite distance between you and them.

You notice one morning that in the midst of this strange and terrible season, flowers are blooming all around with a new, almost hallucinatory brilliance. 

You get equally irate with people who downplay the threat and those who are certain it’s the End of Everything. 

You’re as annoyed by the dismissals and agonies as you are comforted by the confidence and hypervigilance. 

Your stock response in any of these conversations becomes, ‘Well, there’s so much we still don’t know.’

You wonder why New Zealand always struck you as a little dull; you’d give anything for dull now. 

On a particularly virus-defiant day you paint your nails and comb out your hair. By the time your nails are dry your spirits have flagged again. 

You’re baking more than your household can consume; the kitchen is so full of uneaten cake that your home takes on an air of supreme, aristocratic decadence. 

You read about food riots in a township thirty minutes away. 

When Ramadaan starts the quiet fear and the emptiness of the streets seems to deepen. There are no children carrying plates of food between neighbours and the mosques are empty. The call to prayer has changed, urging people not to come to worship but to stay home. 

A woman and her two children come to your door, begging for food. You’ve known them for years and you usually put aside cans and fruit and clothing for them and books for the girl (she is a fiercely bright little thing, reading and writing by the time she is four, switching between languages as she translates for her mother), and at the same time you lock tight away your horror at their lives. They are sometimes housed, sometimes homeless, the children are always filthy, the woman carries a small bag in which she keeps the little girl’s school report card. She’s shown it to you, once, twice, thrice during the time you’ve known them. She wants you to know that she wants more for her child. Somehow, this woman has managed to stay with her children, keep their little unit moving as one as they go door to door. Your six year old calls out a greeting to the little girl who, not much older than him, is so much older than she should be. It’s early in the lockdown, they’re not wearing masks and you wonder if they’ve heard about what’s happening. You talk to them about the virus and tell them you’ll set a bag down, asking that they stay back until you’ve managed to get a few feet away. They look at you as though this is not a sensible health measure but another indignity. The little girl fixes you with a stare that you will struggle to forget, particularly on freezing nights when the winter rains begin in earnest. For the first time in three years they do not say thank you and you do not see them again for months. 

That night you think about what ‘belonging’ means. You have always felt that Cape Town belongs to you as completely as you belong to it. You sometimes describe this belonging as an inheritance, a claim that must be settled, but mostly you understand it as a gift from your parents and grandparents, passed down despite apartheid’s many weapons of exclusion—forced removal, no vote, quotas, classifications, not this beach or that bench or this book. It’s a form of love too, a love made and mangled through struggle and nurtured through hard times, a way of loving across and through history, love on behalf of others, love for ancestry and progeny. You claim the city’s streets, mountains, oceans as yours, even as you trace your line back to a genesis of unforgivable cruelty and loss. And at the love’s core is a bright hope premised on the belief in a better future. 

This love has always been tethered to the belief that a greater city would emerge from this one, that the city’s best self was contained within it and in some not-too-distant future a place of rich generosity and fairness would come into being, that from centuries of obscene inequality and grotesque violence, somehow grace and goodness would spring into being and that today was nothing like what tomorrow would hold. This is the first time you’ve felt that love ebb and falter; the scale of suffering, the increase in hunger, vulnerability and state sanctioned sadism, the sudden ricochet in unemployment, the terrible tidings the virus brings, has replaced hope with grief. 

At the chemist the cashier—a burly woman in her late fifties—has her mask draped about her chin. You stand back, sanitise first your hands and then the pen you’re about to sign with as she tells you how she worries every day about catching the virus because she has an immune disorder. ‘Lupus,’ she says, taking pleasure in the word.  This floors you, but you feel strangely unable to ask her to put her mask on. You spend the rest of the week wondering if she is an asymptomatic carrier. You’re briefly relieved once two weeks have passed because you’re fine and then start worrying about whether you are the asymptomatic carrier. 

You miss your mother. You miss her touch. You call her and tell her all your fears. She comforts you and when you hang up you feel like a selfish fraudulent adult. She’s frightened too though she appears, in her inimitable way, to be full of bright, almost bullish certainty. 

Your six year old spends his days building Lego—incredible, fantastical constructions. Your husband adopts every day the persona of a teacher and takes your child patiently through the week’s school pack. Whenever either of you leave the house, your boy leans out the window shouting, ‘Good luck! Be safe!’ 

You don’t know where he learned to feel this way—you’ve been as careful as possible about what you do and don’t say in front of him. 

Haven’t you?

He starts playing a game he calls ‘hospital’. 

