Covid-19 has been declared a national disaster. President Cyril Ramaphosa has asked us to co-operate, collaborate and take common action against a common threat.
Every company, every trade union, every non-governmental organisation, every university, college and school, taxi associations, stokvels and more will need to play their part, he said.
Let’s get practical. This country has some very specific challenges: looming large in this crisis is the huge gulf of inequality which sees some of us able to buy in bulk hand sanitisers and pasta while people, not 10km away go to bed hungry.
Can we, all of us, for all our sakes, pull together and minimise some of them?
One of the most effective things we can do is to ensure that it is both possible and practical for everyone in this country to practise good hand hygiene.
For many citizens, that seems out of reach: soap is an important item in the budget, not to be wasted, and 20 seconds of running water numerous times a day seems out of the question.
The good news is that it is possible.
“Let’s explore the myth that you need vast quantities of water to wash your hands,” says Alana Potter, director of research and advocacy at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of SA.
Water quantity and quality is a real issue and this is a critical time to advocate for improvements in both.
But even small amounts of poor quality water will clean your hands – just enough to lather up, then a little to rinse.
Twenty seconds of soap lather and the mechanics of handwashing matters most, thankfully, because very few people can collect enough water to run it over their hands for the full 20 seconds, multiple times a day.
Since effective and universal hand hygiene is within reach, let’s look at the practicalities, the three things we need to get all South Africans habitually practising are: knowledge, water and soap.
How do we get the information out? We need to keep a constant feed of advice and reminders going, the standard info about handwashing as well as proven tips which are specifically applicable to circumstances in many homes, like the tippy tap.
Only about half of urban households in South Africa and about 27% of rural households have handwashing facilities at all.
Tippy taps can be home-made from 2l cold drink bottles and provide a stimulus for handwashing.
One very effective route to communicate would be via community radio stations in particular, and of course all the national and regional commercial radio stations too.
For years, the SA Agency for the Advancement of Science and Technology has run a Science and Technology Youth Journalism Programme which aims to communicate science and technology stories in all our indigenous languages and make scientific information accessible.
I have trained a number of intakes of these young people in science journalism over the years, and have been proud of their achievements.
I call upon them all now to use those skills to get the word out in the languages of home.
Many of the commercial and community radio stations have already begun putting out messages about hygiene (handwashing and face touching) and social distancing, but we need to make this a constant focus in every credible communications medium.
Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has announced plans for getting water out where it’s needed (taxi ranks, for one).
But people need information about how you manage water. For example, there’s no need to use pure water for handwashing.
Households can use wastewater – water used to wash dishes, for example – to wash their hands.
It’s not the water that does the job of breaking down the virus, it’s the soap.
Potter says rather save clean water for drinking.
Dehydrated people, or people who are at risk of gastro complaints because of poor water quality, are at greater risk of picking up an infectious disease such as Covid-19.
“The biggest thing – and one that’s often not understood – is hygienic management of water meant for drinking,” she says.
Water tested at source in northern KwaZulu-Natal was found to be good quality. Poor management in the home meant that it was less safe at the point of consumption.
Research into how households manage water in sub-Saharan Africa, published in December last year, found that only 18% of households used adequate treatment methods (for example, boiling, or adding a teaspoon of Jik to a 25l water container) and that this was “statistically associated with household head education, owning a radio and wealth quintiles”.
Once again, radio can play a critical part in ensuring that people know how to manage water to avoid reduced resilience to disease.
Soap is an important item in perhaps the majority of South Africans’ budgets.
Certainly, each bar is used to the last sliver, and there are some families that may find it hard to cough up for enough extra soap to make really good hand hygiene possible, washing their hands after contact with other people as well as before and after preparing food, and after using the toilet.
Well, the president did ask for every company to play their part.
Potter says: “Unilever, it’s time to step up!”
This huge company (which is, after all, part of the Global Handwashing Partnership, along with Colgate-Palmolive and Procter and Gamble), has made the familiar bar of green Sunlight soap across Africa.
