My coronavirus diary | A swab halfway to my brain and then the call: ‘You are positive’

Kim Whitaker
Kim Whitaker

I remember walking into the office sometime in February, finding our head of reservations chuckling over the irony of a virus being named after a beer.

“It’s called Corona. It must be pretty severe though; the Chinese are constructing hospitals in a matter of days.” As usual I was rushing somewhere, to meet someone about something and hardly paused to soak in what she was saying.

I remember thinking about Chinese construction wonders, and the few hotels I’d seen built within 90 hours. I never considered the fear, the economic impact and the change in communities.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I was destined for my annual work trip to Berlin, Germany, for the ITB Berlin Travel Show and Berlin Travel Festival. I was excited to see industry colleagues, travel agents, partners, learn about new trends, network and get some inspiration for my travel business.

The main show was cancelled

The cherry on top was an invitation to talk at the Berlin Travel Festival about Khwela Youth Tourism Stars, a tourism non-profit I co-founded two years ago in Cape Town, focused on teaching young South African women from under-resourced communities how to work and thrive in the tourism industry.

I was scheduled to speak on the Travelmassive stage with five other inspirational speakers, under the title “Travel Changemakers” about which the organisers had already briefed me.

Four days before my departure, the main show was cancelled. It was a hot debate for weeks, with industry people taking bets about whether it would continue. After all, a travel show with over 100 000 delegates is a big deal for tourism, and a huge deal for the Berlin economy. Despite the cancellation, the consumer show (Berlin Travel Fest) was not cancelled, so I decided to continue with my travel plans. I had booked a non-refundable ticket and was staying with a friend, so at the time it seemed logical to still go.

I left Cape Town early on Monday 2 March, heading to Munich. As I was leaving Cape Town, I was texting with the organisers and the moderator of the panel discussion. Due to the cancellation of ITB, and many travel professionals already in Berlin, my friend Ian started a WhatsApp and Telegram group called #StrandedinBerlin.

He built a website showing travellers which events were happening where, and how to get on travel party guest lists. Despite the cancellation, I was optimistic. By the time I landed in Munich, the Berlin Travel Fest had been cancelled. I was dumbfounded.

Berlin was no longer carefree

The first case of corona had arrived in Berlin, in the co-working space of the Berlin Travel Fest no less. Since my bags were already on their way to Berlin, I continued my journey. The next day was a blur as my friends and colleagues went into self-quarantine as a measure, and I tried to make the most of my business trip.

The mood in Berlin was not as carefree as I knew it. A smog of seriousness hung in the air. Hastily printed signs hung in the window of the corner Apotheke (pharmacy): “NO HAND SANITIZER”

People kept their distance and commuters buried their faces into layers of scarves. I remembered my hand sanitiser from home and was conscious not to shake hands, touch surfaces, or touch my face.

On the first evening I joined travel bloggers and industry colleagues at the local pub, and we talked business, drank beer, hustled to exchange business cards and got into a heated debate with a group of female bloggers about the realities of travel stalkers.

I can’t believe this was only two weeks ago! Coronavirus was still not the topic of every conversation.

By the end of that week, two of my friends whom I hadn’t seen had tested positive and were in self-isolation. Another friend was in self-quarantine, and had asked me help him move into a rental apartment – after all, collecting key, signing for the deposit is outright impossible without coming into contact with someone. I had to leave the keys on a windowsill and wave through the glass as he fetched them.

A case of FOMO

Even after all these encounters, I was still looking forward to the weekend girls' ski trip in Austria with a dear friend. Westendorf, a small alpine village in Austria, holds a special place in my heart.

After finishing Matric I had gone to work in Westendorf as a ski instructor and barmaid. After four seasons working there over varsity holidays, I had made friends and knew the mountain like the back of my hand. I was excited to show it to my friend and spend time reconnecting.

Somewhere in the back of my mind was that voice: “Northern Italy is so close to Austria. Is this wise?” but the counter-voice responded, “It’s only the flu. The snow will be amazing! You’re not old, you’ll be fine if you catch it.” I’ve always had a bit of a FOMO (fear of missing out) streak, so in this instance, the second voice won the argument.

Fast-forward 48 hours: My colleagues in Europe were closing business units and retrenching staff – some closing their doors for the first time in decades.

72 hours later, and I almost couldn’t get out of Austria as all trains were cancelled, and the flight board at Munich airport displayed about a quarter cancelled flights. I gave myself an extra five hours to get to the airport and made it just in time.

By the time I landed in Cape Town, I was relieved to be on home soil – but nervous for what lay ahead. As I reviewed my mental to-do list, and disembarked the Lufthansa flight, I was surprised at how full the flight still was.

Saving the business

I passed the thermometer checkpoint and was one of the only passengers in the “South African nationals” queue. The foreign nationals queue was chock-a-block. Good news for business, I thought… we don’t know what is about to hit us.

