Melanie Verwoerd | My family got Covid-19: What we have learnt in the past week

A general view of people testing for Covid-19 at Cape Town clinic.
A general view of people testing for Covid-19 at Cape Town clinic.
Gallo Images/Jacques Stander

Having lived with Covid-19 in my house for more than a week, I have learned a lot. How each one of us behaves in the next few weeks will determine if and to what extent we will still have an economy, social cohesion and peace once this epidemic is over, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

It is likely that the government will soon announce more stringent lock-down measures to contain the Covid-19 epidemic.

This will have massive implications for our economy, but we should all support it.

This is why I do.

In the last week my family became part of the statistics. Both my children have tested positive. I’m still waiting for my test results, but since I've been caring for them and exhibit similar symptoms, I (and my doctor) assume that the result will be the same.

Having lived with Covid-19 in my house for more than a week, I have learned a lot. It took some courage to write about it, because my children are very private and have always steered clear of the media.

However, with so many people ignoring the social distancing and isolation requests by government they have agreed that I can write about it.

So what have we learned?

Let me start with the most important thing:

You might not know that you have it

Our symptoms differed vastly. My one child was desperately ill. She ran a very high fever for about four days, developed a bad cough and became very short of breath.

For all of us it started with diarrhoea and then we bizarrely lost our sense of taste and smell.

However, for my son and I it felt more like a very bad head cold.

We never had a fever but felt extreme exhaustion, had sore throats and tight chests. 

Given the severity of my daughter’s symptoms, we knew that she was likely to have contracted the Covid-19 virus even before it was confirmed. However, if it wasn’t for her and of course the public awareness education, we would have assumed that we only had bad colds.

So this is the good news: for most people it will only feel like a head cold. But it is also the bad news. You can have it and not even know it and by not distancing yourself from others you will infect other people who are not as strong as you and might die from it.

My daughter was very run down when she contracted it and thus her symptoms were severe – despite being younger than 30 years of age. My son and I were healthier and have got through it relatively easily.

In our country where millions of people have compromised immune systems, this epidemic will make them VERY, VERY ill and many will die if it reaches them.

So unless we want to see rows and rows of coffins and mass graves as in Italy and Iran, there is an obligation on all of us to stay at least 2 meters away from people even when we feel totally healthy. Of course, if there is any chance of having contracted it, it is an absolute necessity to stay totally isolated from people for at least 14 days.

Avoid big gatherings

Our best guess is that we contracted it at a wedding on 12 March (three days before the president’s announcement), with a large group of foreign guests in attendance. Importantly, as far as we know no one had any symptoms at the time.

Given how infectious Covid-19 is, we had to inform all the guests who also had to go into isolation as soon as we got sick to prevent any further spread.

From international experience we know that this disease spreads fast. At the time of our event there were only a handful of confirmed cases in South Africa and no restrictions were yet in place. 

A week later the numbers have jumped exponentially and it will undoubtedly continue to grow unless people start taking it seriously and like ourselves and our guests, isolate.

It doesn't matter who 'gave' it to you

Although virologists and the government want to be able to trace the epidemic, it makes very little sense on a personal level to try and figure out where you got it.

In our case there are hundreds of possibilities. We have also immediately experienced how panic can make people deeply intolerant. It seems there is only one thing that spreads faster than the virus and that is false news and rumours about it.

The minister of health said a few days ago that 60% of the population is likely to contract the virus. The problem is that given the panic and misinformation on social media, there are already stories of people who wore masks being thrown off taxis and suspected cases being threatened with violence.

We know how misinformation and panic in the early stages of the HIV pandemic caused the deaths of many people – not by the virus, but by people killing them.

This in turn will mean that people won’t go for testing or seek treatment.

Our focus should be on preventing the spread of the disease and helping those who are sick and vulnerable whilst also countering misinformation and panic.


The testing is now taking very long. My son’s results took five days and mine will presumably take longer.

Although it is important to get tested once and only once you have symptoms, assume that you have it and isolate even though the results remain unclear.

What doesn't kill us makes us stronger

We have to stand together as a country to fight this. Therefore, whilst we have to isolate, we also have to care deeply about all our fellow citizens. Perhaps we should rather start talking about physical distancing and social cohesion.

This virus does not discriminate between race, class or gender. There is nowhere in the world to flee to, nowhere to hide. We are inextricably bound together in this fight.

How each one of us behaves in the next few weeks will determine if and to what extent we will still have an economy, social cohesion and peace once this epidemic is over. As South Africans we have to immediately pay attention, do the right thing and help each other.

This is not about trying to see how we can "cheat" the government’s regulations by ordering more drinks just before 6 pm or still getting together or (yes, Minister Zulu) strolling around Melrose Arch on shopping expeditions.

It is about the survival of our nation.

If we do the right thing now, we will come out of this stronger and more together. If we don’t, it will have catastrophic implications that will last for decades. 

My family and I have another few days to go and another round of tests before we receive the all clear.

I don't wish the last week on anyone else, so please stay safe.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland


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