South African coffin-maker saw COVID-19 at work and at home

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A worker constructs coffins at Enzo Wood Designs, in Johannesburg, Wednesday, Sept. 30. 2020. Casey Pillay, a coffin-maker in South Africa, watched the coronavirus pandemic turn his business upside down. For Pillay, the need for coffins rose and fell as South Africa's lockdown levels changed, but overall, he said, "business went down." As the world surpasses 1 million deaths, Africa is bracing for a likely second wave of infections. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

JOHANNESBURG – The coffin-maker knew death too well. The boxes were stacked in his echoing workshop like the prows of ships waiting for passengers. COVID-19 was turning his business upside down.

Then it moved into his home.

Kasie Pillay’s wife was a midwife, delivering babies for coronavirus-positive mothers in Johannesburg, the epicenter of the pandemic in South Africa — once fifth in the world in number of cases — and on the continent.

That she would be infected, they knew, was a matter of time.

When she fell ill during the country’s surge in cases, she retreated to the main bedroom. Pillay withdrew to a bedroom next door. Scared, he barely slept, managing a few hours before dawn as his wife wrestled with some of the worst days of her life.

“I’d literally be on eggshells listening to what she was going through,” Pillay said Tuesday. “I would go in every now and then, fully kitted up, just to check vitals, whether she needed oxygen. When she recovered, we sat down and had a chat. She was really scared because at one stage she thought she was gonna die.”

It was a blessing in disguise, he said, to see someone with COVID-19 recover after so much exposure to death through his work.

Pillay, a manager at the coffin-making business, said about 10 colleagues also were infected. All are now OK. Their survival reflects the relatively low death toll from COVID-19 in South Africa, and in Africa in general, as the continent appears to defy dire predictions that the virus would cause massive numbers of deaths.