Thursday, October 15, 2020

A dose of reality

Stanley - Thursday

The initial COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa was very strict. The only reasons I could leave my flat were essentially to buy groceries or go to the doctor or pharmacy. I wasn't allowed to leave the premises for exercise, which saw me walking up and down the stairwell. Sadly, I was also locked down alone as Mette was in Denmark.

Certainly, it is an experience I wouldn't want to repeat. However, it really wasn't all that bad. I am comfortable being alone; the economic downturn didn't really affect me because I'm retired; my retirement assets were dented, but not so dramatically as to negatively impact my lifestyle; the internet allowed me to maintain contact with friends; and, despite the total ban on alcohol sales, my little cellar was sufficiently stocked to keep me going.

My flat is somewhere in there.

There were a few niggles, such as the lockdown happening a few weeks before the renovations to my flat were due to be completed. This meant I had to continue renting alternative accommodation for an additional 3 months.

As the lockdown eased, and shops started opening, it was easier to notice that things were not back to normal. There were restrictions on how many people could be in a store at a time, but there were also fewer people working in the store. Restaurants started opening gradually for take-out, but, of course, there were now no waiters. Yet, although life wasn't back to normal, it wasn't so much out of kilter that it really affected me.

My friends and I frequently talked about how difficult it must have been to live in the sprawling townships or squatter camps of South Africa, where people were packed closely together. Yet, in a sense, it was an academic exercise. We could imagine the hardship, but we were doing so from a distance. Then I received a text message from a woman who had worked for me seven or eight years ago. She and her husband had no work, and the family was starving. Suddenly the situation became personal.

My eyes were opened further about a month or six weeks ago. The affluent area where I live in Cape Town started seeing increasing numbers of 'street people' - men and women living on the street under cardboard boxes or old blankets, mainly Blacks or people of mixed blood, but also some Whites.  They were desperate for food. Some sought contributions of cash or food at stop signs and traffic lights, while others scrabbled through dustbins set outside houses for scraps of something to eat. 


Nowhere to go.


Some people find humour in dire circumstances.

The real effects of the pandemic were becoming apparent to me. 

I belong to a neighbourhood WhatsApp group that was originally set up to alert members about potential safety issues. It is a study in contrasts. Some members organise the making of hundreds of food parcels every day that are taken to the townships; others keep calling on security services to chase away 'vagrants' who are digging in their dustbins for food ('bad for the neighbourhood, you know!').

Last week I saw firsthand how deep the economic impact of the virus was.

South Africa opened its international borders in a very limited way for the first time since lockdown started in late March. I wanted to see Mette in Denmark, so I decided, with some nervousness, to fly to Copenhagen, which I did last Thursday via Amsterdam.

Prepared for the trip

What an eye-opener.

From the Uber driver who said he'd had little or no work during April, May, June, and July; to Cape Town airport, which was basically deserted; to the few shops that were open at the airport with only one or two attendants; to only one open restaurant at the airport whose only food offering was pizza; the trip from Uber to my seat on the plane was astonishing. Living in my little cocoon, I had only imagined the extent of the damage. Now I was seeing it everywhere.

The situation was no different on board. I would be surprised if the plane was 20% full. In the area of the plane where I was sitting, only 6 of 30 seats were occupied. Needless to say, the crew complement was drastically reduced, and the flight attendants I spoke to were on their first trip in months.

Schipol Airport in Amsterdam and Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen were even more startling. Both were empty. I must have been through Schipol nearly 100 times over the years. It is always busy. In 2019, it averaged 200,000 passengers a day, with the departure halls holding up to 80,000 people at a time during peak periods. As you can see from the photos, it was basically empty when I arrived and marginally busy when I left three hours later. Many of the shops, which are usually thriving, didn't even open. In normal times, the economic impact of the airport is about $30 billion annually. I can't imagine how little it is now.

At Schipol: Where is everybody?


The lounge was empty.

Schipol starting to bustle

Kastrup was similar. Empty.

It is really difficult for me to grasp the extent of the economic devastation or to imagine how anyone can believe that recovery will be quick. And this situation will only be exacerbated if people continue to disregard safety guidelines. I think we have a long, hard haul ahead.

On a personal note, in some ways being back with Mette has been difficult. So close, yet so far. We decided, given the long trip, that we should practice social distancing for a week in case the dreaded lurgy was lurking on one of the planes. I'm feeling fine, no temperature, no symptoms, so we will probably decide on Friday to get a little closer. Yippee.

Then I have to decide whether to continue on my trip, which called for a month-long visit to Minneapolis starting on November 1. Given the spike in cases in the Netherlands (I transit Schipol again) and in the States, I may decide to stay in Denmark. Watch this space.

And keep safe.




  1. I see several European cities are moving back towards lockdown. It's simply not feasible in South Africa. The lockdown wiped out half of the economy. Part has bounced back, but mostly not. And we had staggering unemployment before.
    Watch this space too...

  2. To see Schipol like that is a shocker. I passed through in August 2019 and it was a zoo. In RSA, are black and brown people bearing the brunt of Covid like here in the States?

  3. I hope that those living in the affluent neighborhood are doing something to help the homeless and hungry people, like donating food or cash and helping them find shelter. They are houseless and without food, a situation not of their making.

  4. It’s a dose of sadness for me, Stan. I give to the local food bank, but that was no consolation when I saw the long, long line outside a food pantry here in the richest country on earth. The suffering worldwide is heart breaking. Inconceivable.

    1. Indeed it's quite sad and heart breaking, considering how people are suffering with what to eat.