‘It felt like we broke up’ – Wife on the pain of self-isolating from her essential worker husband

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The world has been turned upside down because of the Covid-19 pandemic. South Africa is currently in staged lockdown, and we’re all always on edge in fear of the virus.

This is an even bigger issue when you’re a high risk person or an essential worker. Iman Davids is both. Her husband, parents, and two brothers are also essential workers, and they all live in the same house. While the house has been renovated so that they each have separate sections and entrances, the risk they all face is quite high.

“I fear for my health due to my chronic asthma. I fear my children contracting the pandemic. I am having to decide to stay with them, being high risk myself. I fear for the rest of my family as my mother, father and brothers are all essential workers, so the risk of one of us being infected is twice as high because we live under one roof,” she says.

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Iman, a 29-year-old pharmacy intern at the local clinic and Adiel Davids, a 30-year-old locum pharmacist, have been married for three years.

One day, he called her on his way home from work and told her that he could have been exposed as a doctor at the pharmacy treated a positive Covid-19 case.

“We didn’t have a big discussion about it, but when he came home, he went straight into isolation in my daughter’s room, and she slept in my room after it was disinfected,” says the mother of two.

This all happened a few days before Ramadan, the month of fasting that Muslims observe, and is usually a time to focus on family while sharing suhoor and iftar meals.

“He started isolating on Wednesday. Ramadan started on Saturday. He got the all-clear on Monday when we heard that the doctor was negative, but it was so stressful,” says Iman. She would drop both meals off at his door before sunrise and after sunset so that he could eat, but he couldn’t be with the family.

“It was really weird. We would chat via WhatsApp and have video calls, but we’re a very affectionate couple, so not being able to touch him felt unnatural. I could tell he felt alone. It was like we broke up,” she says.

Having to explain the situation to her kids was also an unforeseen circumstance, says Iman. “They had a lot of questions, mainly ‘is daddy going to die?’. I think they understood my explanation, but they like to hug him when he gets home, so it was hard.”

Both Iman and her mother, Shafieka, who works for a medical supply company, are not going in to work due to chronic asthma and Shafieka having had a recent lung infection. Their respective bosses have been very supportive of their decision.

The entire household would have iftar together during Ramadan after Adiel was no longer at risk, but it was a rule then, and still is now, that when they get home, it’s straight into the shower. Clothes are immediately washed, and nothing is touched before they are sure that everything is clean.

The family is also trying to keep exposure to a minimum, so they stay away from shopping malls, etc.

Iman says she and Adiel often talk about the what-ifs due to their line of work. “It was a major relief [to find out he was negative], but we also thought about what if he was positive? The entire time he was isolated, we kept wanting it to be over and trying not to think the worst, but what if it was the worst? I was so relieved that he wasn’t positive, but also, this highlights how high risk our family is.”

This is the reality for so many families with essential workers. This is what it’s like not just for pharmacy assistants, but doctors, nurses, petrol attendants, shop assistants, cashiers, and teachers who have to possibly expose themselves every day to do their job and keep food on the table.