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Covid-19 lessons go unheeded

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People walk past a Covid-19 mural at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa. The mural was painted by Bushy Wopp, a mixed method and well renowned local and international muralist, painter, illustrator and graphic designer. Picture: Henk Kruger / African News Agency (ANA)

By Edwin Naidu

Globally, most scientists and societies have rejected China’s zero-tolerance approach to the Covid-19 pandemic and its preparedness to shut down its economy and entire cities in an effort to curb the spread of the virus to protect its most vulnerable citizens.

There was a similar lukewarm response last week in South Africa where a panel of experts, on a webinar convened by Higher Education Media Services, attempted to answer the underlying and pertinent question: “Is the Covid-19 pandemic over?”

The re-emergence of Monkeypox and an outbreak of hepatitis among children in several Western countries, a further question arises: Has Covid-19 opened a Pandora’s box?

v has been dubbed a “clever” virus. Scientists have been astounded by its ability to spawn many variants each with a large number of mutations. While this is a concern in itself, scientists are worried about linkages with other pathogens lurking in the shadows.

The Lancet, Britain’s foremost and authoritative publication on health issues, said in its July 1, 2022, edition there had been reports of children with severe forms of hepatitis in the UK, Europe, the USA, Israel and Japan. The virus was detected in 18% of the cases in the UK.

Eleven of the 12 Israeli patients were reported to have had Covid-19 in recent months. However, more research will be required to establish a direct link between this unusual hepatitis outbreak and the Covid-19 pandemic.

More ancillary questions, however, arose during the webinar: Was South Africa’s response to the pandemic the correct one? Is China’s xero-tolerance response to infections correct and applicable to countries on the African continent and South Africa? Do the problems of poverty, inequality, unemployment and food insecurity pose a greater danger to society? The responses of the panellists varied on many issues but they were in agreement that the pandemic “ain’t over yet”.

The facilitator of the webinar, Professor Jerome Singh, principal investigator of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) at the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (ASSAf) and a consultant to the World Health Organisation (WHO), put it succinctly when he said looking in the rear-view mirror, now that the pandemic has been raging for more than two years, there were other pandemics lurking.

He also gave a stark warning that vaccines were not as effective as touted by the big pharmaceutical companies which were manufacturing them. “Covid is not over. I can certainly say that we are entering a different phase of the pandemic. We know that there is a widespread immunity within our South African population. It’s likely that there will be more variants with a degree of immune escape,” said Dr Samantha Potgieter, an infectious disease expert from the University of the Free State.

The South African government said more than 100 000 people have lost their lives in the country over the last two years to the pandemic, while internationally, six million deaths had been recorded.

The panel was made up Potgieter, Durban specialist psychiatrist, Dr Suntheren Pillay, Ms Ogechi Ekeanyanwu Sub-Saharan regional editor of the African Science podcast team and Dr Suveshnee Munien, senior environmental sciences lecturer at University of KwaZulu-Natal.

They discussed the clinical aspects of Covid-19, unpacking the status, solutions for the future and how it affected citizens. The also unpacked the risk management of the pandemic to mitigate cross border transmission according to WHO guidelines. Communications, awareness and the psychological state of the nation caused by the lockdown and the pandemic, were also discussed.

Psychiatry expert, Dr Pillay said that the mental well-being of the nation suffered during the pandemic, as patients with serious mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, battled to get medication or treatment. “All our chronic bipolar and chronic schizophrenics did not take their treatment adequately and got more stressed by not socialising,” Pillay said.

In fact, he was concerned that poverty would become a far more serious challenge than Covid-19 given the loss of two million jobs in South Africa during the pandemic.

Pillay said while governments around the world responded to the pandemic seriously, essential aspects of humanity were neglected, such as food security. “We neglected the services of our cities and the maintenance of our cities. We neglected everything and we cannot neglect society’s needs to just focus on Covid, it’s going to be here for a long time.”

Responding to whether South Africa’s approach in addressing the pandemic – compared to China’s, Dr Munien, said a zero-tolerance policy might work for a country like China with its dense populations. It all depended on context, she said.

“The lockdown was useful in buffering against overhauling our health care system at the start of the pandemic. But South Africa’s lockdown may have been stretched out for longer than needed,” she said.

“Many people in the country function in the informal economic sector where no work means no pay.

Over the recent years, the lockdown may have contributed to unwanted consequences, such as increased threats to household food security, especially among the poor. In this regard, the tourism sector was particularly hard-hit. More specifically, the creative and cultural industries, artists, and performers, and SMME sectors are seeing unprecedented shifts in demand. Tourism-related activities were the backbone of many communities,” Munien said.

But like many others, the scientists on the panel, however, failed to explain or make a comparison between the effectiveness of China’s approach in protecting the lives of its citizens and that of the USA or Europe, for instance. The USA, with approximately one-fifth of China’s population, has recorded more than a million deaths so far. China’s death toll by mid-June, 2022, was 17 800.

Commensurately, if China had pursued the same approach and policies as the USA, its death rate would have been more than five million. By all metrics, and especially related to protecting the health and lives of its citizens against the pandemic, China’s zero-tolerance approach seemed to have been the most optimal.

But as the next pandemic looms “in the rear-view mirror”, will South Africa and the West heed this lesson or are the lives of its citizens merely “collateral damage” as the big pharma companies once again maximise their profits?

Naidu is a journalist and communicator.

This article is original to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.