Part 1: The Lead-up to the Lockdown
We started 2020 very aware that we were facing a challenging year. For various reasons, our properties had not been properly prepared for the 2020 intake of students, so we started the year on the back foot, scrambling to get ready before the institutions reopened for the academic year. We also knew that with South Africa facing an economic crisis, it was going to be a challenging financial year for our customers. So we started the year thinking we were braced for problems. But nothing could have prepared us for what was to come.
When the President addressed the nation on 23 March 2020, I was on leave in Durban. As he announced the hard lockdown due to start on 26 March 2020, I was already on the phone with the airline, desperately trying to move our flights to get back home as soon as possible. I knew that our staff and students would need me back as fast as possible to prepare our properties and business for the hard lockdown.
We spent the next few days securing the properties and identifying which of our tenants would be returning home, and which needed to still be accommodated during the hard lockdown. We also needed to ensure that we had adequate cleaning products and sanitisers at each property and had to brief tenants on how to contact me directly in the event of a problem. We were filled with trepidation at the thought of managing four student properties without our staff for 21 days. I do not know how I would have felt had I known that it would be almost a year before all our staff returned to work full-time!
Part 2: Lockdown
For the next few months, almost all of my time was focused on the survival of our business with no staff, very few tenants, and next to no money. Even the tenants who remained on our properties could often not pay their rent, as their income sources (parents/ sponsors/ bursaries) dried up. We were taking daily calls from distraught parents and students about their financial problems, all the while trying to figure out how to pay our own bills! We were also dealing with the intricacies of the Unemployment Insurance Fund’s (UIF) Covid-19 Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) for our staff. Unfortunately, we have come to the conclusion that after years of us paying faithfully into the UIF Fund, the TERS system was a mystery that we would not solve. More than a year later, we still have not been paid for some staff members. In the end, we took out a loan, and this allowed us to pay our bills, keep the lights on in our student properties, and pay our staff during the lockdown.
Another serious lockdown challenge we faced was that of mental health issues of our tenants. Human beings are not meant to live in isolation. As the hard lockdown was extended, and then extended again, we started to see despair creeping in amongst the students who had elected to remain in our properties. They missed their families and their friends. After the mid-year exams, I had to counsel quite a few students who had performed poorly as a result not only of their feelings of isolation, but also because of the difficulties presented by remote learning. One student had to return home in the middle of the year before exams, having had a breakdown of sorts. In the second semester, three more left for similar reasons. It was very disheartening to witness their struggles and to be largely unable to help. We contacted their families, and also encouraged them to use the counselling services available at the larger tertiary institutions, but it was a situation to which there was no real solution, and that continues to be true even now.
The next challenge we faced was when the hard lockdown ended. Some of our staff wanted to remain at home because they suffered from comorbidities and were afraid to be exposed to the risk of public transport and our tenants. However, the tenants who had chosen to remain in our properties had a justifiable expectation that services would now resume. We resolved this by bringing back permanent staff who were willing and able, and using casual staff to pick up the slack. This was a difficult period for us, but it was also a good time, because the small team who were at work every day developed stronger bonds. Shared adversity has a way of bringing people closer. It was a precious time because it forced us to focus on the basics – our fundamental needs. As the year approached its close, all of us, tenants and staff, had suffered setbacks of some kind – financial, academic, personal. Some of us even had family members who had fallen victim to COVID. We had all become victims of the pandemic, and this knowledge helped us see each other in a different light. People were kinder and more understanding of each other, which gave me a little ray of hope in what was a very dark time.