Heather du Plessis-Allan: My grandmother died of Covid in South Africa. She deserved a better farewell


My grandmother died last Friday night. We’d only known for less than a day that she had caught Covid.

She’d been sick for a little while – since at least the Sunday before – and after the nurses ruled out a few other things, they ordered the Covid test.

There shouldn’t have been Covid in the rest home. The place has been locked down for weeks. No visitors have been allowed in, not even family. But, it was probably always going to find its way in with a staff member, because South Africa is overrun with Covid.

She was my favourite. I never really knew my New Zealand-based grandparents, because I spent my youngest years growing up in South Africa. All my childhood memories have Ouma in them: summer holidays in her caravan at the beach, running up the road to her house, climbing on her roof, learning to swim in her pool, sitting on the sun-scorched leather seats of her ageing red BMW.

Ninety-three is a good innings. You can’t really feel angry that Covid took her, because at that age, many things could’ve. But you do feel sad, especially because of how it all ended.

My granny died without any of her family around her. My mother and my aunt called on the phone about three hours before she passed away. By then she was too weak to respond, so they talked to her and she sort of grunted acknowledgements to what they were saying. My uncle called 30 minutes before she died.

But in SA the rules are the same as they were here during lockdown: no family allowed near dying Covid patients. The only people around her were the staff. Someone told my mum they sang to her at the end.

She also wasn’t allowed any visitors in the last three weeks of her life because – same as here – those are the lockdown rules.

That breaks my heart. That woman held my hand so many hours of my life. She loved company. In her last few years, as her eyesight failed and her walking slowed right down, she lived for the visitors brightening her days. Feeling lonely must’ve been the cruellest ending for her.

I’ve spent a lot of the past week-and-a-bit wondering whether my lovely grandmother’s death has changed my views on Covid, our response and our world’s response. I don’t think it has.

If anything, I’m even more determined we don’t lose our humanity through fear in this pandemic. We have at times. Our authorities have forced our elderly to go without company at the end of their lives. They’ve forced them to die without loved ones. They’ve forced their families to stand outside windows looking in, watching them die, unable to just hold their hands and say something like “mum it’s okay”. They’ve kept families from funerals. They’ve made rules that left a daughter to cry inside the MIQ fence as a mother’s hearse passes. A son resorted to going to court to force the Health Ministry to let him spend the last 36 hours of his dad’s life with him.

This is still happening. This year Trev Ponting had to fight for spot in MIQ so he could come back from Japan to die at home. In March, an Aussie-based Kiwi’s dad died while he was waiting for permission to leave MIQ. Even this week, huge numbers of us – myself included at the outset – couldn’t find the compassion to support the medevac of a sick UN worker from Fiji.

Somehow in this pandemic you and I and our families have been turned into numbers. Numbers in MIQ, numbers of Covid cases, numbers of deaths. My Ouma will be just another 1 added to South Africa’s Covid tally that then gets reported to the WHO.

But we are people, not numbers. We must balance risk with humanity. We can’t let the people who held our hands die without us holding their hands.

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