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Navigating the eased COVID-19 restrictions

As South Africa prepares to ease COVID-19 restrictions on 1 June with the resumption of many economic and educational activities, Margaret Blackie continues her series of articles, calling for collective responsibility through limited social contact and rigorous personal hygiene measures.

We are moving to Level 3 lockdown and many people will be returning to work and schools are reopening with some of their learners on 1 June. But Covid-19 is still very much present and spreading. It is currently worst in the Western Cape but the numbers are likely to escalate in all metro areas in the coming weeks. So how do we navigate this reality?

Level 5 was simple – there were clear rules to follow, basically stay home.

During level 4 people began to use ‘technical’ following of the rules to allow for what was strictly not permitted. How many people do you know who went walking together? This was technically allowable because they lived within the 5km radius of one another, but clearly outside the letter of law.

In level 3 we are entering into a grey zone. People will begin to rationalise things like that if they are sitting in an office all day with colleagues why shouldn’t they also socialise? After all, it isn’t different in terms of risk.

The problem is that every single encounter increases the risk for everyone. Social encounters are not explicitly stated as not permitted but it is fairly clearly beyond the scope of what is stated as legitimate activity.

Considering the implications of my actions

The point here is not what is the letter of the law but what are the implications of my actions. We are in a very delicate position. The spread of disease and economic recovery are diametrically opposed in terms of physical interaction. The spread of the disease is reduced by everyone staying home. Economic recovery requires interaction ­– and the more the better.

The one factor that has no impact on economic recovery but has major impact on the spread of the disease is hanging out with friends.

I know we are all tired, and I know there are a few people I would dearly love to see in person. I miss their physical presence. But if I choose to hang out with two or three people, and they choose to hang out with a few people, pretty soon we are all playing viral tag.

Minimising non-essential social interaction will support our health care system and support economic recovery. Any person who becomes infected and who interacts in the workplace will cause significant disruption, including shut down for cleaning and potential quarantine.

Minimising non-essential social interaction will support our health care system and support economic recovery.

There are a few important things to remember which will help you make decisions about what constitutes risky behavior:

Regular handwashing and avoiding touching your face remain the first line of defense.

Social distancing – keeping a 1.5m distance between you and people around you – is also vital. But it is important now as we begin to spend time sharing space with others that time matters too.

The virus is carried in droplets of moisture which are expelled when we breath and significantly more so when we talk. The greater the number of virus particles we breath in the more likely we are to get sick. So, if you are sharing an office with someone who is ill and spend several hours with them, , it is highly likely that you will get the virus even if you maintain the 1.5m separation. The same is true if you decide to spend an hour with a friend.

Viral hotspots

This problem of time is why gathering in churches will remain a major problem for a good while to come. Even if you can space everyone well in the church, spending an hour in the same space will mean that if one person is infected, a fair number of people in the church will breathe in enough of the virus to become infected (this may well include the priest!). This has happened in various places already.

Outbreaks in schools will be inevitable, regardless of the best efforts of the school administration because kids are spending hours in each others’ ‘air space’. It is inevitable that outbreaks will happen at some schools.

Precautionary measures

The wearing of masks is much more for the protection of others than for oneself. By now we all know that they are not particularly comfortable, and the lack of capacity to show acknowledgement by a smile is quite frustrating. Nonetheless, they help to reduce transmission. However, the mask must be sanitised.

Popping it in the washing machine is not good enough.  

Consider the risk for the person you are spending time with and the people they have in their immediate circle.

Heat is necessary to kill not just the COVID-19 virus but all the other pathogens that are currently residing in your lungs and kept happily in check by your healthy immune system that will be deposited on your mask every time you wear it. You must either wash and iron your mask or boil it for a few minutes after each wearing.

Those most at risk from complications if they contract Covid-19 are the aging (60+), the immunocompromised and anyone who has any autoimmune conditions. So, consider the risk for the person you are spending time with and the people they have in their immediate circle.

As you think about what you want to do, pause and consider the greater good. The sum of all our actions will have a profound impact on how we manage to navigate these next few months.

My actions either support the greater good or act against it, there is no neutral choice.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.