Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus began in China in December, the world has been bombarded with messages about how to curb its spread.
Governments have activated legislation enabling them to shut down public spaces and force people into self-isolation.
As civil society organisations working on human rights and social justice, we have been grappling with the societal and community crisis the Covid-19 pandemic poses.
We believe that, while we build an activist-led campaign for protecting human rights and social justice during this time, we should work from the principle of supporting the public health message from the department of health for increased hygiene and limited physical interactions.
There has been concern about the issue of social distancing and what this means for communities and mobilisation.
We need to see this concern in the context of how the Covid-19 virus spreads and how it will impact our communities and health system.
As health activists, we think we should be practising what we call physical distancing while building social solidarity until the virus has been controlled.
Covid-19 is easily transmitted and is very contagious. We know that most (85% to 90%) of those infected will have a mild infection. However, up to 15% of people infected will be so sick that they will need to be admitted to hospital, and 5% might require admission to ICU.
The issue is that if we have a sudden increase in the number of people infected with the virus, the number of people who need to be admitted to hospital will rise exponentially.
It will be a very steep curve and our health services will be overwhelmed.
What we have learnt from other countries is that the mortality rate ranges from 1% to 6%, depending on how well the health services in the country can respond.
The more overwhelmed our health services become, the less likely we can treat people well, which means we need to find a way to slow down the transmission of the virus so that there is more time for our health services to respond to the sick.
People will get sick and they will recover, but there will be that 15% who will become very sick – 15% of 100 people is very different to 15% of 10 000 people or 15% of 500 000 people.
Our aim over the next couple of weeks should be to make sure that, together, we all reduce the amount of physical contact with groups of people, while also building social solidarity.
This means limiting all social engagements, meetings and large gatherings.
Commit to only meeting people when you really have to. Stay at home as much as you can, and do as much as you can online. As health activists, we have committed to following these guidelines.
Of course, we are aware that millions of South Africans are living in cramped and crowded spaces, so isolating themselves will be virtually impossible.
Isolation is different from physical distancing and comes into play specifically if someone has tested positive for Covid-19.
Government-sponsored accommodation needs to be arranged to meet this need.
However, for the rest of the population, decreasing contact outside of our households is critical because every single point of contact between people is a potential opportunity for the virus to spread – that is really what physical distancing is about.
This does not mean we stop mobilising as a community and society. In fact, we need to mobilise more because social solidarity is so important in times of crisis.
Nevertheless, we do need to maintain physical space between us at least for the next few weeks, possibly a month or two, until we can contain this virus.
Two key public health messages need support – wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds and keep your distance from others as much as possible.
We all need to be doing this and all need to be promoting this in our community work.
Let’s mobilise creatively to promote community spirit, social solidarity and health for all during this time.
*The civil society organisations calling for social solidarity are Health Enabled, People’s Health Movement SA, the Rural Health Advocacy Project, Section 27 and the Treatment Action Campaign. Cairncross is a surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town and a member of the People’s Health Movement SA. This article was produced for Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest. Spotlight is a member of the SA Press Council
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