In the evening I went for a run, down to the gate from my guesthouse, past a huddle of round huts and through the fields of sugar cane to the lake. A dog barked, a child howled, someone laughed, and tinny music played somewhere in the gathering darkness.
Eshowe, a small town in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, is a place of astonishing natural beauty. The run did not last long. I stopped and watched as weavers, glossy starlings and sunbirds swooped through the trees, catching the last rays of the sun. To the north, low dry hills lined the horizon. To the south, the breakers of the Indian Ocean crashed on miles of wild shore. Eshowe was memorable for something else too: the very human suffering I found there, and equally human hope.
That was my last moment of relative freedom before the Covid-19 pandemic struck South Africa. Even as I flew down from my home in Johannesburg to drive up to Eshowe, the first cases of this new disease were being reported across the continent I have been covering for the Guardian and the Observer for more than four years. It was far too early to know what this new outbreak would mean for South Africa or anywhere else, but if anywhere had any answers, Eshowe would.
I was there to report a different epidemic. Eshowe had been a centre of the HIV crisis in South Africa, one of the worst hit nations in the world. But in recent years the situation was much improved. New drugs, deeper understanding, clever strategies, more resources and a new social tolerance had allowed the community to better manage its tragedy. The contrast between Eshowe’s stunning surroundings and the pain of so many in the town was marginally less stark.
I met Sthandwa Buthelezi, an astonishing woman who had lost her parents, daughter and three sisters to HIV but who joyfully told me that “one day there will be no more HIV here, and the people of Eshowe will be free, free, free.”
When Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa, went on national television to underline the threat Covid-19 posed, he was praised by those who remembered how the dangers of HIV had been denied by previous leaders, with lethal consequences. Support for the lockdown Ramaphosa imposed – one of the strictest anywhere in the world – was widespread. One legacy of South Africa’s long battle with HIV and tuberculosis is its wealth of top-class epidemiologists and extensive community health networks. Both went into action to fight this new threat.
In more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent I have covered many different tragedies: a dozen or so wars, earthquakes and other natural disasters, political calamities of all types. Most recently, I have reported on a small war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, been among civilians in a crowd fired on by soldiers in Zimbabwe, travelled to hunger-hit towns in South Sudan and to cholera-stricken villages in Somalia.
But this was different. All borders were closed; all airports shut. This time there was no possibility of a swift return to a safe European, or other, home, if the crisis became a personal threat. And my status as a journalist or a UK citizen was no protection against a virus, nor would it keep my family safe. And even wars or tsunamis are quantifiable in a way this new danger did not seem to be.
The following weeks were a marathon of WhatsApp or Skype calls to ask contacts and contributors across the continent what was happening where they were. The answers were often cryptic, fragmentary and confused. My job became patching these responses together into something more coherent. The picture that came slowly into focus diverged substantially from that given in local and international media, as well as in the innumerable Zoomed press conferences given by officials.
These tended to be reassuring – or at least not alarmist. The numbers were low, though they could get higher, was the message. But one thing that quickly became clear was that almost all statistics on the continent needed to be treated with extreme caution. Even the more reliable gave an impression of what was happening that was at best partial. Others were downright misleading. Frightened leaders everywhere were deliberately downplaying the extent of infections, well aware of how the pandemic was exposing their own failures to build adequate health systems for 99% of their compatriots. In Nigeria, Tanzania, Burundi and Somalia, there were attempts to obscure early outbreaks: but medical professionals, victims, ambulance drivers – even gravediggers – reported a different story.
Then there was the human cost of the lockdowns. In wealthy nations, salaries were paid to hundreds of millions at home. Across Africa – in the South African townships of Khayelitsha, Alexandria or…