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Life is more than dust devils

Shrikant Peters describes the emotional toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on healthcare workers in 2020. He reminds us that life is more than disease and shares his experience of stepping away from the harsh realities of life with the virus and appreciating the small joys of life.

Work

This year has been wall-to-wall chaos in all healthcare facilities across the country – a rollercoaster ride of epic proportions, a constant see-sawing, the collective rush to prop up failing systems in both COVID and non-COVID services as we pitifully tried to meet the onslaught of demand with woefully inadequate resources. It was nausea-inducing, to say the least.

The second wave infections is still climbing over the Western Cape and other provinces over the Christmas holiday period. The President announced a return to Level 3 lockdown. There are no vaccine rollout plans for South Africans yet in sight. The healthcare budget of the coming year is much reduced. None of this gives us any hope that the situation will get any better for the health system, or the country in general.

The dictum ‘it is, what it is’, has gone about the hospital corridors again and again, reverberating the general depression that has enveloped our working spaces. Everyone is at risk, no one is safe, and the workload is mounting. Some older staff have drawn parallels with the worst  of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which gripped the country untreated from the early 1990’s until the ARV rollout in the late 2000’s. The torch is seemingly being passed to a new generation to carry on the good fight; the first battle being won.

Everyone is at risk, no one is safe, and the workload is mounting.

In the healthcare field, we celebrate the many victories which are accomplished on behalf of humanity over the decades, with a heady sense of nostalgia and esteem. One’s medical education is replete with the names of expert thinkers, who diagnosed, invented and cured many of their suffering.

But, is that all there is to it? Are we destined as a species to lurch from one cataclysmic event to another, on a series of misadventures; racing against time to find that magical cure that can end all our collective suffering?

Life

Of course, something which is also celebrated routinely in the medical field is the opportunity to go on leave, and get away from it all, if only for a small reprieve. Recently, I was lucky enough to get two days away from work to spend time with my partner. We chose the small town of Swellendam out in the Overberg region of the Cape. The second wave would have come via here from George to Cape Town.

Swellendam was once an important town, replete with frontier history, evidenced by a large Dutch Reformed Church at the end of the only road that could classify as a ‘business district.’ Christmas lights hung up from telephone pole to telephone pole, shining merrily onto the sparsely populated streets at night.

The days are quite warm and sunny at this time of year. On one of them, I took the opportunity to hike in one of the nature reserves alongside the Langeberg mountain range, which separates the Klein Karoo from the Southern Cape region. The walk took me through forests and valleys, in search of the ravines and waterfalls which cascade down the mountainside on their way down to the farmland below.

It was quiet and peaceful; and even on a sweltering day, it was energizing. On my way back down after a small lunch at the top, I paused to have a look at the view of the sprawling countryside below. As far as the eye could see, were rolling hills, fields of green dotted with quaint farmsteads, waving trees, churches and a patchwork of crisscrossing dirt roads between them. It made for quite an enjoyable view.

I continued to enjoy the moment, and instead reflected on the year that was, and was to come.

After a few minutes, out in the far distance, a disturbance in my peripheral vision caught my attention. Quite dramatically, a whirlwind of dust picked up across a large swathe of flat land on the horizon, forming a dust devil that swirled aggressively in tornado-like fashion. It was interesting, but I was too busy enjoying the vista to pay it any heed. I only had a set amount of time on the mountainside before I needed to get back to my wife in the place we were staying. I left my binoculars around my neck and continued to enjoy the moment, and instead reflected on the year that was, and was to come.

After a few more minutes getting lost in the beauty of the place, it was time to leave. But when I got around to picking up my binoculars to get a final view of the colossal disturbance – it was already nowhere to be found! After a second of regret at having missed this, I got back in my car, still marvelling at the beauty of the countryside and the opportunity to be here, at this time. I was decidedly happy.

Balance

Of course, the trip back down the mountainside into the town, back to Cape Town and back to work was a one-way ticket back to the ups and downs of life with the virus, now gripping us again as we watch the numbers inexorably climb towards their second peak.

It is everywhere, infecting old and young, and killing more people with each passing day. It has caused untold suffering. But it is not the sum total of our existence — neither is any disease, injury or infirmity.

The virus is not the sum total of our existence — neither is any disease, injury or infirmity.

Unfortunately, it is easier to measure and define the diseases which afflict us, than it is to appreciate the true nature and fullness of concept of health. As such, we are rapt with attention by disease, caught up in the fear that this could affect our loved ones or ourselves, and winnowed down by anxiety.  

This virus may very well come to define 2020, and 2021 as well. But we should not allow it to define our lives. Just as medicine should be defined by the pursuit of health, and not the eradication of disease.

Hopefully, both now in this holy season, and in the fullness of time, we may be happy that we concentrated on the view of the world in the limited time that is given to us, rather than dust devils which come and go with the wind.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.