The Challenge of Isolation,  by Dr Karin van der Merwe

Before I got COVID myself, I diagnosed many patients with it and advised them to self-isolate for 14 days from onset of symptoms. This was before the recommended isolation time decreased to 10 days. It sounded simple enough. Stay in your own room. Use your own bathroom. Don’t have contact with your family. Then I got COVID and had to be isolated from my own family. I found out that this is much easier said than done.

My poor husband was sent to sleep on a mattress in the living room so I could have the main bedroom and en suite. We explained the situation to my 2 teenagers and they were told not to visit me. Our domestic worker couldn’t come, for obvious reasons, so my husband took up the house work to add to his busy schedule. I spent most of the first week in bed and longed for company- another human to sit on my bed and talk to me. I slept a lot and felt very alone. By day 6 I was able to get out of bed and could spend time outside sitting on a chair or lying on a picnic blanket. I have to admit that I went to our living room to watch TV in the evenings. I was desperate for human interaction. I was relegated to a couch and a small table on the far side of the large room which no one else came near or touched. The idea was that I would wear a mask but I got quite uncomfortable with it on, so I took it off once we were all settled at a safe distance.

As it turned out, my husband and kids got COVID too although their symptoms started early enough that the timing didn’t fit with me infecting them during my isolation period. I could therefore come out of strict isolation early and we could instead all isolate together. As sad as I was that they were also infected, it was wonderful to be reunited.

10 days. It’s short in the greater scheme of things but an eternity when you are in isolation. COVID has stripped us of so many liberties and when the final one is taken away- our very family- it feels cruel. I can’t imagine how tough it must be for people who live alone. I was so fortunate to have family looking after me- albeit from a safe distance. Be kind to people in isolation. They need practical support like meals as well as emotional support. WhatsApp’s, FaceTime and emails make a difference. I preferred messages that didn’t ask me to reply, but just offered encouragement and support.

Something else that made a huge difference was having a support group in the form of a WhatsApp group for doctors who have had COVID. Hearing from others who had similar symptoms and also had to self-isolate was so comforting.