Covid-19: one month of discipline could save 20,000 lives

The time for social distancing is right now

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If we wear masks and physically distance from people, we can reduce the impact of the third Covid-19 wave. Illustration: Lisa Nelson

Right now, some of the less populous provinces are just about cresting the third Covid-19 wave. Gauteng and Mpumalanga may be approaching their peak, and things are just getting going elsewhere. There are a lot of infectious people moving around – and so now is the time to take social distancing seriously.

Just one month of discipline and deferred gratification from enough of us, starting now, could mean that by the end of August there are roughly 20,000 fewer dead South Africans – compared to the future we will create if we celebrate the winter break with parties and huddle indoors with family and friends on weekends. That’s as many people unnecessarily killed, in three months, as are murdered here each year – and most of us accept that the death toll from crime is a ridiculous and intolerable waste.

Consider the basic facts:

  • According to official sources, as collated into various dashboards for good visualization (like, for example), we have had, to date, about 57,000 confirmed Covid deaths. The actual number of deaths directly attributable to Covid-19, by any reasonable interpretations of the Medical Research Council analysis of ‘excess deaths’ (which are perfectly aligned to the Covid diagnoses), is about three times that number. Most of these deaths occurred in just two waves so far (May-July 2020 and December 2020-February 2021).
  • The rate at which the infection count is growing is not much less than during the previous two waves. This is despite the fact that many people have already been infected and, for the most part, are unlikely to be infected again during the third wave. Clearly there are still large pockets of uninfected people.
  • So, given that the first waves averaged about 70,000 deaths each, we would be dodging a bullet if the toll in the third were not some tens of thousands. If we make the small sacrifices suggested here for just a month, we could reduce these deaths by at least 20,000.

Vaccination coverage, beset by numerous obstacles, will not make much impact in this current phase. By the end of the year, perhaps, between further naturally acquired immunity, and vaccination, we will have a chance to break free from the wave upon wave disaster we have been caught in for over a year. How many people will have needlessly died by the time we get to that phase will depend on our choices in the next few weeks.

What can we do? Avoid all indoor gatherings except with those you live with. Cancel or postpone parties, weddings, date nights, and unnecessary long rides in busses and planes. Meet your friends, and get your kids to play, outdoors - and keep a distance. Wear a mask when you are close to people with whom you do not live. If you have the chance, get vaccinated. We hold tens of thousands of South African’s lives in our hands, like water. This is not the time to relax our fingers.

Welte is Research Professor at, and the former Director of, the South African (National Government) Department of Science and Innovation - National Research Foundation (DSI-NRF) Centre of Excellence for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (aka SACEMA), at Stellenbosch University.

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TOPICS:  Covid-19

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