Spectre of new Covid-19 surge hangs over holiday season

13 September 2020 - 00:00
With a viable vaccine still estimated to be at least a year away, it remained unclear whether infection led to immunity in patients who recovered or how long it would last.
With a viable vaccine still estimated to be at least a year away, it remained unclear whether infection led to immunity in patients who recovered or how long it would last.
Image: Fredlin Adriaan

Boerewors, beach and that big New Year's Eve bash - if you're dreaming of the mother of all festive seasons after a tough year, think again.

Experts are warning South Africans that the holiday season could precipitate a deadly second wave of Covid-19 infections unless they take precautions.

"I am convinced that during the December holidays, people will become more complacent and we could see mass gatherings. My expectation for the next wave would then be February or March," said professor Shabir Madhi, head of the South African Medical Research Council vaccines and infectious diseases unit, during a Sunday Times LIVE Dialogues webinar.

Health economist professor Gesine Meyer-Rath, who is involved in modelling the virus's possible trajectory in SA, said Europe had experienced a resurgence after "people went on summer holidays".

While infections were less severe in the second wave, the elderly and vulnerable were at high risk because "people do summer holidays at the beach and then interact with elderly family members for days on end", she said.

"If we do need to make holiday plans, let's keep protecting the elderly and those with diabetes.

"We all believe there will be a resurgence and this disease will be with us for years, but it depends on many factors," Meyer-Rath said.

If we do need to make holiday plans, let's keep protecting the elderly and those with diabetes.
Health economist professor Gesine Meyer-Rath

With a viable vaccine still estimated to be at least a year away, it remained unclear whether infection led to immunity in patients who recovered or how long it would last. The possibility of "herd immunity" across the country was another unknown.

What people could control was their behaviour, she said. "We cannot slack off. We have to stick with those non-pharmaceutical interventions like maintaining distance, wearing our masks, and washing our hands."

Dr Nicholas Crisp, a public health specialist deployed to oversee the health department's response to the pandemic in the Western Cape, said SA should bear in mind how a resurgence in Covid-19 would exacerbate other health issues.

"Everybody is acutely aware that there are legion patients in communities who need care," Crisp said.

"Now is not the time to be complacent and start planning holidays and parties that create the next wave. We need to take responsibility for our own health."

Professor Hlonipha Mokoena, a historian at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said some people might have scrapped holiday plans as priorities have shifted.

"Going on holiday once seemed a necessity, but things that once seemed like a pleasant idea might now seem unpleasant," she said.

Covid-19 infections decline, but Prof Madhi warns the decline requires context


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