DR MBUYISENI Ndlozi, a man with a PhD in Political Science from Wits is no expert on epidemics and virology. As a spokesperson for far-left opposition party, EFF, he is a regular guest on national television and a staunch opponent of any relaxation of the hard lockdown.
Like many popular commentators on Covid-19, including myself, Ndlozi was quick to compare the pandemic to the Spanish Flu of 1918. Just how wrong this comparison has turned out, can be seen by the fact that several pandemics have occurred since the Spanish flu, each with their own lesson for humanity.
In February 1957, a new influenza A (H2N2) virus emerged in East Asia, triggering a pandemic (“Asian Flu”).
The Hong Kong flu (also known as 1968 flu pandemic) was a flu pandemic whose outbreak in 1968 and 1969 killed an estimated one million people all over the world. Woodstock occurred during the pandemic.
Nobody remembers these epidemics because there was no social media, no lock-downs and no cessation of economic activity. The world survived and only remembered the Spanish Flu epidemic from 1918.
“Should we be comparing Covid-19 to flu at all?” asks science journalist Laura Spinney. “The viruses that cause the flu and Covid-19 belong to two different families. Sars-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, belongs to the coronavirus family. And in that, there are greater similarities with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome, that originated in China in 2002) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome, which began in Saudi Arabia in 2012).”
“Unlike flu, which spreads rapidly and relatively evenly through a population, coronavirus tends to infect in clusters,”
Spinney writes. “In theory, that makes coronavirus outbreaks easier to contain, and indeed both SARS and MERS outbreaks were brought under control before they went global.”
Most importantly, she says, the world has changed a lot between 1918 and now.
“In 1918, a large number of people chose to follow what religious leaders were saying rather than heed the advice of health experts. For instance, in the Spanish city of Zamora, the local bishop defied the health authorities by ordering evening prayers on nine consecutive days in honour of Saint Rocco, the patron saint of plagues. Churchgoers lined up to kiss the saint’s relics. Zamora recorded the highest death rate in Spain, and one of the highest in Europe.”
Ferris Jabr of Scientific American, writing in Wired agrees and says:”Coverage of the coronavirus pandemic teems with monstrous and sometimes contradictory statistics.
“Among the most vexing figures flitting across our screens, and spreading via text and tweet, is the case fatality rate (CFR)—the proportion of known infections that result in death. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, World Health Organization officials announced an average CFR of 2 percent. Later on, they revised it up to 3.4 percent. In contrast, numerous epidemiologists have argued that the global case fatality rate is closer to 1 percent. These might seem like small differences, but when multiplied across large populations they translate to significant discrepancies in overall deaths.”
The novel coronavirus pandemic however remains “a major threat that demands a swift and robust response,” writes Jabr. “Even a fatality rate between 0.5 and 1 percent is extremely alarming in a world as populous and interconnected as ours. Another crucial consideration is the virus’s potential to induce severe illness that may not be fatal but lasts for weeks, straining hospital resources and potentially leaving some people with lifelong health issues.”
Ndlozi is therefore right to reiterate the initial concerns raised by persons such as myself, with regard to the virulence and infectiousness of the virus. Its rapid spread took everyone by surprise, and without sufficient controls many lives would have been lost. But he is just plain wrong to suggest without any evidence, that a blanket, hard lock-down applied to the entire country will provide any benefits moving forward.
South Africa has aggressively intervened to contain the epidemic. But it is far from clear which strategic outcome is being pursued. “Is it following the lead of countries such as New Zealand or South Korea and trying to stop virus transmission altogether until a suitable vaccine becomes available? Or is it attempting to manage the infection rates so that extreme peaks in morbidity are prevented? “asks Alex Van Den Heever et al.
The cost of embracing a zero-risk policy is more likely to lead to ‘untold economic misery’ for ordinary South Africans and will prove ultimately futile in areas where social distancing is unworkable, witness the long queues for food across several of our provinces.
Those living in lockdown in South Africa’s townships are bound to experience a double-burden of hardship, not only do they risk losing their jobs, but also family members to the disease. The control measures over the food supply have already backfired.
A recent panel discussion hosted by Francois Picard of France 24, The Debate, highlighted the different approach taken by Sweden which has balanced control measures while avoiding a hard lock-down thereby avoiding an economic situation that ‘nobody will be able to live with’.
So summarise some of the current epidemiological thinking on Covid-19, articulated by Nobel laureates, high achievers in the arena of science as opposed to political studies — in essence the pandemic ‘represents a few extra weeks of average deaths for our population’. A hard lock-down merely pushes these deaths ahead of us, without much benefit. In any event we will still experience waves of the disease moving forward.
Hard lock downs are not the solution. Other ways to control the virus must be found. They might include limiting access to certain districts, keeping entire Cities in one level while other parts of the country are allowed to open up. Fighting the virus wherever it flares up in hotspots but allowing life to continue where it has not.