Now it, and other manufacturers of soap, have a chance to show their commitment, their social responsibility, and give back to the communities that consume these products, by ensuring that soap is made available to everyone who needs it.
Talk to the department of health nationally or the MECs for health in the provinces and make a plan, quickly!
Where there’s really no access to soap, by the way, people can use cold wood ash in the same way.
“Like soap, ash is also not only cleansing but also a disinfecting agent [alkaline],” writes agronomist Torsten Mandel in a 2014 memo.
We all stand together
We cannot fight this virus successfully without a spirit of community, as the president pointed out.
We have to all pull together.
“ … those who have resources and who are healthy need to assist those in need and who are vulnerable,” the president said.
So both companies and individuals need to step up to the plate. I am going to be doing so by supporting an NGO I know that puts together food packs (beans, rice, pilchards and other basics) for people in need.
We must try to ensure halfway decent nutrition in needy communities to build health and resilience.
I hope that companies such as Tiger Brands and Pioneer Foods are about to get into a huddle with both government and civil society organisations to figure out how they can help.
Pushing donated food out to hungry communities through existing organisations, ones that know the need intimately and have the networks, will be the most effective way, I think.
(One tip: do consult with NGOs and communities themselves – don’t make decisions about what will work without their input. That’s a recipe for failure.)
Talking among ourselves
“Consistent, credible messaging – coordinated among influential community elders, religious leaders, media, and local government officials – is […] vitally important,” writes Arkebe Oqubay, senior minister and special adviser to the prime minister of Ethiopia, and a distinguished fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, in a March 14 article about Covid-19 in Africa, based on the Ebola experience.
“And health officials must share information about the progress of the virus, and the measures being taken to contain it, in a timely and transparent manner.”
Mr President, I found your speech strong, clear, coherent and inspiring.
As this crisis unfolds, we will need more communication – not just speeches, but constant feedback on what you and your government are doing as well as information about how we, the citizens and civil society can do.
Take us into your confidence, make us your partners, treat us like adults.
Be timely and transparent. Don’t allow anxiety, panic and rumours to proliferate.
Communicate, communicate, communicate.
To the tech and communications companies operating in South Africa: it’s time for you to step up, too.
First, you could be doing more to prevent your platforms from being used to disseminate false, misleading and downright malicious information.
Pinterest has apparently disabled “searches for coronavirus-related user-generated content and [replaced] it with WHO information”.
There must be other ways to ensure that the first answers to people’s questions are not clickbait lies, but credible info.
Fake news of the ilk that has been spreading (“drink boiling water”, forsooth) can be very dangerous.
A lot of it purports to be science: speak to us at the SA Science Journalists Association (email@example.com) about how to distinguish solid science and scientists from the misleading and fake.
No, I don’t know how you can do all of this technically, put your brilliant geeks in a room and ask them to think of away.
Second, when people are self-quarantining, not going to church, to stokvel meetings, to parties and braais and soccer games, they are going to need to keep in touch.
Data and airtime will be key to morale in this country.
Could you see your way to reducing costs, I wonder?
And perhaps talk to health authorities about how we can use existing tech in the hands of citizens and medics to provide some sort of telemedicine, which will help people avoid extensive taxi, bus and train trips to get medical advice.
These are just the thoughts I’ve had in the wee hours, about some specific needs.
Perhaps many people in this country are also thinking along the same lines but in a wider range of areas.
Maybe many have already stepped into the frontline of the Covid-19 battle. I hope so.
Because now is the time to get practical, to shake off the apathy or the paralysis wrought by fear and leapfrog into action.
We have brains, energy and ingenuity aplenty in this country.
Let’s use it to negotiate this difficult time, and emerge with a country united, stronger and better aware of what we can do.
. Mandi Smallhorne is the president of the SA Science Journalists Association and vice president, the World Federation of Science Journalists