With love from China - a letter to coronavirus-hit South Africa


It was Thursday, 24 January, the day after our school closed for Chinese New Year. Rumours were going around of a virus and that people had died in the city of Wuhan.

I sent my doctor a message: We booked train tickets to go to Beijing for Chinese New Year. What do you think?

His response: Do not go. This is serious.

That was the day reality set in. When life as we knew it disappeared overnight.

It has been almost two months since that day. And to be honest, life before 24 January is a distant memory.

Gone are the daily routines of going to school, rushing around to take my daughter to the mall to meet her friends, attending school events, weekend outings and spending time with friends.


We are mostly confined to our apartment. We go out when we need to get essentials. Weekdays our little dining room becomes part of my husband’s virtual classroom where he teaches live classes online to his high-school learners. My 14-year-old daughter’s room is her classroom where some days she spends up to eight hours in front of her computer doing school work.

This past week, I have been overwhelmed by messages from friends and family in South Africa. The virus has taken over the world and my home country has not been spared.

Tonye Stuurman, her husband, Dudley, and daughter, Skylah-Rose, are in China. Picture: Supplied.

Tonye and her family. Picture: Supplied.

Numbers in South Africa are increasing daily.

Friends and family express their fear and panic and look to us to give them guidance and support. After all, while the world is battling the virus now, China is slowly on its way to the “old” normal.

Talking to a South African friend here in Shanghai on Tuesday, we spoke about those first few weeks. We were trying to remember how it felt. The panic, the anxiety, the irrational thinking.

It is so easy to get caught up in the panic. It can swallow you whole. I have learnt to live with daily feelings of panic and anxiety. I have had to find ways to deal with these feelings because I have realised that it is not good for me or my family.

The support of my China tribe, and in particular my South African friends here, has become invaluable. We are in the same boat. We are South Africans and we know we can depend on each other for emotional support. We virtually “clung” to each other via social media at the beginning. We encourage and support each other the best we can.

Apart from panic, we realised very soon that we had to jump into action. The responsible thing to do was to self-isolate. We had to stock up on necessities. For my family and I, it was food that could last us for a while. Nothing fancy. Meat, frozen or tinned vegatables, flour to bake bread if necessary.

This was the time to think outside of the box.

There were no masks or hand sanitiser available. I did research and made my own hand sanitiser. We had a few masks and had to work sparingly with what we had.

There was no increase in food prices or other goods. And if suppliers did, they were heavily fined.

“New normal” became a phrase in our daily conversations. We could not deny it. Life around us changed so drastically that we needed to adapt or die.

Residents and the expats who decided to stay buckled down and followed the rules. No one questioned or debated. We knew that this was in the best interest of our health and safety.

We cannot receive visitors in our apartment complex. All entrances, except for one, are closed down. We go to this entrance to collect our packages.

At the beginning, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, cinemas, parks – public spaces where groups of people could gather – were closed.

Social distancing became natural. Walking outside, no one gets offended when someone moves away as far as possible to avoid physical contact. We have become accustomed to this. When you get in an elevator, occupants find a corner. Waiting in line at the supermarket, people keep a reasonable distance.

My husband and I decided to include our teenage daughter in conversations around the virus and discussions around important family decisions. We did not bluff ourselves that she did not know what was going on. Friends with younger children had age-appropriate conversations with their children – talking to them about the importance of washing hands and not touching things when they were outside.

We had board games, bought puzzles and spent quality time together as a family.

Online learning for my daughter and teaching for my husband started on 3 February. They are now in week 7 of online learning and teaching. This has been another challenge but as the weeks have passed, it has now become normal.

WeChat, the social media app we use in China, has become our lifeline. The first few weeks we were overwhelmed with information. We had to familiarise ourselves with new rules and new ways of doing things. There were days we had to take “social media breaks” just to gather our thoughts.

Social media has not only been a replacement for physical connection, it has become a source of information - valid, credible information. The distribution of factual information has become the norm of our social media culture here. People are held accountable for what they publish. It is acceptable to ask: What is the source of your information?

Medical experts warned that the virus would peak and that we should be prepared for a massive increase in numbers. Waiting for that peak was hell. People died every day and the infection rate became higher and higher. And then the peak came and every day we could see numbers declining.

Shanghai is slowly moving back to “old normal”. Parks are partially open, more restaurants are opening and people are going to work. There is still no opening date for schools in Shanghai.

We are still very cautious. We do not go out, unless it’s necessary. We do not see friends.

Numbers might be low here, but we still need to be responsible.

I am learning that nothing is in my control. I have had to learn to deal with not knowing what tomorrow will bring. I had to learn to live with uncertainty.

To my loved ones and the rest of South Africa, this is our reality right now. I have learnt from my experience in China that fighting this virus requires every citizen to do their part. Be responsible. Follow the guidelines. This is the only way we can overcome.

Tonye Stuurman, a former journalist and trailing spouse, moved to China seven years ago with her husband, Dudley, and daughter, Skylah-Rose.