28 May 2021 | Story Anita Lombard | Photo Supplied
Anita Lombard (left) and Dr Adre le Roux, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education Studies, were among the first people over 60 years to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

A journey is always part of the destination and Drake once said: “Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination.”
My Sesotho name is Lerato, meaning ‘love’, but on our UFS campuses I am better known as Anita Lombard from UVPERSU – of which I have been an integral part since 1999 when I was appointed as the first full-time CEO of the trade union. 

On 5 March 2020, the lives of all South Africans changed dramatically. COVID-19 entered our country through a person carrying an invisible virus monster, which was by then already raging through the world, and we all had to adapt urgently to a ‘new normal’.

It was in our hands to adapt to the changing environment and not allow COVID-19 to wipe us out to become extinct like the dinosaurs that were wiped out by an asteroid many years ago. 

The one moment, we, as a very privileged family, were spending a glorious long weekend in Cape Town in February 2020, marching with the community and world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma in support of the oppressed and displaced District Six people, enjoying the beauty of the mountain and the sea, and drinking wine on the sunny terrace of a beautiful wine farm – and the next moment, we were back home and caught up in a Level five lockdown.

Living through a pandemic

At first, I was so overwhelmed by what was happening around me, that I didn’t grasp the reality and the seriousness of my own journey that lay ahead.   This journey through the COVID-19 pandemic would teach me a lot about myself, other people, and my eventual COVID-19 destination dream, which became reality on a chair in a vaccination venue at the Universitas Hospital in Bloemfontein in the Free State on Monday 24 May 2021.

I can write a book about how I initially coped with protecting and shielding myself from the virus monster by working from home, which I, as a self-acknowledged and disciplined workaholic, came to enjoy very much – doing all my shopping online, which opened up a whole new world for me, and re-arranging my entire social life to cope with circumstances and still maintain a balance to keep my sanity.  I very soon realised that I would never become a successful motivational speaker, since it’s easy to motivate people who have the same resources as I, as a privileged person.  It has become a serious challenge and a life goal to work out ways in which to help others who are not so privileged, and I would love to share it with you when there is an opportunity to do so.  I believe it should be an ongoing process to give to those who are suffering in many ways.

I will probably write proper memoirs one day, but for now I just want to share my vaccination journey, its history, and my innermost fears, emotions, and desires with you, without becoming a scientific dictionary.  This is the story of an ordinary human being who wanted to stay alive and healthy amid the onslaught of a monster.

Vaccination in the news

I have always enjoyed reading about topics of the day, but all of a sudden, these topics became negative facts and narratives about a killer virus’ path of destruction and heartbreak.  During a time of panic and despondency, a small light appeared in a dark tunnel – scientists and big pharmaceutical companies started working on a vaccine for this novel killer virus.

At the same time, fake news and horror stories about the virus and vaccines started dominating news headlines.  Yes, at times I was very bitter, since – as an animal and wildlife activist – I will never ever be able to understand, identify with, or accept so-called ‘wet markets’ where innocent and defenceless animals suffer beyond words at the hands of humans.  Even after more than a year of the pandemic that rocked the world, the real origin of this specific virus remains largely a mystery. Could it be that nature is taking revenge? But that is a debate for another day.

All the time, I carried on reading widely and attending as many information webinars as possible, both nationally and internationally.   I stuck to reliable sources and avoided dodgy videos and alien stories that were too far-fetched to be true!   I tried very hard to stay calm and positive, to believe in my common sense, and rely on my logic and sound scientific arguments.  Because of this attitude, I could easily distinguish between fake news and facts.  I must say, it helps a lot to be part of an excellent institution like the University of the Free State, where I can mingle with top medical and other scientists and take serious note of their research and guidance.  Our HR department delivers world-class information and support, and I will always be very proud of my engagement with them during these difficult times.  I commend Ms Susan van Jaarsveld and her team, Sister Riana Johnson, Head of Kovsie Health, and her team, Protection Services and all the other essential workers, support staff, and academics on our three campuses.   Your hard work and sacrifices are highly appreciated.  We are dependent on students as our clients and the ship had to be kept afloat.
UVPERSU is a very unique trade union, and its values and goals still help to keep me on track.  Our UVPERSU team’s total commitment to combat the pandemic and to protect our members’ jobs and to secure a safe workplace, is the best motivation one can dream of to stay positive and work together to slay this virus monster.

