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CHARLES WEBSTER: Coronavirus: Now is not the time

OPINION

I am deeply, deeply alarmed. Here’s why I think all South Africans should be, though many of them still seem oblivious.

THE FACTS

As of 22 March, COVID-19 had killed just over 13,000 people around the world , 4,000 of them in the last three days.

For perspective, SARS killed 800 people in about eight months.

European nations with vastly superior health systems to ours have collapsed under the pressure.

In 2019, Italy's healthcare system was regarded, by World Health Organization's ranking, as the second best in the world after France, and according to the World Health Organization, Italy had the world's 6th highest life expectancy. The life expectancy at birth in Italy was 82.3 years in 2012, which is over two years above the OECD average.

Italy, which is now considered one of the worst-prepared nations in Europe, in 2017 had 12.5 ICU beds per 100,000 in 2017 and was ranked 19th out of 23 European countries, according to OECD data.

South Africa isn’t that lucky. If all our critical care beds (about 7,000) were available, we would have about 11.6 beds for every 100,000 inhabitants. Sadly, Alex van den Heever, professor of social security and management studies at the Wits School of Governance, says that based on his best estimates and current hospital occupancy rates, fewer than 3,000 critical care beds are actually available for use. .

Which puts us at an effective 5 critical care beds per 100,000 inhabitants.

SOME MAJOR VARIABLES

POPULATION: Italy has a slightly bigger population, 60.48 million in 2018 (Sources: Eurostat, INSEE), compared to South Africa’s 57.73 million.

AGE: One thing that works in our favour is our population curve. COVID-19 is far deadlier to the aged. In 2018, 23% (13 million) of Italy’s population was over 65. Only 5% of South Africans (2.9 million) were.

HIV: On the other hand, 18.90% (7.1 million) South Africans are HIV+, while just 0.30% (130,000) of Italians are.

DIABETES: Also, 12.70% (7.3 million) of South Africans are diabetic, while just 5% (3 million) of Italians are.

TB: 235,652 South Africans have tuberculosis, while just 3,912 Italians do.

HERE’S WHAT FRIGHTENS ME:

Despite every request, despite warnings from officials, despite desperate pleas from Italian doctors, despite warnings from South Africans in Italy, despite Italy’s deaths (currently 4,825) due to COVID-19 exceeding even China’s (currently 3,216), I get daily reports from people in my home village of Hilton in South Africa (where the country’s first patient was diagnosed) of people doing just the things Italians did before it was, suddenly, too late.

Reports of our local shopping centre being packed with people on a regular basis, of entire families going shopping instead of just individuals, or groups of friends gathering in coffee shops and (something I heard with my own ears) even of a wedding large enough to require a loudhailer at our local municipal hall, just this weekend. At a time when international experience is telling us we shouldn’t even really be visiting friends at this time.

Professor Saloshni Naidoo, the head of public health medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who has worked closely with the teams mandated to handle Covid-19 in the country, said she could not emphasise enough the importance of behaviour change to prevent a wide-scale and unprecedented spread of the virus in the country.

“These next two weeks are vitally important for people to adhere to the president’s recommendations and ensure there is little to no contact with others so we flatten that curve. Every person needs to realise that this is their social responsibility. The reality is that 60-70% of the population will get the virus and it will present as a really bad case of the flu and [they will] get over it. But what about the other percentage of the population that is already compromised and from lower socio-economic groupings?”

So, what are we doing?

NOW IS NOT THE TIME

Now is not the time to say “mind your own business” – we are all in the same boat and with this virus your actions affect me, wherever you are on the planet.

Now is not the time to have smaller (but still significant) gatherings just because they fit under the 100-person threshold. Smaller gatherings are still a bad idea.

Now is not the time to excuse inexcusable behaviour by saying (as I’ve been told by many people) “but you don’t know why they’re at the shopping centre – maybe they really need stuff”. We’ve had warnings for weeks, we have had delivery services available, and it’s disingenuous to suggest that weddings, groups of friends in coffee shops, and supermarkets so full that people struggle to distance themselves while entire families shop together, are “necessary”.

Some people’s approach to regulations has been to find loopholes. The response by some to the 100-person threshold in South Africa has been to try and fit in events that dip under the bar. When I point all this out on local social media groups, I am accused by multiple people of being judgmental, of being overly negative, and told we should encourage people rather than shaming them.

My question is, what’s so wrong with shaming people for engaging in unnecessary community interaction at a shopping centre in a tiny village when that interaction could, quite literally, contribute to the deaths of the vulnerable?

It’s not difficult. Unless it’s absolutely necessary or a matter of life and death, STAY HOME.

It is painfully clear that every example everywhere in the world, bar a few countries like Germany (with 6 ICU beds per 1,000 inhabitants – well more than double what even most EU countries have) and Taiwan, tells us we are headed for a precipice.

Call me judgmental. Call me bossy. Call me negative. Call me whatever you like, but now is not the time for loopholes, for half-baked excuses - or for asking nicely. Asking nicely has achieved nothing. It’s well-past time to escalate our tone of voice and our sense of urgency.

NOW IS THE TIME

Now is the time to look for additional ways to self-isolate to a greater extent than is regulated.

Now is the time to help those in need wherever we can, while maintaining appropriate caution.

Now is the time to put personal preference aside and act together for all our sakes.

I feel deeply distressed for those who do not have resources and will struggle without income, work and supplies. I can only wish everyone well and hope the elderly, the immuno-compromised, those with cancer, diabetes and the like, remain well. I wish you all much love in this horrible moment.

Charles Webster is a former news journalist and is now a corporate communications consultant for an American multinational. He completed an undergraduate degree in communications and English and later Honours and Master’s degrees in philosophy. Follow him on Twitter: @charlesjwebster