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ALL TO COMMIT

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GOVERNMENT’S announcement of a revised partial lockdown received a decent reception last week; that was not surprising. This time people are scared. Healthcare facilities are stretched to bursting point, with back-up supplies in a similar state; and health workers pushed to near-exhaustion. They are all heroes. Most countries are also under enormous pressure but many of them have started vaccinating. And that will be the coup de grace, the powerful defensive weapon against the assailant. But in Eswatini we have no convincing impression of the timing of our vaccination programme. Law of the jungle is evident; the First World first.

Hit

If you look at the graphs of the most severely hit countries by the second wave, whether a variant or not, the infection rate line no longer looks like the gentle slope of a hill. It’s more like a vertical rock face. The one for the United Kingdom was perhaps the most shocking. Comparisons with statistics from the early stages of the pandemic are, of course, somewhat misleading because now there are more extensive, faster testing arrangements than in the early days. But no one is under any illusion; with the higher degree of infectiousness and the state of public health facilities, this one is far more serious, hence the fear.

In every country you have people who are responsible and those who are not. A large proportion of our society is compliant with masks and social distancing but a segment is not. On a journey round the suburban areas of the capital alone – and after the new partial lockdown came into effect – you would have seen that. But this is not just taking risk and exposing oneself to danger; it’s also imposing risk on others – the risk of death from a COVID-19 related illness.  That has to be eliminated for us to succeed, and this is the moment for everyone to commit. In the context of COVID-19, ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. 

Achieving

While achieving a balance between public health needs and those of personal freedom, we need to be broader-reaching in our oversight of public behaviour. Active and admonitory patrolling in many countries is now a fact of life.  We certainly need those police patrols, the visibility factor itself creating a deterrent. But where is the curfew – not the travel restriction - that we recently had? Most countries appear to recognise that a reasonable curfew – say 11pm to 40am – controls the wilder form of public behaviour. The ban on gatherings is perhaps designed to, inter alia, replace the curfew. Yet how do you enforce that? Masked-up family A meets family B on a walk in an urban street. Is stopping for a chat a ‘gathering?’ It needs a numbers/time measurement because, where a rule is too arbitrary to enforce accurately and consistently, it tends to fail.  People are paid to stay at home but congregating in large numbers, with or without distancing, in shopping areas is entirely contrary to the original objective. Running or walking on the side of the road, well away from other people, is not really a risk to anyone, and rather healthy for the participant. So it’s tighter definition, oversight and additional penalties that are perhaps needed.

One has to trust that government will be realistic about the two-week window. Improvement in infection rates cannot be expected in that time. The impact of New Year activities will extend well beyond. Unless people were throwing fireworks out of bedroom windows, the noise that reverberated across urban areas during the ‘crossover’ suggested gatherings of people. Traditions don’t stop overnight; and the passing-on of infection doesn’t stop overnight either. We should accept that the rate of infections can only peter out in proportion to the safety behaviour of the population. That will take time.

It was a sensible decision to allow the continuation of selling liquor, albeit in a fairly austere operating timeframe. The approach should be to punish, not deprive. Being drunk and disorderly is a socially unpleasant and potentially dangerous form of behaviour. Liquor vendors have a responsibility to ensure they in no way allow that on, or near, their premises. Then let them continue in business, creating the much-needed VAT, PAYE and corporate tax revenue for government, saving businesses and jobs. We know from the mid-2020 experience that if you close that sector down, illegal supply replaces it at vastly higher prices, with no income for government. Nathi Dlamini, CEO of Business Eswatini, got it right in commending government for seeking the balance of human protection without hurting the broader economy.  

A suggestion from a medical expert, age and street-qualified only; we should maintain a focus on the hands as well as the breath. Respiratory air droplets are considerably more dangerous than surfaces, but the latter retains the coronavirus for much longer. 



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: COVID-19 pandemic
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