Catherine with her Sahrawi family outside of the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria
Catherine with her Sahrawi family outside of the refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria

’My agonizing battle against Covid-19’

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Dec 13, 2020

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To those who have convinced themselves that Covid-19 is nothing but a bad flu, this is a story that will leave you reeling. To all those who think Covid won’t affect you because you are young, healthy and without comorbidities, you had better think again. Catherine Constantinides’ story will shake you to the core.

Catherine is one of the most beautiful young South African activists this country has produced, her face recognisable in most corners of this country. She is seen in the places most people choose to ignore, where the downtrodden need food and the dispossessed are fighting for their rights. From at Gugulethu township to the Tindouf refugee camps of Western Sahara, the most iconic images of Catherine have been captured as she lives her truth.

If there was one person I thought would never succumb to this year’s dreaded coronavirus it was Catherine, as she somehow seemed invincible. So when I touched base with her recently and she recounted the nightmare she has lived through over the past five months, I was quite literally in shock.

“For weeks I was too scared to fall asleep as I just couldn’t breathe. The idea of falling into a deep sleep and never waking up again terrified me. There is nothing more frightening than gasping for air and feeling as though your lungs are trapped in concrete. The most scary part is that five months after contracting Covid in July, there are days that my lungs still feel encased in concrete and I just can’t take in oxygen,” Catherine told me.

Strangely, in Catherine’s case she never had any flu-like symptoms, no sore throat, no fever, no coughing, no loss of taste or smell. What hit her like a tsunami was the agonising body pain, the unbearable chest compression, and the indescribable exhaustion that for weeks left her unable to even get out of bed. My own doctor who got Covid around the same time described the agony as feeling like someone was scraping her body with barbed wire day after day without any respite. She described it quite literally as torture.

Catherine’s mental anguish is something most of us can never imagine. “There were days that I simply don’t remember, and there were days when the physical and emotional pain was almost too much to bear. I remember my little boy sitting outside my bedroom door crying day after day, begging me to let him see me as he would rather get Covid and then be able to be with me. The isolation for 24 days was the loneliest time of my life. I had one friend who would speak to me throughout the day, every day, and without her and my family I don’t know how I would ever have gotten through this.”

Catherine lives with her mum who happens to have comorbidities, so the constant concern that she could pass on the virus to her mother living in the same house compounded the emotional strain. Catherine also lives with her mother’s younger sister, who teaches at a school nearby. One day in early July, Catherine’s aunt had come home unaware that she was carrying the coronavirus, which she had contracted from one of the children at school. She was presenting no symptoms, and was completely unaware she was spreading the virus to her niece at home. This remains the danger of children continuing to attend school in the middle of a raging pandemic, as they often bring the invisible enemy home with them even if they don’t get sick themselves.

Catherine recounted how her hair fell out in chunks to the point she was unable to brush it, and her nail beds became disfigured. But the worst was the migraines, the pounding pain that never let up and led to dizziness and blackouts. These are some of the long-term symptoms that she has had to fight through post the initial Covid period. They only manifested themselves in the weeks following the time that she was actively positive. Catherine says that the Covid residue continues to live in the liquid around her brain, her heart and her lungs, and the doctors simply don’t know enough about the virus to say what type of long-term side effects it will have.

“Five months on I am still having dizziness, blackouts, and often I can’t even concentrate and I avoid my laptop altogether. There are days that writing an email is even too difficult and mornings that I wake up with no energy at all. The mind tells you that you are capable of filling up your diary with board meetings and a host of appointments, only for your body to render itself incapable of doing any of it, and you have to cancel everything,” Catherine laments.

She feels that she has finally turned a corner as there seem to be slightly more good days than bad now. For the first four months she was on intensive medication which she weaned herself off of as the medicine also presented side effects. Now she remains on heart medication as she continues to suffer from heart complications as a result of Covid. Perhaps the biggest victory is that she has started walking again, taking it slowly but pushing her body to fight back against the constant fatigue. She is determined to get up and show up regardless of what her body demands.

“What makes me so angry are those people who are so nonchalant about this virus as if it is no big deal. Who think they can keep meeting with people, going to restaurants, gathering indoors and thinking it will never affect them. Even if they are lucky enough that it doesn’t, it is so easy for them to carry Covid back to their families, their parents and grandparents who could actually die. Being liberal in one’s thinking is not going to save you from this virus – as Sweden learnt the hard way,” Catherine says.

Sweden gave its citizens the option of isolating by choice and avoided locking down the country when the rest of the world was doing so. People were not asked to wear masks in public, and somehow the government and health professionals thought that herd immunity was the answer. But the naiveté of Sweden’s officialdom has proved them wrong in the long run. Last week Sweden finally imposed a serious lockdown – a complete lockdown of the country – and even alcohol sales are now being regulated in one of the most liberal countries in the world. Sweden’s spike is now among the worst in the world if compared with its population.

In terms of advice that Catherine was willing to share apart from the obvious wearing of a mask and washing hands regularly, she recommends boosting your immune system as much as possible throughout this pandemic. In addition to the obvious zinc, vitamin C, and vitamin D, Catherine is a firm believer in black seed oil and honey as well as fresh oranges and lemons to ensure a healthy immune system.

When I asked her what this virus has taught her, she was unequivocal:

“This virus has given us all a chance to pause and reflect on what is important in our lives, and given us a chance to prioritise the things that really matter. What it made me ask myself is: If I don’t get tomorrow, what would I do today?”

Catherine’s Twitter and Instagram account is @ChangeAgent

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