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TWO YEARS OF COVID: The day my city fell silent

Anton Lembede (Smith) Street in Durban is usually teeming with people but on the first day of lockdown it resembled a ghost town. Picture Lee Rondganger

Anton Lembede (Smith) Street in Durban is usually teeming with people but on the first day of lockdown it resembled a ghost town. Picture Lee Rondganger

Published Mar 31, 2022

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On Monday, March 23, 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa had what would become known as the first of many “family meetings”.

The coronavirus was raging around the world, our television news channels were beaming images of overflowing hospitals in Europe, China was on a complete lockdown and the winds of a potential global pandemic had developed into a full-blown raging storm.

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When President Ramaphosa got on to the podium on the evening of March 23, I, like the majority of South Africans, naively believed him when he said that South Africa would only go into lockdown for 21 days, from midnight on March 26.

Let’s just get through these 21 days and life can go back to normal, we all collectively hoped. It won’t be so bad.

How naive we were.

On Friday, March 27, we woke up in a different world.

Silence.

The usual buzz of early morning traffic that reached a crescendo during the school run as parents hurriedly dropped off children at school only to rush to work, fell silent.

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We woke up in a world where all of sudden we could no longer buy cigarettes, alcohol, pies, rotisserie chicken, certain items of clothing and other items deemed unessential.

We could no longer meet for drinks at a bar after work, we could no longer dine in restaurants, order takeaway on a food app and we could no longer pray in our churches, mosques, temples and synagogues.

Silence.

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I remember that as our communities battened down the hatches and stayed indoors on that first Friday, I ventured out.

Armed with my company-issued permit that allowed me through police checkpoints, as I was an essential media worker, I drove towards the Durban city centre.

I was curious to see what a vibrant African city looked like during a government enforced lockdown.

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Silence. That was what I found.

The usually teeming streets of the city centre where street-side hawkers, office workers, retail workers, shoppers and everyone in between jostled for space on the pavements were empty.

Silence had befallen the city.

I took a few pictures on my phone to memorialise the day. Save for a few essential workers' cars on the road, I had never seen the city centre so empty or so quiet before.

The streets of the Durban city centre fell silent on the first day of lockdown. Picture Lee Rondganger.

In the days to come, as we formed silent snaking queues – masked up and 1.5m apart from the next person – outside shops for essential goods, no doubt we had come to realise that our world had indeed changed.

Cigarettes and alcohol were sold at exorbitant prices on the thriving black market while people used their newly-found free time to bake, garden and make hooch to fill the gap left by shuttered liquor stores.

We would have the news on all the time at home, watching every development of the Covid-19 pandemic, where cases were spiking, the rising global death toll and what measures our government was taking to protect us.

Soon, people we knew started dying from Covid. It was no longer a news item you read online or watched on TV. We could put a name to the daily death statistics. We mourned our loved ones from behind closed doors and watched funeral services online.

The 21 days morphed into three months of hard lockdown before restrictions began to ease.

Those three months were terrifying but as I look back on it now, it was also a time of renewal. I got to spend more time with my family as the grind school drop-offs, pick-ups, school sport, extracurricular activities, work, church and social activities with friends fell away.

We made bonfires in the middle of week – just because we could.

I allowed my boys to stay up late as we bonded over games and Netflix series. We watched the entire series of The Office and got addicted to 90 Day Fiancé.

This is what I will remember most of the hard Covid-19 lockdown. The time I spent huddled with my family – getting to know them a little better.

And the silence.

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