Covid-19: Boozy outings fuel 'second-wave' fears
Epidemiologists are raising a red flag over a Covid-19 resurgence in SA, while law enforcement authorities ready themselves to intensify spot checks and clamp down on irresponsible behaviour at social gatherings.
Experts have warned that "relaxed behaviour", pandemic fatigue and "superspreading" events - like the recent one at a nightclub in Cape Town - are putting the country back in peril.
Professor Wolfgang Preiser, a virologist at Stellenbosch University, told the Sunday Times that "the warning signs" of an upsurge are "definitely there - as referenced by the massive outbreak linked to the Claremont [Cape Town] venue".
Eighty-nine people, 38 of them matriculants about to write exams, have tested positive after visiting the Tin Roof nightclub, now trading as a bar, on the first weekend of October. It was a superspreader event waiting to happen and Jamie Simonson, who lives next door, saw it unfold.
"I heard the club bumping and I saw everyone packed in and I said: 'I know in two weeks we are going to see [Covid-19] cases rise in Claremont because there is absolutely no distancing going on'," Simonson said.
Preiser said that once people "start disregarding the basic rules, life becomes risky, as we have already seen in so many other countries".
In a statement on Friday by the office of the chief rabbi and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, private social gatherings were cited as possibly being responsible for a "significant increase" of 31 new infections in the past few days affecting the Johannesburg Jewish community.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thursday that SA is entering a phase that "requires high vigilance", while experts warn that December festivities could fuel a second wave of infections.
While community transmission in everyday life is the main cause, superspreading events speed up the process.
"During strict lockdown levels there was little chance of superspreading events. Whether funerals, weddings or Trumpian politicking, if large numbers of people come together and do not observe precautions, chances are one or more will be infectious and that infection can then spread," said Preiser. "It is a question of chance - the more people, the more likely someone will be infected".
Certain business models "are not tenable", he added, and "offering cheap alcoholic drinks to attract scores of young people is asking for trouble".
Preiser said one superspreading event "can be followed up, two will be challenging, and if there are too many, contact tracing becomes impossible and we get a runaway situation."
Law enforcement authorities said that as more complaints of irresponsible behaviour at pubs, taverns and restaurants come in, spot checks and patrols would be intensified.
National police spokesperson Brig Vish Naidoo said: "What we are finding is that individuals are behaving irresponsibly. They go into these establishments with masks and then remove them inside.
"We are contacted by the public… about this type of behaviour. When we get there we find people without masks, but when we look at CCTV footage they enter the premises with them on.
"It is the responsibility of the owners and managers to ensure their customers have their masks on at all times, otherwise they will face prosecution. We are going to be more vigilant, we are going to conduct more inspections. Our members will be making random visits to these establishments."
It is the responsibility of the owners and managers to ensure their customers have their masks on at all times, otherwise they will face prosecutionNational police spokesperson Brig Vish Naidoo
Johannesburg metro police department spokesman Wayne Minnaar said: "There are still clubs and pubs who take chances and are staying open beyond midnight. Sandton is problematic. People, after they have had a few drinks, take off their masks. We have been warning owners."
Wits University vaccinology professor Shabir Madhi said there has been an uptick in infections in the past two weeks with about 1,200 new cases a day. Friday saw 2,019 cases reported in 24 hours.
"About 15% of people are responsible for about 80% of all direct infections," he said. "It might be that these individuals who are responsible for the majority of cases socialise more and have a much higher viral load."
Madhi said the problem with superspreader events was that many people get infected in a short time, placing "an excess demand on health-care facilities".
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, co-chair of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, is "deeply concerned" as many believed "it's party time". "We are laying the conditions for a second wave," he said.
Three key markers would determine if SA was likely to face a second wave, he said. "The first is the increase in the number of cases. There are two ways to look at that. You can look at how the seven-day average is changing and what is the percentage increase in the active cases. They both fundamentally require an increase in the cases. That is a consistent trend.
"The second indicator is the proportion of tests that are positive. The third indicator is hospital admissions."
He said a consistent change across these three indicators could point to a second wave. He said figures were being monitored daily.
An analysis of the average number of weekly infections by the Sunday Times put them at 33,464 in August, after SA passed the peak. In September this was down to 11,824 but in the first half of October the figure was 11,923, showing an upward trajectory.
Professor Soraya Seedat, head of psychiatry at Stellenbosch University, said that as the holidays approached the temptation would be greater to ignore public health advice and engage in activities that helped to distract from the crisis.
"It does become easier, as the work and academic year winds down, for people to get into a trap of thinking that if they haven't become infected with Covid-19 they will not get sick during the holidays and that going out and trying to feel 'normal' again is what they need.
"This runs the very real risk of undoing the progress that we have made with physical distancing, masking and personal hygiene. 'Caution fatigue' is a sure contributor to a second surge."