As emphatic warnings were sounded by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize about increasing new daily cases of Covid-19, igniting fears of a second wave of infections in the country, a recent survey has shown that the population is not only experiencing pandemic fatigue, but lapsing into complacency.
The survey found that people are adhering less to safety measures such as wearing masks, observing social distancing and sanitising because they fear losing their incomes and going to bed hungry more than they fear contracting the virus.
As of Friday, the country had recorded 712 412 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 18 891 deaths.
On Wednesday, Mkhize – who also contracted the virus – emerged from his own recovery process to issue a warning that the threat of a resurgence remained high.
While he added that he did not wish to instil public fear, it would be “irresponsible to ignore the ‘small flames’ that we see redeveloping in some parts of the country”.
Mkhize said that there had been an increase of 9.1% in new cases over the past week.
Over the past two weeks, the increase was 10.7%.
The Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), in partnership with the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State department of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), also released its latest summary findings from the UJ/HSRC Covid-19 democracy survey.
These findings came from round two of the democracy survey conducted between July 3 and September 8, when South Africa’s lockdown levels were gradually relaxed as infection rates showed a marked dip.
Carin Runciman, an associate professor at the Centre for Social Change, on Saturday said: “Pandemic fatigue is something the World Health Organisation has been warning about for some time.
It basically relates to decreased compliance with public health measures. It’s happening because, when we had a degree of returning to normality, some people began to relax [and not adhere to safety measures]. However, the threat of the virus is still very real.”
Of the 7 966 respondents in the online survey, 41% said they believed the threat posed by the pandemic had been overstated – an increase of 10% since April, when only about 31% thought this.
Further, actual fear of the virus – which was felt by 44% to 47% of people surveyed from April to July – dropped to 31% from August to early September. Added to that, trust in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s handling of the pandemic waned from 85% in April to 65% in September.
That reduced trust had also contributed to people failing to adhere to protective measures, which could add to the likelihood of a second wave of infections.
“While an overall 65% rating of trust [in Ramaphosa] is still quite high, there’s a relationship between a country’s faith in its president and the likelihood of citizens’ adherence to public health measures. So, from our survey, we found that those who believe the president is doing a bad job of handling the pandemic are more likely to be those who don’t wear masks when going out,” explained Runciman.
On the positive side, however, mask-wearing in public had increased from only 37% of respondents in April to more than 70% in July, August and September.
Regarding institutional trust, Runciman said: “One of the other things we did in the survey was ask if people had a message for the president. Many of those messages were about corruption. In early April, that’s not what people were saying; back then, there was a lot of praise for the president.
“The survey is ongoing. We hope to release results again in mid- to late November and it will be interesting to see whether the actions being taken, such as arrests of corrupt officials and the suspension of leaders implicated in wrongdoing, lead to a rise in institutional trust.”
Regarding declining levels of fear of the virus, Runciman said this might be related to a perception that, while South Africa had a high number of infected people, the mortality rate was not as high as it was in other countries.
“What we’ve also seen from the survey results are rising levels of hunger. Four in 10 adults are going to bed hungry, which is nearly twice the number there would be in ‘normal’ circumstances,” she said.
“I think that, in terms of weighing up risks, for most people, the greatest fear is of hunger and the real – and visible – economic impact they’re experiencing, whereas the virus is invisible.”
Runciman added that the only way to dispel the prevalent fatigue, which could lead to more instances of noncompliance with protective measures, was by continuing to issue strong public health messages.
“In the past week, we’ve seen a fresh round of messaging from the state, particularly as cases have been increasing in the Western Cape. We also know that people are gathering most of their information about the virus from television, so that should be an outlet the state can target in getting the message across.
“There’s been a focus lately on urging youngsters to comply with safety measures, following the recent superspreader party at a bar in Cape Town, where 89 young people – most of them matric pupils – were infected.
“Young people in general are less likely to observe public health measures, but the problem is that they don’t live in a vacuum – they live with families and in communities with people who are at risk. We also need to emphasise that in public messaging,” said Runciman.