I was COVID-19 ready in 1979

June 8th, 2020 § 0 comments

“Damn, Bertha,” I said, poking my dead sourdough starter with a chop stick, “we peaked too soon.” Bertha turned to gloop before she could prove her yeasty worth during lockdown, a sticky reminder of my entry-level pandemic persona – a cross between a Survivor contestant and a tipsy 50s housewife. I was downing litres of lemon and ginger and brandy infused rooibos before the first COVID-19 case came to town. And then the sudden onset of obsessive hand sanitising stripped away four layers of skin and as many decades of memories, revealing a long forgotten childhood phase that would have been so on point in 2020.

I was a germaphobe at age nine. But a serious one. With a few irrational exceptions. I would not drink from a glass or share cutlery with my dad or eldest sister but would do so with my mom and middle sister. I refused to eat fruit salad that wasn’t chopped before my own eyes because I didn’t want to eat anything cold and wet that random people had touched and breathed on. For the same reason, when faced with communal food bowls, I would never dish from the top. I’d leave the germ-laden top layer for less iffy folk and scoop deeper for something potentially less… I don’t really know what?

It wasn’t death or disease I feared. In retrospect, I think I was grossed out by how interconnected everything was, molecularly. As if I’d watched The Cat in the Hat after licking a postcard-sized tab of LSD and freaked out about how impossible it was to STOP stuff from touching and SPREADING.  I can assure you no substance abuse occurred in a small Eastern Cape town in the late 70s. Not at my junior school.

To top it all off I found the smell of alcohol repulsive and once at a family braai, when asked to fetch my dad a beer, I covered the open bottle with a tissue so my tender nostrils would not be confronted by the stench of fermented yeast. My sanity was swiftly questioned (is jy mal in jou kop?). Not only was I obsessive about germs, I was a strident non-smoker and budding* prohibitionist to boot. My 1979 self was so much better suited to 2020 than the current version.

As frustrating as the germaphobe phase must have been for my mom, it was a huge improvement on an earlier one – granted, I was much younger, perhaps four – when she had to physically restrain me from peeling old, black patches of bubble gum from the pavement in front of our local supermarket, where hundreds of shoes had added to the rich patina of the gum. After so many people and pets had left their mark, who even cared about the general health and disposition of the person who so generously deposited it there for me? Unsupervised, I’d scrape that sucker off and give it a good chewing.

Not only had the knowledge of germs not yet infused my soul with paranoia, I was practically an early adopter of Fear Factor eating who – in my opinion – earned sufficient credits to qualify for a Lifetime Achievement Award. I thoroughly enjoyed smashing blue-flies (the Afrikaans – brommer – better describes the undesirability of the insect) against the sliding door  and….wait for it…. eating ONLY the BACK END. The big, juicy body. Not the head, or the middle section with the legs or wings. I ate blue-fly ass. There’s just no way you can get away with that when you’re older. (If you’re three and reading this, make haste, before the buffet of blue-fly butts against the sliding door is off the menu.)

So, germaphobia must have been a welcome change from this level of indiscriminate grazing, but also unbearably irritating to live with. My mom put a swift end to it by saying: “Stop your shit.” And then she told me a story about a childless couple who lived  on a remote Karoo farm. They never socialised or entertained. The woman cleaned every inch of the house with JIK several times a day. My mom paused to drag on her cigarette. She knew how to get the most out of a story and a Dunhill. “And then they both died of the common cold,” she said. “Because they’d killed every germ in the house and had no immunity left. You don’t want that to happen, do you?”

The germaphobe phase soon petered out but as you can see, Bertha and I both peaked way too soon. Not only because I was the poster child for germ awareness in 1979 but also because today, on day 74 of lockdown and with South Africa just two deaths away from having lost one thousand souls to COVID-19, something is giving way. I’m struggling to remain vigilant against an enemy that has not yet – thankfully – presented itself in my immediate world. I know that could change in a second. Don’t get me wrong. I’m scared of getting sick and I don’t want to put myself or my family at risk. I’m just saying, my shoulders are starting to droop.

It’s a lot. It’s been a lot. Already. And still it feels like it hasn’t yet begun.

Hang in there & take care.

*I finally managed to rid myself of my intense aversion to alcohol through a series of interventions in my twenties. That’s a story for another lockdown day.


I dedicate this post to Johan Lombard, who left too soon.






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