Nearly every aspect of life today is dramatically different than it was a year ago.
Nearly every aspect of life today is dramatically different than it was a year ago.

TIMELINE: A year of Covid-19 in SA

By Rudolph Nkgadima, Kelly Jane Turner Time of article published Mar 5, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - Nearly every aspect of life today is dramatically different than it was a year ago.

Today marks one year since South Africa confirmed the first positive case of the coronavirus.

The patient was a 38-year-old male who travelled to Italy with his wife. They were part of a group of 10 people and they arrived back in South Africa on March 1, 2020.

The pandemic has upended life as we know it: activities like crowded sporting events and packed concerts have become a thing of the past; while face masks and physical distancing have become the norm.

From lifestyle changes to better eating habits to spending more time outdoors or experiencing nature, the pandemic has brought about a significant lifestyle change.

Throughout the pandemic, there have been various phases where each month went through different phases of lockdown.

March – The onset of chaos

The day before the 21-day lockdown in South Africa saw panic buying across the country as shop queues were out the doors. Toilet paper, water and hand sanitiser were some of the most sought after items.

Kerry O’Connor, a 32-year-old Capetonian, was among the first 200 confirmed Covid-19 cases in South Africa. She said that throughout her month-long experience in overcoming the virus, coping with anxiety was the hardest part.

O’Connor, who manages a team of creatives for an online education company, said that she contracted the virus before the national lockdown had started.

“The hardest part was the anxiety I experienced because it’s a new virus and scientists are still learning about it. Everyone experiences it differently and it is impossible to know how it will affect you, and sometimes I couldn’t help but imagine the worst,” she said.

Scientists and researchers around the world at the time were still in the early phases of understanding the virus. Symptoms of the virus were widely circulated and the public were advised to get tested if they had a sore throat, a cough or fatigue.

March also saw a push for social distancing as it would help ‘flatten the curve’, in other words slow the rate of infection over a period of time.

Covid-19 cases were at over 1 000 by the end of March, and the first two deaths were recorded on the first full day of lockdown.

April – Adapting to the online way of life

With the country in level 5 lockdown and only essential services operating, South Africans had to learn to adapt to the “new normal”. Many schools took to online learning, universities did the same and hosted online graduations.

Many graduates took the liberty of planning their own “graduation ceremony” at home.

The country commences mass testing, particularly in townships and rural areas. Facilities such as drive-through testing centres are set up.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country’s national lockdown would be extended by two weeks, beyond the initial 21 days.

With limitations on gatherings, the emergence of drive-by baby showers was popular during this time. Similarly, TV awards and talk shows are also evidence of changed formats due to the pandemic.

Online workouts and taking part in social media challenges were popular as more people were confined to their homes, getting creative in the kitchen became a popular trend.

Search interest for the word “recipe” reached an all-time high in South Africa and worldwide during the pandemic, Google Trends found. The top searched for recipes include baked goods, like banana bread and brownies.

April also saw a surge in alcohol-related google searches. According to Google, searches on Google South Africa for ‘alcohol ban South Africa’ spiked 500% in the second week of lockdown. High levels of search interest were also seen for the terms ‘how to get alcohol’ and ‘homemade alcohol’.

Towards the end of April, Ramaphosa announced a phased relaxation of the lockdown restrictions and detailed a 5 level alert system.

May – Lockdown fatigue sets in, but little did we know

South Africa moved to lockdown level 4 in May, and the Western Cape became the country's Covid-19 epicentre. An estimated 1.5 million South Africans returned to work, as some industries reopened under level 4.

Public health experts raised concern over "quarantine fatigue" as Covid-19 lockdowns continued around the world. Experts suggested there were signs of fatigue not only with quarantine policy but even more with lockdown policies that shut down entire economies.

As Covid-19 infections surged, so did common myths and misconceptions. Conspiracy theories based on unsupported facts and beliefs led to claims that 5G and the Coronavirus are linked. In KwaZulu-Natal, four telecommunication towers were torched as a result of the global conspiracy theory linking 5G to Covid-19.

If South Africans were caught breaking lockdown regulations, they would be issued with a fine for up to R5 000. The South African Judiciary issued a list of offences which outlined how much money citizens will have to pay in ‘admission of guilt’ if they are found breaking lockdown rules.

Towards the end of May, Professor Salim Abdool Karim said that South Africa had begun to flatten the curve and the country saw the end of the first wave.

June – Covid-19 survivors share their recovery stories

South Africa entered into alert level 3 of the national lockdown in June where alcohol was permitted to be sold for home consumption on specified days and hours. The sale of tobacco products remained prohibited.

Schools and universities reopened with a phased approach. After 10 weeks of the ban on commercial flights in the country, limited domestic air travel was permitted for business purposes.

In June, the country had been battling the virus for three months, and South Africans began sharing their recovery stories.

July - Covid-19 ‘long haulers’ report lingering symptoms

South Africa became the fifth-worst affected by the coronavirus cases globally with more than 360 000 infections.

Ramaphosa announced the immediate ban of alcohol sales as the country remained in alert level 3. Mkhize said the decision to ban alcohol sales was to alleviate the pressure on hospitals. A curfew from 9pm-4am was introduced and family visits were prohibited.

All South African public schools would be “taking a break for the next four weeks,” and the academic year would be extended beyond the end of 2020.

At the time, South Africa had the fifth-highest number of Covid-19 infections in the world with over 400 000 cases and accounted for half of the cases on the continent.

Elsewhere, more than 100 potential Covid-19 vaccines are in various stages of development. Pre-clinical trials and human testing were being conducted.

Covid-19 “long haulers” also began sharing their stories. Some side effects seemed to linger on long after recovery. One such symptom was the loss of smell and taste. People were conducted “taste tests” to see when their sense of taste would return.

