As the argument about lockdown continues in South Africa, experts all agree on two things:
- Masks, hand hygeine and physical distance interventions are essential to protect and prevent the spread of Covid 19.
- The economy needs to restart as a matter of urgency.
What needs to be recognised is that these two elements go hand in hand. If we could mask-up every single South African overnight and ensure compliant processes through education, there is no reason our economy could not go back to work tomorrow.
Globally, masks have become a central point in the debate around effective methods to prevent the spread of SARS-COV-2. Hong Kong managed to all but quash the spread of the pandemic through a mass public initiated campaign to mask-up. This in turn had motivated multiple countries to adopt a similar strategy and lift lockdowns safely.
While initially hesitant in their recommendation, the World Health Organization (WHO) revised their guidance on mask wearing in March 2020, now encouraging it as a primary method to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The question remains as to how best to approach this strategy in South Africa, where resources are limited and the immediate need for food outweighs the drive to prevent infection.
Key Factors and Interventions To Consider
Evidence shows the potential rapidity of viral particles spreading during everyday activities through simulations using fluorescent substances. This highlights the critical nature of non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including hand washing and avoiding face touching.
Recently published findings highlight that loud talking can leave viral particles in the air for 8-14 minutes, with one minute of loud speaking estimated to generate at least 1,000 virus-containing droplets.
Given that SARS-COV-2 enters the human system through the nose, mouth and eyes, simple interventions geared to slowing the spread of the virus are of the utmost importance. Masks can and will save lives and livelihoods.
When developing interventions in response to a crisis of this proportion, there are a number of key factors to consider:
- Balancing the immediate cost of an intervention against the potential long-term economic losses or gains.
- Given the lack of local evidence for interventions, we need to be mindful that a ‘one size fits all policy’ is not effective. Thus we need to ensure that we carefully adapt our approach to our country, context and people.
- Resources are scarce, thus we need to consider how best we take to scale any possible intervention, and balance investment against potential reward.
- Learn from previous mistakes made in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which continue to impact South Africa. One of the most critical lessons learned is that movements need to be community-centric and ground up.
- Messaging to drive demand should be carefully crafted to not inadvertently drive discrimination.
- Finally, it is imperative to ensure that the product being introduced is of the highest quality standard.
With this in mind, we need to consider the most critical aspects of COVID prevention:
- regular hand washing
- wearing a face mask while not touching one’s face
- physical distancing
When assessing the spread of the pandemic locally, it is clear that high-density, under-resourced areas are the opportune environment for SARS-COV-2 spread.
Fresh running water is often unavailable making hand washing a challenge. Poverty compounded with the current lockdown means that access to essential items, including food and soap are a luxury. Social distancing is all but impossible, when front doors are less than four meters apart, and the corridors between homes are only 2 meters.
As we prepare to open our economy further, South Africa needs to carefully consider how to bridge the gap between poverty and economic sustainability.
This will require a comprehensive movement, a shift in behaviour across all echelons of society. It requires a ground-up movement that enables hand washing (even amongst those who do not have access to soap or running water), considers community-led initiatives for social distancing despite the challenges of high density living, and popularises mask wearing while making millions of high quality masks rapidly available to those most at risk.
African Potential Foundation is committed to this process. We are already pushing out educational materials through an ambitious public media programme, along with our aim to partner with local textile producers to mask up 18.4 million South Africans who cannot afford to do so themselves.
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