Is it only me who’s a tad panicked about SA’s latest virus ...

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Is it only me who’s a tad panicked about SA’s latest virus projections?

With SA set to be one of the worst affected nations, surely it’s time for more than reminders to wash our hands

Columnist
It's OK, Cyril, we don't mind if no information is forthcoming on how figures of between 40,000 and 45,000 deaths by November were arrived at. Just keep reminding us to wash our hands, wear our masks and practice social distancing.
AND DON'T YOUR FORGET IT It's OK, Cyril, we don't mind if no information is forthcoming on how figures of between 40,000 and 45,000 deaths by November were arrived at. Just keep reminding us to wash our hands, wear our masks and practice social distancing.
Image: 123RF/Cathy Yeulet

Is that it? No grim presidential address? No urgent tightening of lockdown or sealing off of hotspots? No large-scale media campaign explaining the heightened threat? Not even an extra “brigade” of ultra-expensive doctors rushed over from Cuba?

Is the state really just going to carry on as normal after dropping a thermonuclear statistical bombshell on Tuesday?

Not that it left much of a crater: this week’s news cycle has been dominated by turf wars between scientists and politicians, racist tweets by an aspiring beauty queen and whether Pieter-Steph du Toit will stay at Western Province.

For those who have been following the numbers of the global Covid-19 pandemic, however, Tuesday’s announcement by the state’s advisory panel of scientists looked like a vast mushroom cloud.

According to this panel, between 40,000 and 45,000 South Africans are likely to die from the pandemic by November. The lower number is an “optimistic” projection, while the higher one is “pessimistic”.

Both scenarios also feature the complete swamping of SA’s ability to treat those most in need, as the number of available ICU beds is hopelessly dwarfed by an estimated one million positive cases.

I understand why the public reaction might have been muted.

First, many are punch-drunk on too much information, and Tuesday’s news might have looked as important as any of the other 10 or 15 news items swirling across social media that day.

Others, who already mistrust the state, have begun to mistrust the state’s science corps.

Still others have already formed their own dogmatic beliefs about the path of the pandemic, locking themselves inside a cocoon of confirmation bias and simply ignoring anything that doesn’t strengthen their view that this is all a big overreaction by the media or a plot funded by whichever shadowy bogeymen they’ve decided are responsible for their personal inadequacies.

The state’s reaction, on the other hand, is inexplicably muted. Because if the South African government stands by the projections published on Tuesday, it means that in the next 20 weeks we’re going to rocket from almost nowhere on the global Covid-19 scale to very near the top.

I am absolutely unqualified even to speculate about how those figures were arrived at, or how accurate they will prove to be.

At the time of writing, the countries in which Covid-19 has been most deadly, killing the largest proportion of people per capita, are Belgium (789 people per million), Spain (596), Italy (534), the UK (525), France (431), Sweden (379), the Netherlands (335), Ireland (318) and the US (282). (I have removed very small countries from this list: places like San Marino, Sint Maarten, Andorra and the Channel Islands have high mortality, but very small populations, which skew the numbers.)

This list won’t surprise many readers. The media have been oddly muted about the severity of the pandemic in worst-hit Belgium, but most of us have watched Covid-19 roll across the other countries in real time and with growing alarm. Spain, Italy and the UK are seen by many as a worst-case nightmare.

In other words, deaths-per-million somewhere between 500 and 700 are the current yardstick for an extremely bad pandemic that has overrun large parts of the healthcare system and caused huge societal upheaval.

Which brings me back to Tuesday’s announcement. Because on Tuesday, SA’s scientists told us that our best-case deaths-per-million number, come November, will be 680. In other words, our “optimistic” scenario is substantially worse than Italy and the UK right now.

I am unqualified to speculate about how those figures were arrived at or how accurate they will prove to be. But that they were presented on behalf of the state means they are the state’s official position right now. And I would have thought that a genuinely nightmarish position might have elicited something more than another week of the usual reminders to wear masks, wash hands and maintain physical distancing.

At the very least, I would have thought it might have got a mention in the state’s plans to reopen schools or move Gauteng’s lockdown to level 3.

I’m not asking for a presidential address. Those are in short supply these days. But when a bus driver announces that the bus is going to hit a wall in the next few minutes and then keeps driving at the same speed in the same direction, you can’t blame passengers if they start worrying that their driver either isn’t telling the truth or doesn’t really know how to drive.