I am starting to get really irritated by the #letsopentheeconomyalready crowd. I get that most people are starting to feel fed up with some of the regulations and the social isolation. What I don’t get is how quickly we all seem to have forgotten how we got here
Two months ago, as the pandemic started sweeping across the world, we all jumped in right behind the politicians who were instructing us. Now, as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in many countries, we allow our frustrations to get the better of us. Most mornings when I’m out exercising, I see so many people who are not wearing face masks, and it seems almost always to be the same demographic. Is it arrogance or an act of defiance I wonder? After the first week of level four, we seem to have settled back to some kind of South African normality. Gone are the suburban masses, in their lycra and seldom used tackies. Now we back to the regular runners and the domestic workers pushing children in prams or walking dogs. Where are the parents of the little ones,,or owners of those animals, the ones who only a few weeks ago were crowding these very streets?
I keep on hearing that covid-19 is no different from the flu and that thousands of people die from the flu every year. How quickly we forget that in New York, almost 10 000 people died in two weeks. That in Spain the number of dead to date exceeds 25 000. All of this, in a matter of weeks, not months, as is the case with the flu season. And let’s remember that we have a vaccine for the flu. These numbers will not replace those who will die of the flu. They will be additions.
Then there is the suggestion that it is pointless trying to mitigate the coronavirus. Every time such ill-informed suggestions are put forth, the virus choses another example to keep us focused. A number of children in the United States, many in New York, have been afflicted with mysterious illnesses in recent weeks. Are we willing to risk the health of our children just because we are frustrated or because we want to open the economy? So far, we have managed to keep the fatalities at a reasonable level but it is also true that, on a daily basis, the numbers of people dying are escalating.
Unlike South Africa, Holland chose a different path to that recommended by the World Health Organization. On the 16th March 2020, the Dutch Prime Minister announced that Holland would build “group immunity” by allowing the virus to roam the population in a controlled manner. After several hundred deaths the Dutch government abandoned the policy. To date more than 5000 people have died in Holland, although that figure is believed to be an underestimation. And in the process the minister of Health has resigned.
Sweden also decided not to lockdown. To date there have been more deaths from the coronavirus in Sweden than the combined number of deaths in the rest of the Scandinavian countries, where Finland, Norway and Denmark chose to follow the directives of the World Health Organisation. While the Swedish government has been resolute in its decision not to shut down the economy, not everyone agrees. Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler, a viral immunology researcher, has expressed her concern over the number of deaths in her country. “We should be humble that we know too little, but we are going for a strategy that is untested in the world, and there are too many unknowns that make this too risky. I want to hold back and keep it under control and have faith in the medical community and understand the pathology”, she said
Prof Alex Friedrich, a virologist and the head of microbiology at the university Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG) in Holland has this to say, “Herd immunity can never be a public health strategy. It can never be controlled, and it means people will die, and if you not very careful, a lot of people will die. Delaying the spread gives doctors and scientists the time to understand the disease and develop more effective treatments”.
Learning from the experience of other countries is crucial to fighting the pandemic. One critical lesson is that if the spread of the coronavirus can be delayed, health authorities have more time to prepare. South Africa has the added advantage of drawing from the lessons learnt in dealing with the HIV and AIDS pandemic. Over the years we have built up a core of public health workers conversant in working with communities at the coalface. Forward planning is everything.
We are told that there are facilities around the country which have been identified, and which are being prepared, to deal with the inevitable demand when the infection rate of the coronavirus really starts picking up. We know, from the experience of others, that relying on our hospitals to take in the influx would not be realistic.
Maybe it will relieve some of the frustration if we did a comparative study with what some other countries have done in response to the sweeping scourge of covid-19.
Spain was less proactive than South Africa in the beginning. The population only really responded when the daily death toll started rising in unbelievable numbers. Currently Spain has more than 220 000 cases of the coronavirus victims and almost 27 000 deaths.
On the 24th of March Spain declared a state of emergency and a total lockdown. (South Africa’s lockdown started on the 27thMarch). The Spanish population was ordered, except for essential workers, to stay at home and to remain indoors. Only adults were allowed to leave the confines of their homes to do things like shopping. And even then, there was the restriction of only adults being allowed to leave their homes individually. After a few weeks, and in desperation, people would put some groceries in a bag and go out for a walk. This stopped when the police started apprehending people who did not have the relevant (for that day) till slip with them.
It was almost a month later on the 27th April that the authorities allowed children to go outside with their parents. Most of these children would have been cooped up in their homes, often apartment blocks, with no gardens, for almost 7 weeks. Now children under the age of 14, and in the presence of one parent, are being allowed to play outside, for one hour, as long as al they did not play in groups and as long as social distancing is maintained. They may not venture more than two kilometers from their homes. From the 2nd May families, or members of the same household, were allowed to go out for walks together.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic more than 890 00 jobs has been lost and an estimated 3.1 million people have been temporally laid off, mainly in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Spain has eased the lockdown gradually, allowing for some sectors of the economy to restart, with strict adherence to social distancing and hygiene.
In Turkey where there have been more than 130 000 reported cases and almost 3500 deaths social movement has also been severely restricted. Schools and universities are closed as are restaurants, bars and shops. Travel restrictions are in place. Senior citizens and youth are allowed outside for 4 hours for one day per week.
France has suffered more than 26 000 deaths to date. After the initial
8-week lockdown, France has extended its nation-wide state of emergency until 10th July. Residents have to fill out a form in order to leave their house. Outdoor activity, such as running, is limited to one hour, within a kilometer of your home. All the beaches are close, as are parks and restaurants.
So, one can look at how one country after another responded to the initial outbreak of covid-19. The commonalities in almost every case are locking down, social isolation and social distancing. What is also very clear, that once the pandemic peaks, thousands of people die. What is very apparent is that the virus does not discriminate, we are all at risk. We are fortunate that our government is being advised by world recognized scientists and doctors. Let us not undermine all the good that has been done so far because we are frustrated.