Fifty-year-old Covid-19 survivor from Port Elizabeth, Gavin Biggs said he battled with Covid-19 symptoms for over four months and his recovery was slow.

“I can confirm 100% that there is a long sting in the tail when it comes to Covid. Nine weeks after I left the hospital, I used a walking stick because I had no strength, no energy, and my heart rate was very high for a long period of time,” he said.

“This disease is not to be taken lightly, especially for people with underlying conditions like myself. This was incredibly challenging, and I had to dig deep to be able to recover from Covid-19,” said Biggs.

July saw South Africa breach the 200 000 benchmark for Covid-19 infections, while deaths were over 3 000.

August – Honouring the frontliners

At the time, the country had battled the virus for close to six months, which took its toll on healthcare workers.

Specialist Physician and Pulmonologist from Melomed Gatesville, Dr Bilal Gafoor, described his experience on the Covid-19 frontline as "challenging, heartbreaking and humbling".

Gafoor, who has been practising at Melomed since 2013, said, in particular, one of the most heartbreaking moments had been treating and caring for colleagues that he has worked with for many years.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said he was cautiously optimistic as hospital admissions were declining.

President Ramaphosa announced the lowering of restrictions to level 2 and the extension of the national state of disaster by another month.

Level 2 saw the prohibition on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products lifted, gyms and fitness centres were reopened, and restaurants, bars and taverns were permitted to operate according to approved protocols.

Johnson and Johnson — the vaccine South Africa is currently rolling out — said in a media statement that their human testing for the Covid-19 vaccine was taking place.

September – The return of some normality

South Africa moved to alert level 1 of the national lockdown and certain restrictions implemented since March 2020 to prevent the spread of the virus are eased. The sales of alcohol from licensed vendors were allowed between 9am and 5 pm on weekdays. The national overnight curfew remained in place between 12am - 4am.

The use of face masks remained mandatory in public places and members of the public are still required to comply with social distancing measures. Beaches and public parks were open but subject to strict health protocols.

Minister Mkhize revealed that about 12 million South Africans developed antibodies against the Coronavirus.

A seroprevalence study found that people in high-density areas could have generated this immunity because of previous widespread exposure to common cold coronaviruses.

President Ramaphosa called on citizens to take part in the #Jerusalemachallenge by duo Master KG and Nomcebo Zikode for Heritage Day.

“There can be no better celebration of our South Africanness than joining the global phenomenon that is the Jerusalema dance challenge,” he said.

October – Tourism back in full swing as SA opens its borders

South Africa opens borders for travel within Africa and internationally, effective from October 1. All travellers will be required to provide evidence of a negative Covid-19 test taken within 72 hours prior to arrival in the country and will be screened on arrival.

Universities and tertiary education facilities are also permitted to reopen and accommodate students at full capacity. This measure includes foreign students in line with international travel regulations and compulsory quarantine measures.

President Ramaphosa said in an address that crime and corruption would be a key focus area as South Africa looks to rebuild the economy following the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic.

November – Further easing of Covid-19 restrictions

There were 64,552 new cases in November, raising the total number of confirmed cases to 790,004. The death toll rose to 21,535. The number of recovered patients increased to 731,242, leaving 37,227 active cases at the end of the month.

South Africa announces that it would be scrapping its list of high-risk travel countries, which had been in place since borders were reopened earlier this month. This effectively opens up the country to tourists from all countries, although individuals will still need to present a negative Covid-19 test on arrival. It was not specified when the new travel measures come into force.

December – The holiday season with the second wave an added variant

In December, Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize announces that the country has entered its second wave, largely as a result of end-of-year matric rage parties, considered ‘super spreader’ events.

Lockdown measures were tightened, including the closure of certain beaches and decreasing the number of people at gatherings and on December 18, it’s announced that the new ‘South African variant’, 501Y.V2, has been discovered and is driving the second wave of infections.

The number of positive Covid-19 cases reaches one million and the country enters into adjusted Level 3 of lockdown for two weeks, with a ban on alcohol, closure of beaches and public parks, and extension of curfew hours.

As of December 30, the country is at Adjusted Alert Level 3. A nationwide curfew is in place from 9pm to 6am. Cloth face masks are mandatory in public across South Africa.

The beginning of 2021 heralded the vaccination phase and has continued into February and March, which has seen the entire world consumed by the production, distribution, administration and discussion of all things vaccines.

January – South Africa’s vaccine plan revealed

A vaccine rollout strategy was announced on 3 January 2021, with doses for 10% of the population already secured and more on the way. During the first phase, frontline healthcare workers would be vaccinated.

The 501. V2 variant is found in all nine provinces as well as in foreign countries, but experts are unsure if the rise in cases is related to the new variant or to a lack of compliance with health guidelines during the holiday period. Several countries have banned flights from South Africa, and all 20 of the country's land entry points have been closed until February.

February- South Africa’s vaccine rollout campaign launched

One million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine arrived at OR Tambo International Airport from India on 1 February. On February 7, it was announced that the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 did not work well in protecting clinical trial participants from mild or moderate illness caused by the 501. V2 variant. The vaccination programme was announced to be put on hold.

On February 17, the Johnson and Johnson implementation study was officially rolled out, beginning at Khayelitsha District Hospital in the Western Cape.

Cape Town nurse Zoliswa Gidi-Dyosi became the first South African to receive the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine.

Once the implementation study is concluded, South Africans can expect to be vaccinated within the next three months, this is according to Professor Glenda Gray who is heading the study in the country.

March – The threat of the ‘third wave’ draws near

South Africa enters Level 1 of lockdown as the second wave of the virus ends. More than 9 million tests were conducted. More than 1.5 million confirmed cases and 49 993 deaths.


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