There are ever-more strident calls to end the lockdown. But we have to remember that we are seeing a daily increase in the mortality rate. The common wisdom is that the spread will peak in South Africa in or around August or September. And then, like in almost every other country in the world, we will see a spike in fatalities.
There is a popular back-to-front argument that because our current death rate is so low, the economic cost of the lockdown is not worth it. The truth is, that it is because of the lockdown, that the health department has been able to, in some measure, deal with the challenges for the moment. Just as the pandemic has exploded elsewhere around the globe, so too will it here in South Africa. The other argument is that we should follow the Swedish example, and that is for government to do nothing and let the virus run its course. To date thousands of Swedes have died and the number of deaths in Sweden is rising.
The first phase of the lockdown has gone down comparatively well, allowing the government to consider easing some of the restrictions pertaining to the level 5 conditions that the country was subjected to. Level 4 was introduced on the 1st of May 2020. One of the major concessions granted was the right to leave one’s residence for a period of three hours in the morning in order to exercise, go for a walk or a jog, providing that it was all done within a five-kilometer radius of one’s home. All the necessary social protocols have to be maintained, namely, wearing a face mask and maintaining social distancing.
For the past six weeks there has been a concerted effort by government to educate South Africans about the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic. Messages about the need to wash our hands, to maintain a distance when outside or in the presence of other people seems to have been understood and accepted. It is quite encouraging to see how quickly these new social norms have taken root. Quite easily people understood why they had to stand in queues outside supermarkets and accepted the need to have their hands sanitized before entering. It is now compulsory for everyone to wear a cloth face mask in public spaces. Initially that unique spirit or “gees” that South Africans adopt when called upon to pull together was quite heartening. People accepted that we were all in it together. That if the spread of the coronavirus was to be slowed down then we all had to follow the directives and guidance given by government.
If there is one thing everyone in the science community agrees with, it is that the virus is transported through the movement of people. It moves when we move! The infection is transmitted from one person to another, or from contaminated surfaces, in a variety of ways. An infected person can spread the disease by coughing or sneezing in the presence of other people. Laboratory tests show that droplets and vapor from a cough can travel upwards of nine feet. An infected person can also spread the virus by merely speaking to others within close range. The coronavirus can live for a few hours on various common domestic surfaces. It is for this reason that we are urged to wash our hands frequently and also to refrain from touching our faces because the coronavirus can also enter our bodies through our eyes. Wearing a face mask protects us from the droplets that infected people spray into the immediate atmosphere and it also protects others from us. The medical fraternity has been at pains to point out that one can be carrying the virus and still be asymptomatic, meaning that an infected person could be carrying the coronavirus without being aware of it and since the signs are not there, neither would the people around the infected person know. And because of this, it is safe to assume that many of us are infected without knowing it. These are some of the reasons why mass self-isolation was a critical factor in the first stages of the lockdown.
Now, after a month of lockdown, it all seems to be falling down amongst some in the privileged middle-classes. Gareth Cliff, a radio personality, in an open letter to the President recently stated, “Many of us are not afraid of the virus anymore. It’s our health and we’ll take our chances, thank you.” Showing a clear lack of understanding of how we are all in this together there is also the assumption that if you got the virus, you would just get yourself of to a medical facility of your choice and get yourself sorted. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, the Minister of Health informed the nation that all private and public institutions have committed to responding to the crisis as one entity. Unfortunately for Cliff, his privileged position will not guarantee that he, or people like him, will leap-frog the queue when it comes to accessing the specialist assistance that he will require in the event of him contracting the coronavirus. On social media, many have expressed the view that the government is using the pandemic to exercise undue control over their lives and that they are having none of it. In his letter to the President, Cliff talks of the lockdown as “your lockdown Mr President”.
Another person says: “This madness has to stop! Why are we even allowing THEM to control us like this?” And the all too popular, “Too much about control rather than people’s best interests.”
It is unfortunate that many people appear oblivious to what is happening globally.
In Italy most people ignored the call to self-isolate at the beginning. It was only after hundreds of people started dying daily that the Italians took the need to lockdown seriously. In New York almost ten thousand people died in the space of two weeks. Spain, despite its best efforts, could not contain the spread of the coronavirus and within weeks were counting its dead in the thousands. And this is how it’s been in many countries in the global north. Countries that are general better resourced than South Africa. The government has done well to delay the spread of the coronavirus but has no chance in eliminating it. As the weeks pass by, we are seeing a daily increase in the mortality rate. The common wisdom is that the spread will peak in South Africa in or around August or September. And then, like in almost every other country in the world, we will see a spike in fatalities.
This is inevitable. The coronavirus epidemic will impact South Africa in much the same way that it has in other countries. And similarly, the virus does not respect gender or social status. It is not geographically bound either. It will move from the suburbs (remember how it got here) to the townships and vice versa. It is as likely that someone from the suburbs will pass on the coronavirus to their domestic helper as it is for someone from the suburbs to get infected while going about their daily routine. And because of this, it is incumbent that everyone adheres to the guidelines. One of the most important being social distancing. Anyone you come into contact with could be an asymptomatic carrier. None of the available data suggests that the socially less fortunate, namely the poor or township dwellers, are more susceptible to the disease. There is no doubt that the virus might spread more rapidly in densely populated communities, but that it can be contained in those communities is virtually impossible.
Remember those days, actually not so long ago, when you could not find a roll of toilet paper or a tube of hand sanitizer anywhere because of the panic buying?
We settled down and came to terms with our new reality. In the same way one hopes that the crazy situation that pertained on the first day of level 4 when we were allowed to go out and exercise does not repeat itself. Situations like the Sea Point promenade escapade have the potential of undoing all the gains that we have made so far in containing the beast. We are in unchartered waters. We have to learn from others who have gone before us. From everyone we hear of the importance of self-isolation, the necessity to wash our hands frequently and also why it is advisable to wear a face mask outside of your home. New York governor Andrew Cuomo puts it best when he says wearing a mask is a sign of respect to other people. We are all going to have to learn to live with our new realities until a vaccine or a cure is discovered.
We need to constantly remind each other that we are all in this together.