Pali Lehohla, former Statistics South Africa head. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)
Pali Lehohla, former Statistics South Africa head. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)

OPINION: When Covid-19 hits a little too close to home

By Opinion Time of article published Jul 24, 2020

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By Pali Lehohla

JOHANNESBURG - Information can never be more than enough in dispelling myths and shedding light on the realities over coronavirus.

Little did I know that the virus would present itself in my home three days ago, where two of my family members are now Covid-19 positive.

The doctor gave us a machine that helps inhaling and it was quite entertaining when we had to assemble it.

It had two plastic masks and we thought that both gadgets should fit at the same time. We spent a solid 15 minutes to figure out that the two masks are one for adults and the other for children. In a state of shock the mind freezes.

To think earlier this year the world was clueless to the oncoming pandemic that has left us all disrupted. It took a while for the reality to hit home.

At the beginning of March, I attended the annual ritual of national statisticians at the United Nations in New York as part of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) team.

En route to New York I was scheduled to go to Rome where we were to focus on the Fourth UN Development Decade. There I would have presented on Multi-Dimensional poverty measures as an Oxford Research Associate and a member of the OPHI team.

The session in Italy was cancelled because of coronavirus that was rearing its head in Italy. I bought two masks at OR Tambo and donned one immediately and throughout the flight.

Upon arrival at JFK Airport in New York, everyone was relaxed and there were no masks.

Except for a few people there were literally no masks, although I am one not shy of feeling odd at least in my yellow suit, the mask made me feel pretty odd.

So as soon as I got to my hotel I laid it off and vowed never to have it on again.

Even on coming back to South Africa, I did not know where the mask was.

In New York the Chief Statisticians of China and Italy did not attend the United Nations Statistics Commission (UNSC) because of the outbreak of coronavirus in their countries.

The bean counters of the world seemed unconcerned about this impending danger as we exchanged pleasantries by hand shake and a hug or the Francophone Africa where the corners of the forehead bounce three times.

Occasionally we would do the leg greeting to much rapturous delight. The streets of New York were very reassuring without anyone wearing a mask. We felt completely secure under the guidance of US President Donwald Trump’s mighty America.

There was little talk about the virus as we went on with our business, but the corridors remarked that the UNSC that the UNSC could be the last face to face meeting and the UN Women Session was unlikely to be held.

The seven days went very fast and soon it was the morning to head home on SAA. Upon arrival South Africa was equally relaxed.

Three days later I had an appointment at the airport with the University of Zululand to discuss graduation matters and all was set to happen in May and all was reassured.

The afternoon I went to present at Workplace in Sandton and Ashraf Garda, the founder of the Champion South Africa Movement, was our host.

But before we could present Ashraf asked Andrew Mason, the chief executive of Workplace, to address us. We recorded what he presented at pace, anxiety all over his face as he said that within days the world will change including that the session I was presenting on was the last to be hosted there as they ready themselves to close.

He said they had just been in a global meeting with doctors who were saying they had no clue about what was ravaging people, but they were dying. It was a sobering ten minutes rendition. And a penny began to drop.

These memory resurfaced recently, when Ashraf shared with us that he had had coronavirus three weeks ago.

But back to the present.

With a long list of warnings along the way, you cannot be warned enough until the invisible enemy steps at your door.

The evil self-isolation and all rearrangements can be very trying.

The reality of thinking about people who have to face this that are in shacks dawns on you squarely on what they have to cope with in the rain and cold fronts of the Western Cape. This invisible enemy.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him at or @palilj01.

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