Covid-19 second wave: Responsible behaviour will be key to curbing spread

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  • South Africa has officially entered its second wave of Covid-19 cases
  • This was confirmed by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, who urged South Africans to act responsibly this festive season
  • Our second peak might also potentially be higher than the first, said Mkhize, adding that the President is expected to address the nation soon

National Health Minister Zweli Mkhize confirmed on Wednesday evening during a special live television broadcast that South Africa has entered its second wave of Covid-19.

Mkhize pleaded with South Africans to play their part in containing the virus, saying that “if this trajectory continues, our healthcare system will be overwhelmed”.

Mkhize said that the majority of Covid cases were coming from the Western Cape (30%), followed by the Eastern Cape (24%), KwaZulu-Natal (23%), and Gauteng (17%).

Numbers dropped in September, but are now rising steadily

Since the end of September, the country saw case numbers dropping to as low as around 1 000 per day, but the numbers are now increasing. More than 6 000 new cases were reported in the past 24 hours, said Mkhize.

Data indicates that this time we’re going to experience an exponential growth in cases: “That means we must expect faster-rising numbers with possibly a higher peak than the first wave,” Mkhize said.

Enjoying the festive season responsibly

“I think it’s important to send a message to all South Africans: Yes, the festive season is a time for us to relax and enjoy with our families, but we now need to understand that we’ve got a responsibility to enjoy it with various restraints,” Mkhize appealed.

“Enjoying ourselves should not be to the detriment of other fellow South Africans. If our enjoyment is going to lead to more people being infected and hospitalised, and even losing lives, it’s not a responsible way of enjoying ourselves. At this point, it is important to make citizens aware that the situation is rather concerning,” he added.

Just hours earlier, Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology at Wits University, who is leading the SA leg of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial echoed similar sentiments in a MyHealthLIVE webinar, saying that the increase in case numbers is a clear indication that people have become complacent in implementing non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), such as face mask-wearing and physical distancing:

“When people start gathering during the vacation period, especially gatherings in poorly ventilated indoor areas, we’re going to see more virus transmission starting to take place,” Madhi said.

Avoid poorly ventilated spaces

Madhi explained that the single most important factor in circumventing another massive escalation in Covid cases is simple: avoid gathering in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.

“Walking around on a beach without a mask – that’s not the problem. The problem is when families gather in groups of 10s, 20s, in a small space with poor ventilation. If you’re gathering as a family, gather outdoors.

“If you’re planning on going to a restaurant, insist on getting an outdoor table. You certainly shouldn’t be going to pubs and shebeens and clubs, which are in enclosed spaces and overcrowded," he said, adding:

"Wearing a face mask and then engaging in a mass gathering in poorly ventilated areas is an example of irresponsible behaviour."

Younger age group contributing to rise in cases 

Mkhize also stressed that the 15 to 19 age group has shown the most infections in the last two days, mainly due to the Rage Festival in Ballito, which has been identified as a superspreader activity.

Superspreader events refer to many people who attended the same event and got infected almost immediately over a short period of time. These events are key drivers in the spike in Covid cases, explained Madhi, further commenting: 

“The reason why these superspreader events are so dangerous is because information about the virus now shows that it is airborne, and it appears to be the major source of acquisition of the virus.

“This means that when an infected person coughs and breathes, they release their microscopic contaminated droplets. In poorly ventilated areas, those droplets can remain suspended in the air for up to two hours, and all it takes is for other people in the vicinity to literally inhale those contaminated particles and they can become infected… so ventilation is absolutely essential.”

On this topic, Mkhize said that these events lead to a spillover into the rest of the country, as the age group is “highly mobile and the majority of the carriers are largely asymptomatic”.

Could SA revert to a stricter lockdown before Christmas?

Responding to whether another hard lockdown was on the cards before Christmas, Mkhize explained that the Cabinet will discuss the new situation, and that President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to address the nation soon.

However, Madhi stated that South Africa is a good example of how unsuccessful a hard lockdown has been to contain the spread of the virus, saying that all it achieved was to delay the timing of the peak of the virus.

“It provided some opportunity for our healthcare facilities to be better equipped in dealing with hospitalised cases, and in preparing and procuring enough PPE. But beyond that, the lockdown had zero effect on the infection rate, and some marginal effect on mortality.

In fact, South Africa was one of the few countries where during Level 5, ongoing community transmission was still occurring.

“All that a lockdown does, in a South African context, is delay the inevitable, so that is not the best strategy – especially now that the healthcare system is reasonably prepared,” he said.

“It’s not going to have a meaningful impact in terms of the number of people who will end up getting infected with the resurgence. It's a blunt tool and not fit for purpose in dealing with the challenge of a resurgence,” said Madhi.

‘There has to be a way of encouraging responsible behaviour’

What Mkhize did say, however, was that there has to be some way of encouraging responsible behaviour and protecting against complacency: “We need to really focus on those containment measures that we have always preached about: the use of face masks, physical distancing, hand sanitisers, etc.”

Mkhize said that in the earlier days during the first wave, the decrease in case numbers was attributed to behavioural change such as the wearing of face masks. 

“Complacency is not going to help us. While we’re enjoying ourselves, we must not endanger the lives of more South Africans and expose them to the risk of infection and losing their lives. This is a time when we should really act very responsibly,” concluded Mkhize.

READ | Covid-19: Second wave wouldn't be unexpected, but hard lockdown a ‘blunt tool’, says top expert

READ | Not just in the lab, but in practice: How mask-wearing has been effective in curbing Covid spread

READ | Nearing the finish line: What do the latest Covid vaccine results mean?

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