He lines up all his stuffed animals in his bed. ‘They are sick,’ he tells you, ‘listen to their coughs, come and visit them.’ He comforts them, tells them not to worry, they’ll get better. 

You walk to the corner-store and marvel at the stillness, at the light breeze coming off the mountain, the air as fresh as it was when you were a child and the soft hush of your street where usually crowded minibus taxis tear down at frightening speed. You pass the school playground, empty of songs and shouts, clean of sweet packets and discarded sandwich crusts. At the corner store old Mr P is not seated on his usual stool at the entrance. Instead, he’s been confined to the back by his children; out of sight, out of danger. It is on that street, your street, half your face covered, the faces of others you know obscured too, that you begin truly to know that everything has changed.

You spend more time with your six year old and husband than you thought humanly possible and you realise, even as you sit down for the millionth meal on the thousandth day of lockdown, that these are your people and you wouldn’t want to be doing this thing with anyone else. You’re humbled by what you’re all capable of, by the wild luck of it all, that you’re safe and loved and fed, and by what you’ve not yet been called to do. 

You dream one night about walking maskless in the deep cool green of a forest, of inhaling the smell of pine, of damp rich soil and moss. When the lockdown eases and you’re allowed outside, you take your child to a public forest stream in an upscale neighbourhood with all this and more. There are tall oak trees with old knotted trunks, a field of bright, sun-dappled, dew-soaked grass. The world is more beautiful than you could have hoped or remembered. 

And then you see to your dismay that other people have had the same idea, that other people have wanted the outside, longed for this soft, damp green. You stare at them, willing them away. Your six year old turns to you, his new lessons learned and says, ‘There are too many people here. We should go home.’ 

You hesitate. You do not want to leave. Here is the world. Here are trees and this is grass and just across the street a thin river is slipping over smooth wet stones where small dogs and other children dip their feet in the cool, clear water. A man runs past you, muscles taut, his stride deep, his mask tugged away from his face, his breath visible in the crisp morning air. 

You tense up, see the exhaled arc in front of the man. You remember a report about joggers and desired distance. You can’t remember exactly what it said but you know it meant danger and that feeling snakes about you and your boy, though you try and control it. 

Your six year old repeats that he wants to leave, that he wants to go home, he won’t stay a moment longer, his mask is itching and hot, he hates it, there are too many people, it’s not good to be out. It’s not safe, he keeps saying, it’s not safe.

You remember other trips to this place. How he waded, sturdy, barefoot on little legs out into the stream, laughing, holding a butterfly net twice his height, searching for tadpoles, the cold rush of water about his ankles, his toes curled into the soft give of the earth’s bed. 

In the car, he makes sure the windows are sealed tight. The outside is the outside again and he is calm.  

Your place your hands tight on the steering wheel, longing to once again see in other people not a possible threat, but yourself. Longing to go back to the time before, to unlearn what you both now know. 

Then you wait. You breathe. For a while, you speak of other things. You dig around for the hope you’d always carried and you find, if not the fullness of that feeling, then something that resembles it. You find a wish—strong enough to coat your fears—to rejoin the world, whatever the new terms are.

You lower the window and draw your child’s attention to the light glancing through the trees, to the shimmering droplets of early-morning water on the grass. 

Minutes pass, as you speak and point and he learns the outside anew. Eventually he says he’d like to get out of the car. You put your mask back on. You turn to him, your mouth no longer visible, hoping your smile reaches your eyes. You help your boy with his mask and together you walk uncertainly into what lies ahead.

  • Nadia Davids is an award-winning writer who works across a range of forms: plays, articles, short stories and screenplays. Her theatre works, including the well-known At Her Feet and Cissie, have been staged in South Africa and abroad and her writing has appeared in various newspapers and anthologies. Her debut novel, An Imperfect Blessing, was published in 2015.
Header image: John Gutierrez

13 thoughts on “‘Does my chest sound tight to you?’ The first 40 days; notes from a South African lockdown, by Nadia Davids”

  1. I can so relate to the myriad of feelings and thoughts that Nadia Davids writes about. So beautifully captured.

  2. I was swept along as I read this, and thought how perfectly you articulated the very human moments of life turned upside down during this strange time.

  3. This piece aptly personifies the human qualities of hope and optimism amidst the horrors and realism of the times of Corona. These times will inevitably inspire many artistic canvases, melodies and literary masterpieces. Perhaps a new Garcia Marquez, Picasso or Mozart will be awakened amongst us.

    1. An excellent read that captures perfectly my own feelings and thoughts and probably of millions other.
      Keep walking into the unknown. Light will await us there.

  4. Absolutely superb description of the situation as it is and l could identify with everything she wrote.

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