Almost a year after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in South Africa – poet, playwright and producer Siphokazi Jonas stood on the steps of Parliament and performed her poem entitled “What does not sink” before the State of the Nation Address:
Ufikile unogumbe, ugalelekile
Akankqonkqozi, udiliza umgubasi.
There is a flood inside our house.
On Thursday 5 March 2020, the first confirmed COVID-19 case in South Africa was made public. That is when the flood came without knocking and broke down our door. Since that day, we have had more than one and a half million reported cases.
The water climbs up the wall when we weep;
it does not let us breathe.
Everything is wet with grief
As our grief grew, so did the flood of cases. In field hospitals, those fighting desperately for their lives on ventilators did so without their family by their side. It is too easy to reduce fifty thousand deaths a statistic, a mere number. May we never forget that behind the number are fifty thousand broken families.
Before this pandemic, we would cast a funeral song into the dark like a flare,
and the neighbours would come to hold our arms as we drove the water
out the door.
Not only did this flood, this pandemic, rob us of our loved ones and our last moments with them, but also of our chance to mourn them. Funerals were restricted to closest family. The shared grief of a community, the support and the humanity of closeness had to be swallowed down and stifled for the sake of preventing the further spread of this disease. Even as the flood filled our house, the humanity drained out of everyday life.
Before grief reached our ankles.
Before it swept us to our knees.
Before it flowed into our pots and our beds.
Within a matter of days from the first reported case, the president declared a national state of disaster. The flood was truly with us now. As the country was ordered to close down, as we were brought to our knees, the water trickled into everything we knew – and changed it irrevocably.
To mourn meant a community gathered,
like a bank between you and the river of death.
Now death has dampened this ritual –
We mourn alone.
We not only mourn loss of life, but loss of livelihood. During the hard lockdown, the economy bled jobs in an unstemmed flow. Tragically, three million South Africans lost their jobs due to COVID-19.
We were not ready for this flood. Not economically, not socially, not emotionally and not medically.
And the nurse tying a tattered mask together with prayer and is still unprotected.
Or the artist who contemplates eating her own words to ease her hunger –
and art starves.
No-one is more exposed to the cruel tides of the flood than our frontline health workers. When colleagues contracted the virus, they worked days on end to keep things running. Heartbreakingly, they had to administer triage when hospitals overflowed and patients died in hospital hallways, waiting. No-one has been more shattered by the psychological blows of this pandemic, and yet they keep their heads above water, swimming doggedly to take care of us in our hour of need.
They are the heroes in this dark time. Humbled, we pay our respects to health workers claimed by this flood.
This flood ruins us all.
But what of the after,
when the depth of this moment is absorbed
Who will we be?
And yet, we cannot let the water lapping at our heels stop us from looking forward. No matter how painful the moment may be, this too shall pass. What will the world see when it looks at us then? What hope do we as a nation have?
We are a people who know how to build out of the remnants of disaster,
and we will do it again, and again.
When we salvage what is useful,
may we find ourselves baptised into something new:
New ways of mourning,
A people who have learned to breathe underwater,
reciting the names of those we have lost, and memories that never sink.
As we adapt to life with this new virus, we learn to breathe underwater. We will adapt and we will overcome. Every time social distance is kept, every time a mask is worn properly, every time we wash our hands, we can stem this flood.
Being compliant is to honour those memories that do not sink, memories of those we have lost. To every compliant South African: Thank you for a year of chasing the flood from our house.
*This article was inspired by What does not sink, a poem written by Siphokazi Jonas. The article refers to certain sections of the poem.