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South Africa Is Emerging From The Pandemic After Being Hit Hard By Coronavirus

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To South Africa now, where more than 1.5 million cases of COVID-19 have been registered. It's been one of the worst affected countries in the world. But right now, cases are down, restrictions have eased, vaccinations have started and South Africans are taking stock of all that's happened. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Vilakazi Street in Soweto was home to both Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and is usually full of tourists, street sellers and traditional dancers. But these days, it's quiet.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

PERALTA: It's mostly school kids whistling to each other in the distance. Black Phantom, 23, and Lutando Hatabe, 19, sit on a bench. This pandemic, says Lutando, has put everything on hold.

LUTANDO HATABE: Even, like, this year, like, you couldn't even come up with any, like, resolutions. Your resolution was, like, stay alive. Try your best to stay alive.

PERALTA: These guys say the pandemic has changed everything. It's even changed dating.

BLACK PHANTOM: Now you can't see beautiful people anymore - you know what I mean? - 'cause people got masks all the time.

PERALTA: That's a good thing, right? That's a good thing.

HATABE: Yeah. That's one of the pros. Yeah.

BLACK PHANTOM: Now we take the person's - what? - inner self now, you know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: But in all seriousness, they say they can't get jobs. They can't plan for the future. Black Phantom, which is his stage name, turns back to his tablet to work on a rap song. I ask him to read one of the verses.

BLACK PHANTOM: [Expletive] what you know if what you know ain't attainable. [Expletive] what you think if what you think ain't doable.

PERALTA: Forget everything that's no longer possible, he raps. That's depressing, I tell him, because those lyrics don't leave room for dreams.

BLACK PHANTOM: Dreams - you're half-dead when you're asleep and dreaming. And life is reality. Right now, we're living.

PERALTA: This is not the time for dreams, he says. Indeed, South Africa has been through a nightmare, and you feel it on the streets. When you get too close, people still flinch. More than 50,000 South Africans have died. Millions have lost their jobs. The economy is still in tatters, and the coronavirus variant derailed the country's vaccination plans.

Esther Lewis of Cape Town's social welfare agency says, like other hard-hit countries, South Africa hasn't had time to deal with the enormity of the pandemic.

ESTHER LEWIS: There's a lot of trauma because of the rapid - and the scale of the loss. It's the human loss, the loss of lives, the loss of incomes.

PERALTA: The government, she says, has had to feed people. They have seen a huge increase in the number of South Africans looking for psychological support. Haji Dawjee, who produces a news podcast called "Don't Shoot The Messenger" and who had COVID for more than 20 weeks, says it has been a long slog. And at this point, there is a kind of resignation. The country's mood has swung from panic to fear to grief to anger...

HAJI DAWJEE: To oh, God, can this just be over with? It's just irritating.

PERALTA: After scrapping its original vaccination plan, South Africa finally began inoculating its health workers last month. Dozens of them lined up outside Chris Hani Hospital in Johannesburg. Dr. Phumudzo Ndwombi says there were times during the first wave where she was just watching patients die.

PHUMUDZO NDWOMBI: People's bodies being wheeled out and you feel like, what am I even doing? Am I serving anything? Am I putting my life at risk for nothing?

PERALTA: By the time the second wave came around, she was numb.

NDWOMBI: We could not feel anymore. It was just too much. It just gets too much to always be feeling a certain way. And so we just - I can tell you, the second wave, even when we found out that actually had to do COVID wards, it was just like autopilot, whatever. I'm just going to do what I have to do 'cause this thing is clearly not going away.

PERALTA: But as she stood there in line to get the vaccine, she suddenly allows for a bit of hope.

NDWOMBI: And this moment right now, just knowing that this could literally be maybe the beginning of the end of this thing, is kind of emotional, but I feel very privileged to be doing it.

PERALTA: For more than a year now, she says, she hasn't given birthday hugs to her family. Now, with this vaccine, a better future seems possible.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.