WORLD – Coronavirus cases in South Africa are rapidly climbing, and the spiralling outbreak recently prompted President Cyril Ramaphosa to take drastic steps to delay the spread of infection.
But despite the early closing of schools, a ban on large gatherings and various other social-distancing measures, experts predict that many more people are likely catch the virus, which has so far killed almost 8 000 people worldwide.
As South Africans settle into a life of self-isolation and worry about contracting Covid-19, several survivors have come forward to describe what it’s really like to be infected with the dreaded virus.
‘It was nothing like flu’
Dr Clare Gerada, a 60-year-old GP from South London, had just returned from a trip to New York and at first thought she was merely suffering from jet lag.
Then two days after arriving home she started experiencing her first symptoms.
“As well as feeling rather tired, I’d started with a dry cough. Yet it was so mild to begin with, I barely gave it a second thought and put it down to the ‘cabin cough’ you sometimes get after a long flight.
“Soon after that, though, I quickly developed a terrible sore throat. I know some people say you don’t always get a sore throat with corona, but I did – it felt as if someone had put knives in my throat. And then the high temperature hit. I was feverish and got the shakes.”
It was then that Clare began to think: could it be the coronavirus?
“I think I knew it was right away – but strangely I didn’t feel scared, as I have no underlying health problems. I’m fit and I walk a lot.”
She went to a Covid-19 testing pod at a local hospital and got tested, although staff at first refused because at the time it wasn’t deemed necessary to test someone who’d travelled from the US. Still despite hospital the staff’s obvious doubts, Clare was convinced what she was experiencing was no common cold.
“Within hours of getting my first symptoms I wasn’t able to eat. I went for two days with no food at all, as I had no appetite and also had a horrible metallic taste in my mouth, which made food taste unpleasant. Eating felt like too much effort.
“My nose became full of ulcers and I imagine the back of my mouth was the same.”
On Friday 13 March the hospital rang with Clare’s test results: it was the coronavirus, but by this point her condition had already started to improve.
“My temperature had come down, the cough had gone, and I didn’t need paracetamol anymore. I could eat again, too, though not a lot. By Sunday – a week since my return from New York – I was eating stews and soup brought round by neighbours.”
Although she agrees it’s a “a grim disease with a higher mortality rate than ordinary flu”, she says she’s also heard of people who experienced such mild symptoms they didn’t even realise they had it.
“The vast majority of people who get this virus will win the battle against it. Those dying are the ones with underlying health conditions, where the respiratory problems get too much.
“I’ve heard it said that this isn’t much comfort to the people with underlying illnesses. But it is because it means most of us can keep away from hospitals and leave the beds there for those who are really sick.”
‘Please don’t panic’
Elizabeth Schneider, a marketing manager from Seattle in the US, says she’s had the coronavirus and has one big takeaway to share: don’t panic.
Elizabeth (37) told CNN she believes she contracted the virus at a house party because a few days later several friends who were at the bash became ill at the same time she did.
Three days after the 22 February party, she was at work when she started feeling unwell, she says.
“I was feeling tired, body aches, getting a headache, feeling a little bit feverish,” so she decided to go home.
She woke up from a nap with a 38° fever, and “by the time I went to bed, it had soared to 39°”.
It didn’t occur to her that it could be the coronavirus because the symptoms didn’t fit what she’d been reading – she didn’t have a cough, no shortness of breath and no respiratory symptoms at all.
That realisation didn’t come until she found out that about a dozen friends who’d been to the same party got sick on “the exact same day, roughly around the same time in the evening, with similar symptoms”.
“The symptoms appear to be different depending on your constitution and/or age,” she wrote on Facebook. “Most of my friends who got it were in their late forties to early fifties. I’m in my mid-thirties. For us it was a headache, fever, severe body aches and joint pain and severe fatigue. Some folks had diarrhoea. I felt nauseous one day.
“Only a few of us had a mild itchy cough. Few had chest tightness or other respiratory symptoms,” she says, adding that for all of them the symptoms lasted between 10 and 16 days.
She says that without the textbook symptoms of a cough or trouble breathing, many of them were refused testing.
The Seattle area is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the US. Of the 4 740 cases reported in the country since Covid-19 first appeared there in January, 904 are in the state of Washington, including 48 deaths.
Still, she and her friends weren’t tested for the coronavirus, she said.
One member of the group came across an online research project that allowed them to send nasal swabs for testing. All their results came back positive for the coronavirus.
Elizabeth said she recovered after staying home, resting and taking over-the-counter medication.
“I think the big takeaway I want to tell everyone is: please don’t panic,” she says.
“If you’re healthy, if you’re younger, if you take good care of yourself when you’re sick, you’ll recover, I believe. And I’m living proof of that.”
‘Keep a positive attitude’
A nurse in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, insists that if she can conquer the coronavirus, anyone can.
Jia Na (24), who works at Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University, reportedly beat the virus in 11 days, gaining more than 1,7 million followers on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site.
She chose to fight the virus at home and documented her journey in a series of Weibo posts, the most popular of which garnered more than 300 000 likes.
It all started on 23 January, when her limbs began to feel weak.
“I thought it was because I was wearing a protective suit. But my colleague said we should do a computed tomography (CT) scan,” she told the China Global TV Network.
To her surprise, the CT scan showed lesions in her lungs, which indicated she’d contracted viral pneumonia, and the official coronavirus positive result came back a day later, Asia One reports.
“That night I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about how I could’ve got infected,” she said. “I always believed in my immunity. I was really depressed and imagined myself dying. I was so scared.”
But things began to look up after Jia consulted her doctor, who reassured her that her condition wasn’t serious and gave her the choice to recuperate at home instead of admission to the hospital.
“There was no one else at home and hospital beds were in shortage. I wanted to save the beds for those who needed it more,” she explained.
She boosted her immunity by getting proper nutrition, eating her meals on time and getting enough rest.
“You have to eat nutritious and healthy food,” Jia says. “I’d boil chicken soup, fish soup, pork rib soup, millet porridge and eight treasure porridge.”
Jia would wipe her tables with disinfectant and sanitise her blankets and clothes with 75% alcohol daily to ensure her house was virus-free.
“I took hot baths every night to kill the germs and viruses on my body. Wash your hands with soap frequently. This is important,” she added.
Besides sanitation, proper ventilation is also important. She opened her windows to let fresh air in from time to time.
Jia says she only took several common flu medications, as well as traditional Chinese remedies for colds and flu.
But she added that this was simply what worked for her and encouraged others to check with their doctor before taking any medication.
Jia cautioned against blind panic, focusing instead on “calming the heart and maintaining a rational and positive attitude”.
And her efforts apparently paid off because by 28 January a CT scan showed her lungs were back to normal, although tests still indicated the presence of the coronavirus in her body.
She was finally given a clean bill of health six days later when her test came back negative.
“My immune system is basically the same as everyone else’s. If I can go through this and get better, I believe everyone’s immune system can defeat this virus.”