Move to level three sparks dangerous complacency

  • BarrySchoub
The pandemic of COVID-19 is a public-health emergency not seen since the devastating Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918/1919, which was responsible for more than 50 million deaths. It has challenged the resources and commitment of governments and citizens to an extent unprecedented in our lifetime.

The fine balance between the public health imperative to address and control the pandemic on the one hand, and the economic need to sustain human livelihood on the other, has demanded supremely wise decision-making by the authorities charged with making these vital decisions.

South Africa enjoyed the advantage of entering the pandemic somewhat later than countries in Europe and the United States. However, at the same time, it faced the spectre of the punishing costs of instituting a lockdown on a fragile economy and a frail public-health system.

The government earned well-justified accolades for its early introduction of a firm lockdown which effectively curtailed the spread of the virus. Not surprisingly, the cost of a strong lockdown on a weak economy, and the consequent severe hardships it caused to the point of threatening widespread food insecurity in the country, soon overcame its benefits.

With wide support, many of the restrictions were lifted in order to reopen the economy. Even some in the scientific community called for abandoning lockdown altogether while, importantly, still retaining the non-pharmaceutical interventions of social distancing and the other accompaniments of COVID-19 infection control.

The move to lockdown level three has spawned a dangerous misinterpretation that this is a signal that the epidemic is coming to an end. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Now, more than ever, as South Africa enters into the exponential phase of expansion of the epidemic, extraordinary vigilance and meticulous devotion to the COVID-19 infection-control measures are vitally important.

The number of cases is currently rising at well over 1 000 new cases a day, and the worst is still to come. From South Africa’s premier public hospital, Groote Schuur, comes the report that the province is fast running out of beds in intensive care, and soon they may not be available for all who need them.

Similarly, ventilators may need to be rationed to the younger or “fitter” members of the population as was the case even in the well-resourced United Kingdom.

Regrettably, the government’s COVID-19 policy has degenerated into often incongruous and sometimes illogical regulations not supported by science. While level-three regulations warn against mass gatherings and forbid socialising, faith leaders have lobbied government to open houses of worship!

How could this have been approved during an unprecedentedly severe public health threat to life at a particularly vulnerable stage of the epidemic in this country? How could the faith leaders have lobbied for the opening of houses of worship, the very paradigm of a super-spreading event as borne out by so many episodes and well publicised studies abroad?

For the Jewish community, which, in particular, has been so severely ravaged by this disease in New York, the United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere, with mortality figures grotesquely out of proportion to population numbers, to contemplate reopening synagogues at this stage of the epidemic in South Africa is even more bizarre.

The sop that control measures will be strictly enforced rings hollow indeed. Alarm bells ring when we look at how existing regulations were and are openly flouted by members of our community in the streets of Glenhazel and its environs.

  • This opinion piece is written solely in Barry Schoub’s personal capacity, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of any organisation or any other individual. Schoub is professor emeritus of virology, University of the Witwatersrand, and was the founder and executive director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Leonard Klass 05 Jun
    The problem is that doctors don't have antivirals. Powerful antivirals do exist, but the couldn't be patented.

    A few days ago, I saw that Israelis had invented a water based disinfectant, so they ran to have it patented.

    Is money really more important that life?


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