Mandy Wiener | Remember their names – share stories of Covid instead of stigmatising people

Barry and Heidi Volkwijn, who both died of Covid-19.
Barry and Heidi Volkwijn, who both died of Covid-19.
Heidi Volkwijn via Facebook

It is fundamentally important that those who have either contracted the virus, or who have lost someone to it, speak out and share their stories. We must know the names and faces of these people, instead of losing them to the anonymity of the numbers released in a statement by the health minister each night.



For a long time, coronavirus was a mythical thing in lands far away that plagued other people. An abstract concept we couldn't quite comprehend. For months we prepared for its arrival, with mounting fear and anxiety. Now it is here in all its fury and mystery. It is in our homes, in our shops, in our schools and in our hospitals. It is among us.

We each now know someone who has contracted the virus or has in one way or another been affected by it. It is no longer a foreign, intangible concept for which we are preparing. I personally know over a dozen people – and I mean directly know them – who have tested positive in the last couple of weeks.

We are riding into the eye of the storm.

As journalists, we are always trying to give a "human face" to a much bigger story. Over 10 million people globally have contracted Covid-19 and already 2 000 people have died in South Africa alone. But we endeavour to make these abstract concepts more human and more personal.

News24's feature We Remember is an example of this, paying tribute to those who have died.

In the last few days alone, I have been reading about those who have succumbed to the illness here at home. Many have stayed with me, haunting me, as I worry about what could happen.

I haven't been able to stop thinking about Cape Town teenager Amy Volkwijn, who lost both her parents, Barry (48) and Heidi (43) within hours of one another. The couple died a day after their 21st wedding anniversary. They had spent the day comatose and on ventilators.

On Facebook, I have been following the Heroes of Groote Schuur group, which has gone viral, giving an inside glimpse into the corridors of the Cape Town hospital. More importantly, it also introduces us to those frontline healthcare workers, who are bravely fighting the virus and those who have died trying to save others. They are indeed heroes. I can see the face of Zenobia Hendricks, a telecom operator, who will be missed for her humour and sparkle.

It is fundamentally important that those who have either contracted the virus, or who have lost someone to it, speak out and share their stories. We must know the names and faces of these people, instead of losing them to the anonymity of the numbers released in a statement by the health minister each night.

I've seen more and more personal anecdotes appearing on my social media timelines that bring the depth of the tragedy to bear. The only way that people will truly appreciate the necessity of the measures being taken is for us all to hear the personal stories of loss.

Sadly, many are reluctant to admit that the virus has entered their homes. This is because of the stigma attached to it. They are fearful of being ostracised. This fear is rooted in the unknown. But because people are choosing not to disclose, it feeds the stigma machine with a knock on effect.

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed this directly in his weekly newsletter. He urged tolerance and kindness.

"As a society, we have a collective responsibility to stamp out the stigmatisation of people infected with the coronavirus. There have been disturbing reports of individuals being ostracised from their communities and of communities protesting against coronavirus patients being admitted to local hospitals and clinics. This must stop.

"Just as we came together to promote acceptance of people living with HIV and stood firm against victimisation, we must show understanding, tolerance, kindness, empathy and compassion for those who are infected with this virus and for their families," said the president.

I think of the story of Middelburg mother Nomawethu*, who had to flee her home after her family rejected her because she tested positive. Unemployed with two children, she had been self-isolating in a shack in Cradock after visiting a hospital with flu-like symptoms.

Now is the time for us to share our stories of how the pandemic has struck us on a personal level. We shouldn't be concealing our experiences under the cover of darkness. This only gives it more power as an elusive, abstract concept. Of a thing that happens to other people, not us.

In his beautiful tribute to his 94-year-old mother Philma, who died of Covid-19, Trevor Manuel acknowledges that his family had a discussion about whether to disclose the cause of death. They chose to be open about it.

"I have no reason to hide the fact that Mom passed away after exposure to Covid-19. She had been housebound since long before the lockdown – we spoke every day until she was hospitalised," Manuel wrote. "Notwithstanding this, she had been exposed to the virus and I raise this because we all need to take every precaution possible to prevent the spread. It is a virus spread by people and we need to be mature about how we deal with it, how we each play a role in preventing the spread unwittingly, and how society manages the consequences."

It is time to stop thinking that this plague is something that strikes down other people. Our actions need to reflect the reality of this situation. None of us is immune and we need to continue to be open and transparent about this reality and demystify it, instead of casting the sick to the fringes of society.

- Mandy Wiener is a specialist reporter for News24.

** Want to respond to the columnist? Send your letter or article to voices@news24.com with your name, profile picture, contact details and location. We encourage a diversity of voices and views in our readers' submissions and reserve the right not to publish any and all submissions received.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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