The day I arrived back there were 17 confirmed cases in South Africa, and I felt like I had been to the future – according to my calculation South Africa was about two weeks behind Germany. A week earlier when I’d left there were just over 100 confirmed cases, and on the day I left there were over 2 000. Today (a week later) there are over 9 000 cases in Germany.

I just had to read that sentence again. That’s 90X in 2 weeks. I felt obliged to tell my family and friends how quickly the “k*k” had hit the fan and make a plan to save my business.

After dropping my bags at home, I checked in at the office and discussed my thoughts and actions with my team, and business partner. My business partner was destined to leave for Europe the next day, and we had a lot of decisions to make.

On my way to collecting my kids from school, I received a WhatsApp message from the principal asking all parents who had been abroad to self-quarantine for 14 days with their children in order to minimise any risk. I was outraged.

I don’t have time for this, I thought. I need to get going on the plan. I walked into the principal’s office to ask if this was true – after all I had been in Germany, not Italy.

Hardly any symptoms

I felt furious and frustrated. I knew it was probably for the greater good, but I couldn’t warrant the personal sacrifice. I took the kids to a playdate and went home to stew. Over dinner at a local restaurant we decided it probably was the right thing to do and stocked up our house with supplies. That was six days ago – it seems like a lifetime.

Our family doctor arranged the forms for me to get tested the next morning. My hope was to get the test, prove I was negative, and go back to work.

I went to a private laboratory in town and may have been one of the first handful of tests. The team were apprehensive, yet professional. I had to argue with the administrator to get tested as I was hardly displaying any symptoms.

I mentioned the dry cough I got from the airplane, and coughed a few times – she was not impressed. I explained my mission: I needed to get back to work. She continued that I didn’t fit the full criteria, and that there were limited tests available.

I lost my sh*t.

My parents are both doctors, and I knew with a phone call I could go to any other lab and get the test. I told her that I was getting the test today, with her or with their competitor. The name dropping and “strop” did the trick and she admitted me for the test. After the adrenaline died down I felt a bit skaam as I really did overdo it a bit.

A swab 'halfway to my brain'

Within five minutes I was called in to the nursing cubicle. I kept thinking they were really under-dressed. The administrator wasn't even wearing a mask or gloves. That was the first time I considered the implications of being a carrier, and how horrible I would feel if I managed to transfer the virus.

The nurse came in and was handed gloves and a mask. No hazmat suit. No blue goggles. He seemed nervous, but had kind eyes. The administrator offered to hold my head so not to move as the test could be painful. It was mildly unpleasant to say the least – a swab up my nose and halfway to my brain. The nurse called it “the sweet spot”. Then there was a throat swab that made me gag.

I suddenly realised how badly this could go if I were indeed positive.

I returned to life in self-quarantine, as we awaited the results. The school health advisory body was now in constant communication with me. I was preparing my arguments in advance to bring the kids back when I tested negative.

I felt the pressure mounting to make changes in the business, and struggled to keep up with the kids, housework, chores and calls with my team.

Self-quarantine for two weeks

On the first day of self-quarantine we had six hours of load shedding – Koeberg had lost a unit, and we had three blocks a day of no electricity, no WiFi and no cellphone reception. It was trying, to say the least.

Late on Friday night our physician called with my results: The test was positive.

I felt a wave of calm wash over me as we received the news and my husband took the lead in asking a barrage of questions: Could this be a false positive? No. Can we leave the house? No. What about the people I came into contact with? They would have to go into self-quarantine for 14 days. A health official will make contact tomorrow. I heard our doctor encouraging us not to stress, that she would help us monitor our health from afar, especially our three-year-old, who had had respiratory issues as a toddler.

At that point my heart stopped. I hadn’t considered the implications of him contracting the virus. I was suddenly terrified and overcome with guilt. Should I remove myself from the family? No. There are no reported cases of deaths or severity under nine years old, and the emotional trauma would be far worse if the kids and I were separated now.

Our doctor advised us to stay anonymous to the school, as the emotional impact of angry parents and potential stigma and bullying could be traumatising to our children. We, however, decided to take an open approach, and address the parents directly and ask their support.

Kids remain top priority

We have been inundated with offers of help and support, with parcels of flowers and food chucked over the wall. For this, and all the quiet words of encouragement I am eternally grateful.

I never believed I would test positive and have sobered up to the strength of the spread. While my husband John and I are reeling with how to deal with our businesses, our children remain out top priority and we are focusing on creating a routine, taking turns cleaning the house and trying to keep healthy and exercise.

The school subsequently closed, following a number of other cases of closed schools, and the parents and the school have been supportive throughout the whole experience.

From home schooling resources, child-friendly coronavirus explanations and homemade muffins and wine – the strength of the community has shone through.

I have a feeling that we may reflect back on this time as a turning point in our humanity.

Kim Whitaker is the CEO and co-founder of Once Travel – a youth travel company that operates experiences and hub hotels for adventurous travellers and storytellers. She has set up a fund for the Team of Once in Cape Town and Once in Joburg, where friends of Once can contribute

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