Doctors say loose masks in fuller taxis will not protect against virus

2020-04-03 14:00
It's day one of the lockdown in Johannesburg with the army and police patroling the streets urging people to abide and stay at home. Homeless people were taken to various shelters.

It's day one of the lockdown in Johannesburg with the army and police patroling the streets urging people to abide and stay at home. Homeless people were taken to various shelters. (Felix Dlangamandla)

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Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula has made a U-turn following an earlier order that full minibus taxi loads would be permitted, if occupants wore masks.

He said on Thursday taxis should only be loaded to 70% capacity, but this has raised grave concerns about commuter safety as a result of Covid-19 from the South African Medical Association.

The department said it had received a number of enquiries and queries from the public on the mitigation measures.

“The concerns were primarily around the 100% loading capacity and the utilisation of masks as a mitigation measure.”

He said the department reached consensus with concerned parties to create a maximum loading capacity of 70%.

The South African National Taxi Council (Santaco) welcomed the minister’s decision, saying it would not endanger the lives of commuters.

“We promoted the 70% loading capacity to our members as it guaranteed social distancing. All taxis must now load 70% only.” Santaco said it never championed the 100% loading capacity it was offered as an option to the 70%.

But, the South African Medical Association (Sama) has hit back strongly, saying the decision to allow 70% loading capacity will not contain the spread of Covid-19.

In a statement, Sama chairperson Dr Angelique Coetzee said, “Apart from the decision on capacity, the minister also noted that all passengers must wear either surgical masks or N95 respirators.

“Not only are these masks in short supply but will do very little to protect drivers and occupants from exposure.

“We are deeply concerned about this development which we view as a misunderstanding of the challenges of the transmission of Covid-19,”

Coetzee said Sama believes the reduction from 100% to 70% is purely a numbers game and that the percentages are being made arbitrarily without application of good practice to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

“Masks won’t address this and even keeping people further apart than usual in an enclosed taxi won’t do much to stop its spread,” Coetzee said.

“Wearing masks as a normal healthy member of the community is not called for in this instance, and N95 masks will do little in terms of any additional protection if they are not worn properly.

“To be effective, an N95 mask must be airtight, and this requires a special fit-test to establish,” said Dr Coetzee.

“It is the moving of large numbers of people in close proximity to each other which poses the real problem.

“The virus is droplet spread, and highly infectious through close contact with infectious people and through touching of contaminated surfaces.

“It is a known fact that the Covid-19 spread is a one to two metre range from any infected person.

“Unfortunately public transport needs to be as restrictive as possible, any other measure but appropriate physical distancing simply won’t be enough at this stage,” said Dr Coetzee.

Sama said the Department of Health needs to be more involved in decision-making, not only regarding public travel, but other measures being considered by government.

“Their input on this matter, for instance, would have been invaluable in preventing the transport of people in enclosed spaces, and could, ultimately, save many lives,” said Coetzee.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  taxis
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