The 2020 coronavirus pandemic is changing our world…

There is worldwide concern, severe travel bans, lock-downs, states of emergency, cancelled events, panic buying, stock exchanges in decline, fears of a major economic depression, and more. The human and economic impacts are huge, and growing.The planet is in uncharted territory.

It seems that most of us will be exposed to the virus at some point, and many of us will get infected (because this is a brand-new virus nobody has any immunity for it). The focus of most government effort is to slow down the spread so that healthcare services can cope – we need to “flatten the curve” so that the case-load is spread over time. In addition we need to protect the vulnerable as much as possible. This is the logic behind the lock-downs imposed in most countries around the world.

In South Africa, and many countries where poverty and overcrowding is widespread (e.g. much of Africa, India, parts of South America, etc.), there is a real growing concern that lock-downs do not work or do not work well, and so it starts to seem likely that these nations may suffer even more than more-developed countries like the UK, the USA, Italy, Spain etc. Current statistics might suggest otherwise but these statistics are more likely to reflect the fact that most developing nations are simply “behind” in terms of the timeline, so the full impact is still coming. It is also likely that most developing nations are not able to conduct testing on a large scale, so the statistics are likely to under-represent the reality (to a large extent this is still also the case even in developed countries, but it is just more-so in developing nations who have fewer resources).

It remains true that most healthy adults (and nearly all children, mercifully) who become infected go on to develop mild-to-moderate flu-like symptoms, from which they make a full recovery. The fatality rate is not clear (this is a new pandemic and research is very much still underway) but estimates range from less than 1% to as much as 6%, with 1-3% perhaps the best estimate at this time. The majority of fatalities do occur in the elderly and the unwell (those with impaired immunity) although nobody has zero risk (young and otherwise-well people have died).

The most important early symptoms are cough and fever. The incubation period (time from exposure to illness) is typically 4-6 days but can be as much as 14 days. Infection can be spread during this incubation period.

There is an unprecedented international effort to find effective treatments and vaccines, with researchers collaborating as never before and philanthropists contributing huge funding. But as things stand, there is no vaccine, nor will there be for many months to come. There is no proven treatment either. Standard antibiotics do not work (just like they do not work for any virus). There is huge effort and there is hope, but for now, there is no treatment and there is no vaccine.

The best precautions appear to be regular hand washing and social distancing. Face masks are being more widely recommended now and they do appear to offer some protection. In order to prioritise healthcare workers – who simply must have masks – the public is asked to use home-made masks (there are many good DIY methods that can be found online and most homes will have what’s needed to make simple masks). When using a face-mask it is critically important to  use it correctly – put it over nose and mouth, never touch the mask once it is on, learn how to take it off using only the elastics or straps, dispose of or wash it immediately after use.

In order to avoid overwhelming healthcare services, and to reduce spread, most experts advise those with mild symptoms to self-isolate at home, only seeking hospital care if they become more ill (high fever, shortness of breath, distress, etc.). Those in doubt should call the national helpline or their own doctors.

The South African national helpline number is 0800 029 999.

The nature of this pandemic is such that the situation changes rapidly and so does the best advice. Panic is not helpful so we all need to stay informed by using reliable sources. To that end here are some quality online resources that we suggest you use:

World Health Organisation (WHO)

SA department of health

Wikipedia on coronavirus in SA

SA NICD (communicable diseases)

BMJ (research & technical info)

In addition we have some locally-produced materials that may be helpful (please consider printing and sharing these):

Covid-19 info

Hand washing guidelines

This is world-changing and generation-defining challenge. If we all act with good sense, with courage and with resilience, we will get through this. Perhaps not easily, almost certainly not without loss and pain, but we will get through it. We wish all our readers well.