Patrons at Blackdoor Lounge in Sandton, Johannesburg, without masks and with no social distancing. Picture: SUPPLIED
Patrons at Blackdoor Lounge in Sandton, Johannesburg, without masks and with no social distancing. Picture: SUPPLIED

It is barely eight months since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in SA, and the national psyche has snapped.

Exhaustion, frustration and loneliness have won out over fear of contagion. In suburbs rich and poor, bars, restaurants and taverns are packed, with barely a mask in sight despite the government’s constant reminders to maintain physical distancing and wear a face covering.

Shops that once positioned staff to sanitise customers’ hands on entry are leaving it to individuals to decide how to proceed; taxis are filled to capacity; and half the nation appears to have decided that a mask isn’t necessary outside, regardless of whether it is strolling along a quiet pavement or marching shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd of demonstrators.

Scientists, public health officials and even President Cyril Ramaphosa have warned of a resurgence in Covid-19 cases as the summer holidays loom. Whether anyone will listen is questionable, given the evident pandemic fatigue.

A recent survey by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) found more than half the 7,000-plus respondents didn’t believe they were likely to get Covid-19 in the months ahead; 41% thought the threat of the disease was exaggerated; and almost a quarter had been to a funeral or religious service with more than 50 people even before government restrictions were eased.

Look no further than Western Europe for a harbinger of what is to come if people do not heed the warnings, modify their behaviour and take steps to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

After a summer of relative freedom, cases and hospital admissions are soaring across Europe, and governments are once again imposing restrictions on gatherings, trade and travel to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus and alleviate pressure on health systems. The trouble is, this time around governments have less money to prop up the economy, and less support from a public slowly coming to terms with the realisation that the disease isn’t going away any time soon.

Italy has, at times, seen violent protests in response to the reintroduction of early closing for bars and restaurants. So, too, has Spain. Police broke up unauthorised protests in Belgium, and even relatively wealthy Germany is facing opposition to its latest lockdown measures, softer though they be than the first.

Non-medical interventions

Without a viable vaccine, the most powerful tools for mitigating the risk of transmission are the, by now, well-known non-medical interventions: washing hands, wearing masks, maintaining a physical distance between people, and avoiding crowds. Given that SA has yet to secure any advance purchase agreements with manufacturers, or sign up to the international Covid-19 vaccine financing initiative Covax, the vaccine nationalism at play among rich nations means mass access to a shot in SA is likely several years away.

SA is currently in lockdown level 1. Restrictions have eased, but not entirely. There is still a curfew between midnight and 4am; masks are mandatory in a public place and must be worn at all gatherings; and restaurant patrons are expected to be seated at least 1.5m from one another. Experience worldwide has shown that while non-pharmaceutical interventions sound simple, they turn out to be remarkably difficult for many people to consistently follow. It is patently obvious that the public’s adherence to these rules is patchy, as is that of business’s.

It is not enough for the government to exhort the public to play safe — it needs to step in now, before cases surge, and proactively and visibly enforce the few rules that remain. It’s no good blaming teenagers and young adults for cramming into bars and nightclubs that provide an opportunity for superspreading events if the authorities turn a blind eye to business operators who flout the law.

The government’s failure to enforce the rules is not only an abrogation of its duty, but a sure-fire way of catapulting it into the impossible situation of having to decide whether to let cases surge or impose tighter lockdown restrictions. And, as Europe shows, a pandemic-weary public is unlikely to return to a strict lockdown without a fight.

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