Those were the headlines in one of the Sunday papers.
He was around fifty years old and with his wife. They stood in front of me in the supermarket. He was in shorts and a light blue t-shirt, wearing beach flip-flops. Standard casual wear for the holiday beach town where I work at Netcare Kingsway Hospital in Amanzimtoti, on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast of South Africa.
I could see him reading the headlines. Then he shook his head and muttered something to his wife.
“News” was all I heard. It was accusatory, devoid of any connection to the surge in COVID-19 infections we are experiencing in this province.
I was not in my surgical scrubs. I too wore shorts and a t-shirt, although not as smart as his. Instead of flip flops, I wore my Crocs. Every day at the hospital, I wear closed restaurant Crocs that I wash every day with my scrubs. It was good to be on the beach and in my bush Crocs.
“It’s true, you know,” I said. “ I can take you to Kingsway Hospital down the road and show you the people waiting outside.” I knew they were there, sucking on oxygen from battered black cylinders. They would have been triaged by a team of nurses, vital signs recorded and placed on the oxygen as they waited for a cubicle in our emergency department. A colored sticker on their shirt or blouse would identify them: BLUE for family members, YELLOW for non-COVID medical problems (the minority), and RED for COVID-19 patients.
“I don’t believe it. I don’t know anyone who has it. I don’t know anyone who has died from it. I know hundreds of teachers, and not one has it. But I do know people who have been murdered in the last year.” He was calm and spoke his truth. His words hurt me.
I chose not to argue. He would not recognize me when he came to the back of the emergency department. All he would see is my eyes above the mask and behind the visor. I would be unable to help him. Not because he did not believe that COVID-19 was a real problem. I would not be able to help him because there would be twenty other patients waiting for a hospital bed. Maybe he would get one on the other side of the city, or even in another town. I would not wish ill on him. But he should see the eyes of those pleading for care and attention. He should see their eyes when the person lying on a stretcher next to them dies. He should see all the bodies waiting in the holding area.
They are waiting for the undertakers who can’t keep up with the burials.
The nurses at my hospital can’t keep up either. I cannot keep up with how many get sick with COVID.
One of the emergency doctors steeled himself before a shift. “I can’t do this anymore.”
He was tired of seeing patients and not having beds for them. He was tired of seeing people die. He was tired because two of his colleagues were sick with COVID, and he had to carry the extra shifts.
Still, he went out to face the death and destruction that this disease forces on us.
The man in front of me at the supermarket queue would not believe any of this.
The incredible thing is he would still be treated at my hospital like anyone else. By nurses and doctors who just can’t keep up.
He may end up with a RED sticker on his blue t-shirt.
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