OPINION | Responsible citizenship needed in the face of Covid-19

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Young woman shows self-made mask to protect against virus and bacteria.
Young woman shows self-made mask to protect against virus and bacteria.
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As a country, we are in a state of disaster, because by all accounts, we are facing possibly the worst health crisis of our lifetime.

Not all South Africans are responding to the crisis as responsible citizens should, and I wonder if that's because they find the Covid-19 statistics from the US, Spain and Italy unfathomable? Or do they think we are somehow going to escape disaster if we deny it?

The global scope and reach of a pandemic that is little more than 100 days old is hard to understand and even harder to believe, but denial and civil disobedience is not the answer.  For our country to survive this nightmare, everyone needs to do their part.

There are things individuals can do to help themselves and others to be safer. You can start by wearing a face mask when you're out in public while still keeping your distance, and if "remote" work allows (for those working from home), make your own face masks. There are plenty of videos and "how to" guides online. There are even guidelines for making hand-sewn face masks.

Our Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize demonstrated on 10 April how to fold a handkerchief to have three layers, when he announced the government's recommendation of fabric face masks.

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A heavy scarf can work as well, provided it covers your nose and mouth while you are out and about, and you tie it to keep it in place.

Once you have a face mask (homemade or purchased), it's also important to use it correctly. If it's a fabric face mask, wash it often. If it's disposable, use it only once and disinfect it before disposing of it. Also, wash your hands with soap and water after removing the face mask.

Diluted bleach is a CDC-recommended surface disinfectant that can be sprayed onto disposable face masks before throwing them away.

Why are face masks important?

The biggest benefit is, of course, that coupled with social distancing, it decreases an uninfected person's chance of infection, especially by asymptomatic people who have the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), causative agent of Covid-19.

Face masks allow wearers to participate in decreasing their chance of infection, as well as that of others. At the very least, a face mask serves as a reminder to not touch your face. The type of face mask appears to influence adherence and there's evidence that children respond better to fabric face masks.

It's not easy to wear a face mask but lessons from China should strengthen our resolve. Wearing face masks have been part of Chinese culture for a very long time as mitigator to air pollution and occasional infectious disease outbreaks. It has been credited for contributing to the lower Covid-19 infections and deaths in China, when compared to other global powers.

Gloves and the high-tech N95 respirator face masks should be reserved for healthcare professionals because they are in the front lines of the fight, and they know how to use these items properly.

The demand for face masks will increase exponentially as time goes on, and we need to make sure that our medical professionals have all the medically-approved face masks they need.

So for uninfected people, a fabric face mask will provide more protection then walking around without one, especially when combined with keeping a two-metre distance from others. If you can afford to buy face masks (fabric or disposable), share with the elderly or those who cannot afford to buy their own.

Social distancing, hand and respiratory hygiene and wearing face masks are responsible things that everyone can do to contribute to minimising the spread of the virus.

Scientist don't know everything there is to know about this novel virus yet, so something else you can do is to educate yourself about the virus, its spread and the disease it causes, and then adjust your behaviour as you become more informed or as new information becomes available.

The position of the World Health Organisation and the Centre for Disease Control on face masks, for example, have evolved from the start of the pandemic to now; they've gone from face masks being only for infected people or healthcare workers, to recommending face masks for everyone when out in public.

In the 1980s, because of HIV/AIDS, ordinary people became familiar with CD4 counts and viral load; now again we require extraordinary effort from the public to understand how to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Make no mistake, Covid-19 will replace World War II as reference point for global change. The behaviour of some world leaders makes us question whether the change will be in the best interest of all people irrespective of their citizenship status.

Professor Nassim Taleb, bestselling author of the book "The Black Swan", says we knew such a pandemic was coming and did not take the necessary precautions. He is also of the view that the best way to save the economy is by putting an end to the pandemic rather than rushing people back to work.

Professor Yuval Noah Harari in his book "Sapiens", talked about global cooperation being a necessity for solving pandemics; so the Chinese support for Africa's medical professionals through PPE donations, is a step in the right direction. History will judge all of us alive today, for our actions, or lack thereof, in the face of this unbearable situation.

The repercussions of Covid-19 will be felt for years to come; we may not easily go back to friendly hugs or handshakes with strangers again, but there are other ways to remain humane and sociable.

The Japanese already bow in greeting, in Southeast Asia the namaste greeting (slight bow and hands pressed together) is common practice, and in Africa the elbow touch may become as popular as mythical Wakanda's "cross-your-heart" bow.

For the squeamish there'll always be the Hollywood hug (air kisses) or the very new Wuhan shake (foot tapping). Let Covid-19 not become an excuse for xenophobia, but instead be a trigger for innovation and a testament to the caring side of human nature.

Debra Meyer is a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology with over 20 years' experience in infectious disease research. She's also the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Johannesburg.

Stay healthy and entertained during the national lockdown.

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