Vaccination breakthrough 

At last, the vaccination breakthrough came, and with it, hope that many lives can be saved! I also lost family members, friends, and colleagues who succumbed to COVID-19, and this had an effect on my own mental stability and emotional well-being. At times it felt like a child’s seesaw ride – one moment up in the clouds and the next moment you bump hard onto the ground.  At the same time, I had to support UVPERSU members and other friends and family who needed my support and advice. Bob Marley once said that you never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have. An unknown person said that being strong doesn’t mean that you will never get hurt, but it means that even when you get hurt, you won’t let it defeat you.  I could relate to people who felt alone and lonesome and the thought that I won’t allow to be defeated and that I could support other people, kept me strong.  Here I must say that I am also very lucky to have a wonderful support system of friends, family, and colleagues, and technology became a very close best friend!  If you do Skype or Teams, you don’t have to wear a mask and you don’t need to be scared of contracting COVID! The same goes for WhatsApp video calls!

The vaccination experiments eventually developed into real action, with people all over the world being vaccinated. My family and friends in Europe, the US, UK, and Cyprus shared the good news with me, while at the same time sympathising with me, since in South Africa, it was not always clear what would happen and when and how vaccinations will happen, who will be the first to receive vaccinations, and if there will be enough vaccines.  I visited the Seychelles in 2019, and when I recently read how many people of the total population on this faraway island paradise have already been vaccinated, I wanted to cry.   After the AstraZeneca disaster, I really started to doubt if we will ever be vaccinated. I was fast losing hope that we would be vaccinated any time soon. It didn’t help much to read about predictions stating that it would take many years to vaccinate the entire SA population!

My faith, my wonderful and fulfilling UVPERSU job, exercising regularly, and playing my piano and keyboard have helped me a lot to stay hopeful and positive.  Since my early childhood, I have always been scared of going to the doctor and of injections!  But as I grew up and realised that travelling to weird and wonderful places would involve vaccinations, I overcame most of my fears, and injections became friends to protect me against visits to doctors! So here I was, too eager for words to be vaccinated!  After many of my colleagues and friends in the health sector were vaccinated, I couldn’t wait to feel that needle in my arm!  In the end, I actually didn’t really feel anything, since the nurse who administered my vaccine was clearly a pro! 

I read every day about vaccination phases and rollouts and sometimes got very frustrated with the slow progress!  I registered three times on the EVDS system, and I also registered on the Discovery system!  I must admit – a total overkill, but I wanted to make sure I won’t be skipped!   Imagine my excitement when the UFS HR department and the Free State’s own vaccinations hero, Dr Nicholas Pearce, started explaining in a meeting that my dream could soon become a reality!  I never doubted the scientific composition of the vaccine or believed any ridiculous claim about DNA changes, etc.  I just wanted some protection against a killer, which already claimed too many lives.

Then the wait began for the magical SMS with an invitation and a code … to this day, I haven’t received that invitation, but thanks to Dr Nicholas Pearce and his initiatives and drives, I received my vaccination on Monday 24 May 2021, after I almost lost hope during the previous weekend!   On my way to the vaccination site, I experienced a whirlwind of emotions – I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry!  But there’s another story to the story!  Age!  For the first time in my life, I was glad that I was over 60 and not 35, as we always joke in our family! 

Getting the shot

The set-up at the Universitas Hospital vaccination site was absolutely fantastic and very organised.  We can really be very proud of Dr Pearce and his team, and I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for what they are doing for us here in our small, but COVID-ridden Free State province.  We shall overcome!

I feel guilty that I am so privileged and that I got my vaccination before other younger people with more serious comorbidities than my mild asthma.  I just hope and pray that they will get their vaccinations soon.   It is so important to stay safe and to sacrifice, among other things, social gatherings, until you can get your vaccination.   Wear that mask, sanitise, and keep your social distance.

Through my posts on Facebook, I could help many people and refer them to Universitas Hospital.  I could also adjure them to get vaccinated and allay fears created by fake news.  I didn’t become an alien; I didn’t grow a monkey tail and I don’t have magnetic powers in my injected arm!  I am still the Anita from UVPERSU that many of you have known for years!  What has changed, is that I now have antibodies and other ways and means to help my body fight a killer disease. 

My dream to be vaccinated, came true … I now hope and pray that my fellow Africans and people all over the globe can be vaccinated so that we can slay this monster that are ruining lives, jobs, freedom, happiness, and many other things that we have so often taken for granted.

Get vaccinated, and so we will achieve together as UVPERSU’s magical slogan urges us to do. Achieve together – Re fihlella mmoho

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