- Health experts are appealing to those celebrating Eid-ul-Adha this week to protect themselves and their loved ones against SARS-CoV-2.
- SA is still in the midst of the third wave, and the recent riots and looting may have worsened the situation.
- Dr Salim Parker explains how to celebrate in a way that lowers the spread of the virus.
Muslims celebrating Eid-ul-Adha this week are urged to follow Covid-19 safety guidelines after a recently published study revealed an increase in Covid-related deaths among Muslim communities during previous Eid celebrations.
Speaking to Health24, Dr Salim Parker from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Division of Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine said that health experts are appealing to those celebrating Eid-ul-Adha to remember that certain parts of South Africa, including the Western Cape, are still approaching the peak of the third wave.
“Of course, Eid is a joyous occasion. But we have to remember that this Delta variant is highly infectious, and so we must avoid the known factors that can cause the spread of this virus.”
Parker was co-author of the study, which showed that Eid-ul-Fitr gatherings in May this year may have acted as super spreader events, fuelling Covid deaths in the Muslim community, Health24 reported. The study was initiated by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and was led by Dr Waasila Jassat from the NICD.
Super spreader events are defined as cases in which a single person infects many other people at a given time.
The situation in Gauteng and KZN
While Gauteng has reached the peak of the third wave, there is concern that we might see a change in the downward trajectory due to the recent civil unrest, the provincial government said on Friday.
The province's healthcare system remains strained and daily new infections remain high. "The increase in hospital admissions continues to place a heavy strain on the health system in both public and private sectors. Scientists have warned that although numbers are starting to drop in Gauteng, there is not enough of a drop.
“The province is concerned that there might be a change in the downward trajectory of new Covid-19 infections due to recent protest actions," the provincial government said.
The unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which together account for almost half the country’s total population, has the potential to trigger a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
During a Zoom briefing last week, epidemiologist Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim said that the unrest in the two provinces, which led to thousands of people gathering in confined spaces with little regard for physical distancing or mask-wearing, was a “recipe for super spreader events”, News24 reported.
Parker also added that the case numbers in KwaZulu-Natal are artificially low, especially because people have been unable to get tested due to the unrest and a reduced number of facilities.
Indians have higher risk of death
The researchers behind the analysis also looked at Covid-19 mortality by race group and found that compared with whites, South Africans of Indian ancestry have a 35% increased risk of dying of Covid-19 when hospitalised, while black Africans and coloured people have a 23–24% higher risk.
This heightened risk was also said to be independent of other underlying risk factors such as diabetes – a condition that is highly prevalent in people of Indian ancestry compared with whites, they added.
Any congregation can fuel cases
Parker previously stressed that there may be a perception of medical experts unfairly stigmatising the Muslim community, but that this was not the case.
“Firstly, the call from the writers of the article has never been for Eid to be cancelled, nor for all the activities associated with it to be [banned],” said Parker.
“What we did mention was that we've got to consider that any congregation – whether it’s an Eid congregation, a church congregation, a choir practice, or youngsters simply going out for the evening just to have dinner, for example – in a close confined space can lead to super spreader events.”
We have to take into account that 10% to 20% of people lead to 80% of infections, said Parker. In other words, there is an uneven pattern of transmission that has been noted worldwide, where some individuals infect many people, but most infect only a few, according to an article published in Nature.
“We don't know why this is the case because we don’t really understand the mechanics of it yet, but that is just the reality,” said Parker.
“So you need one super spreader individual to be present at the congregation, irrespective of what type of gathering it is. If the gathering is in a relatively confined space, where people are close to each other, and where there is poor ventilation and people are not wearing masks, that is really sowing the seed for a super spreader event,” he added.
Some tips for celebrating responsibly
There are ways to mitigate the risks and enjoy Eid responsibly. If people need to greet each other on the day of Eid, an attempt should be made to do so via video calls, such as using Zoom, advised Parker.
“If there’s really a need to greet a parent, for example, there's no problem with a person driving past the house and the family member standing outside where there is good ventilation, and while they keep a certain physical distance from each other and wear their masks. The other important factor is to keep the interaction short,” said Parker.
“But the first prize at this stage of the pandemic, during the third wave, would be not to have any form of physical contact. It's not going to last forever; it’s going to come to an end sooner or later,” he added.
“With it being winter now, people huddle, and if the mask goes off, people get closer and start embracing each other and speaking loudly – out of excitement because they haven’t seen their loved ones in a long time,” which will only aid the spread of the virus, said Parker.
In the article, the authors also advise people who plan to partake in the ritual slaughter of sheep ('Qurbani'), which is part of Eid-ul-Adha, to do so in a safe manner.
"Additionally, gatherings centred around the ritual slaughter of sheep ... even if held outdoors, have the potential to be super spreading events, and also need to be reconsidered in this time of crisis," they wrote.
Parker said it should preferably be done at a farm and should involve minimal numbers of people.
The importance of 'the bubble'
To limit your risk of infection, experts have also urged people to limit contact with people outside of their “bubble” (a group of people with whom you have close physical contact).
“So somebody living in one household would be considered one bubble. Even if you have immediate family members living two doors away, they would not be part of your bubble,” said Parker.
“Therefore, we should stick to the bubbles that we currently are involved in, and if there is any association with another bubble, all Covid-19 safety measures must be in place.”
The authors of the study also emphasised the importance of Covid-19 vaccination.
“Yes, the vaccines have been quickly formulated. And I can understand people's doubts about the long-term efficacy and long-term safety of it,” said Parker. “But the reality is that it is based on a science that is quite solid and that we can actually rely on.
“The reality is that you have a bigger chance of dying from contracting the virus than from a side effect of the vaccine. I spoke to a colleague of mine who works in an ICU (intensive care unit) in the US. The people who are landing in the ICU are those who are not vaccinated against Covid,” he added.
There is a clear trend showing that the people who are dying due to Covid-19 were not vaccinated, said Parker. While people who are vaccinated might still contract the virus, the infection is likely to be mild in comparison to those who are unvaccinated, according to the NICD.
Returning to normality
“We need to start getting back to our normal lives. And the longer we don't have immunity, the longer it's going to take us to get back to our normal social life, economic life, and way of doing things,” said Parker.
“And we need to hasten the endpoint, which is where we can move around and associate freely. This virus comes in waves, as we’re seeing now, and when it peaks, all the medical resources are really stretched. As a result, many people can't get cancer treatment, or they miss their TB or HIV treatment, for example,” he explained.
The only tool that we have at the moment, which is relatively safe, and which so far has been shown to be effective against Covid is vaccination, Parker added.
“From the medical fraternity, we would strongly encourage people to get vaccinated. I’m vaccinated; my wife is vaccinated; my 80-year-old mother is vaccinated; and my daughter who’s a teacher is also vaccinated. The best way we can [encourage vaccination] is to lead by example,” he said.