The great pandemic of the 21st century is being told in the greatest detail and in the digital age as it happens. The bulk of this story is told through the words, voices and pictures of thousands of journalists across the world. And it is being told from the frontlines, with media workers putting their health and lives at risk.
COVID-19 became personal for many media workers as they have lost family and friends to the disease. Some also had to battle the virus themselves.
SABC Journalist, Lerato Fekisi shares her story. “I remember watching CNN reporting about an outbreak of a deadly virus in China. And then it started spreading. Soon touching down in South Africa. I then wondered how my hometown of Port Elizabeth would be able to cope with this threat. It spread rapidly, making me anxious. I knew that as a journalist, covering the impact of this virus was now my responsibility. I was worried for myself and my family. And could I take this disease home with me?
“My first COVID-19 assignment was covering protesting nurses, demanding  PPE’s. The danger was real interacting with frontline workers. But the job outweighed the worries most days. But then it hit home, reporting from a COVID-19 ward at the Livingstone Hospital. My heart pounded as we approached the doctors to be interviewed. I thought I could sense the coronavirus hanging in the passages. But meeting a calm doctor, unmasked, surprised me. His story was one of heartbreak,” Fekisi explains.
Medical Doctor Kevin Passor says, “I definitely feel it. It is not nice to see people suffering, very short of breath and unable to get oxygen or are struggling to get oxygen, and also knowing that a lot of the patients that are coming in are older and they have comorbidities and the reality is that they are not going to qualify for any escalation of care, and that is hard to accept.”
The deaths are taking a toll on health care workers. Doctors deal with it daily. Specialist Physician in Critical Care Dr Tobisa Fodo says as more young people are contracting the virus the threat is real.
“I’m sure a lot of people are aware of the studies that were previously done that showed the virus affecting the older population, it used to be the older persons in the community, but now in caring or these patients, we are actually seeing young people come in very ill with COVID-19 pneumonia and we have seen people die from COVID-19 pneumonia, so it’s very true for us, where in the past, when it started, we were like no it’s all the older people who are succumbing from the virus, now you realise the amount of risk that you are at every single time you in interact with a COVID-19 patient.
“You wear the PPE and sometimes you wonder when you are wearing the PPE if it is going to protect you from the virus. I mean, you went into medicine knowing that some of these things may happen, but now when it gets real, you see your colleagues getting the virus, you see people around you getting the virus, then you realise that the threat is real, one day I may get a cough, the next day I may need a ventilator and it may not be available,” Fodo adds.
Fekisi recounts: “The day in Livingston was the most harrowing experience on the job for me. It became all too real as I thought of my young daughter. I wondered if my desire to tell the story would affect my loved ones. By June, the metro was in the midst of the pandemic. Field hospitals and quarantine sites were going up. The world-class Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was one of the sites. And from it came a story of hope and love.”
Patients at Nelson Mandela Stadium Khuli Doze says people should not fear getting tested.
“You don’t ever feel like you are not in your own home. We arrived here and found others who had COVID-19. We worshiped together and we supported each other. We are able to visit others from other rooms and we chat and have a great time. We also get to watch TV. The food is delicious and they treated us well and many are recovered. So, I want to encourage others not to fear getting tested. When you feel symptoms, go and test so that you know where you stand and don’t infect others because that’s why this virus is spreading because people are not testing, but when you test you can stay away from people. So, it’s nice to be here. We miss our families, but we call them daily and we feel like we have gained another family by being here.”
Survivors of the disease all talk about fulfilment describing it as a victory. But some have a long term battle to completely recover.
COVID survivor Pam Mabini says, “Now, it’s just a pain. I don’t know how to put it. It’s like someone punched, or I fell on my back … it’s a pain where I need to be massaged with rubbing stuff and every night I have to take pain killers. I don’t think I will be able to sleep without taking pain killers if the pain starts.”
The disease also leaves a mental scar.
COVID survivor Fezile Papu says, “The one thing that I have most is heart palpitations, where out of the blue I’m just very anxious and then I remember a day when I went back to work and I started wearing a mask and the mask that we were wearing at work are cloth. So, what happened when I first wore it, I could then feel that my heart was just beating very fast and then I had a panic attack.”
As the days went into months and we continued to tell the stories, in the back of my mind I still feared contracting the disease, infecting my family in the process. And then it happened. My family and myself were now a number, COVID positive.
The fatigue, chest pain and coughing becomes nearly unbearable. Couple that with medication leaving you nauseous, it is a very rough ride. We now are recorded as a recovery. One of the lucky families.
The stories I now tell include earnest appeal – mask up, social distance – even in the workplace it makes for a detached work environment – but it is not negotiable.
The country is now again dealing with the second wave. My colleagues and I remain ready and committed to continue telling the the story, but I am now personally scarred by this virus and now makes me tell my stories with a different bias. That of a survivor.
Media workers’ trauma of reporting and covering the pandemic: