Travelers queue with luggage in the passenger check-in area at Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai, China. Picture: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
Travelers queue with luggage in the passenger check-in area at Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai, China. Picture: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

At this point there’s very little we know for sure about the long-term damage to our economy as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. But there is one point of certainty: ways in which we can control the disease’s spread.

The steps are blindingly simple: work from home if you display cold-like symptoms, avoid public gatherings, cough and sneeze into your sleeve or elbow, wash your hands regularly and don’t shake hands.

"We need to focus on what people can reasonably do," says Prof Lucille Blumberg, spokesperson for the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. "Casual contact does not result in transmission."

You won’t catch coronavirus by walking past a sick stranger in the street. Typically, you’d have to spend 10 to 15 minutes with an infected individual to get sick — having then been exposed to droplets spread in the air.

Using ordinary soap and water for hand-washing is fine, says Blumberg. Disinfecting surfaces with diluted household bleach is important, especially in crowded households.

And, she says, individuals should get the flu vaccine, expected in pharmacies at the end of March, to reduce infection with other respiratory diseases, and reduce the number of people needing to see doctors.

Since SA’s first case of coronavirus was confirmed last week, health minister Zweli Mkhize has made almost daily TV appearances, holding press conferences and urging calm. He’s kept the nation apprised of the number of positive cases and the importance of hand-washing.

The problem is that the messaging — about washing hands and sneezing and coughing correctly — isn’t on billboards, in taxi ranks, or being widely spread in schools.

Dr Susan Louw, a haematopathologist who consults to consumer health company Reckitt Benckiser, says hand-washing messages should be spread on radio and TV stations, and shared with children at schools, who talk about what they learn at home.

"Not everybody is fluent in English," she says. "Make messaging accessible to everybody in official languages and use comic strips. Visuals are good for populations that don’t have high levels of education."

The FM asked the health department about its plans to improve its messaging through, for example, flyers and radio adverts. In somewhat of an indictment, head spokesperson Lwazi Manzi hadn’t responded to the query by the time we went to print.

In contrast, the Vietnamese government got it just right. It released a catchy song, Ghen Cô Vy, which provides details about hand-washing and disinfecting surfaces, sung by two of the country’s leading pop stars, Min and Erik.

The YouTube video has been viewed more than 11-million times, and the English-subtitled song has reached more than 1.2-million viewers. A viral challenge asking people to create dance moves for the song has spread on social media platform TikTok.

Italy, with more than 10,000 cases, took a more extreme approach. The country is now locked down: people are allowed to travel only for "urgent, verifiable work situations and emergencies or health reasons", social gatherings are banned, and flights and trains have stopped.

Italians can go to the shops to buy groceries, but shoppers are required to maintain a distance of 1.5m from others. Professional sports matches will be played, but with no spectators.

China went further, quarantining the "healthy sick" in hotels or sports stadiums, and arranged staff to deliver food and medicines to people trapped at home. Schools moved online.

In the UK, the elderly were asked to stay at home, and relatives in both the UK and France have been asked to reduce their visits to old-age homes.

Back in SA, an expert in HIV and infectious diseases, Prof Francois Venter, says every supermarket should have disinfectant and wipes available at its entrances, and taxi drivers should carry sanitisers.

While some companies and educational institutions got their communication spot on, others contacted by the FM were clueless, responding with jargon or precious little detail.

Pick n Pay would not say what plans it has put in place to keep stores disinfected or to allow employees to work remotely.

Instead, spokesperson Janine Caradonna said: "We have good business continuity planning, with effective hygiene measures in stores and offices and clear communications on the personal steps we can all take to minimise the risk of getting and spreading illness. We are working hard to ensure that customers can get the hygiene and other products they need at a time of increased demand."

By contrast, Woolworths did well, sending out four e-mails to staff in the past few days, while the University of Cape Town has also been in contact with employees and the public through its extensive e-mail database.

The banks have been clear about their plans. Nedbank, for example, says it already allows people to work from home where possible, and it has provided bundles of data to staff. The bank has increased cleaning in its branches and says that, if it is necessary to close a branch, it will send a message to clients about nearby alternatives.

"[We] have deep-cleaned and sanitised most of our high-traffic operations in KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape and Gauteng, and have deployed cleaning professionals to our remaining regions," it says.

FNB has also increased its cleaning at branches and allows staff to work from home where possible.

Ross Linstrom, head of communication at Standard Bank, says the bank has banned staff from travelling. "Standard Bank adopts a strict policy as it relates to the cleanliness of its branches and public spaces," he says.

He goes on to reinforce the importance of covering your nose or mouth if you cough or sneeze, and cleaning your hands afterwards.

Louw adds to this. After washing your hands, you should close the tap with a tissue rather than risk reinfection, and use a tissue when opening and closing bathroom doors.

Should the disease spread widely in SA, businesses will need to come to the party.

What it means:

Advice on how people can protect themselves against the disease should be more widely advertised in SA

Alexander Forbes’ Myrna Sachs says companies must rethink their sick leave policies to factor in higher absenteeism. This can be from those infected with the virus, those afraid to come to work, those looking after sick relatives, or those in quarantine.

Victor Crouser, head of Alexander Forbes health, says companies must also re-evaluate pay policies, so those who have run out of sick leave but are quarantined aren’t forced to work while sick. Employers should also consider engaging with their insurers to ascertain what cover they have in place —if any — in the event of an outbreak at their company, he says. "Policies will differ by insurer, but it seems from my reading that some insurers internationally are viewing Covid-19 as a ‘foreseeable’ event, and therefore may decline cover [for it]."

For now, Blumberg believes SA needs to focus on the reasonable measures known to reduce disease — like hand-washing and cleaning surfaces, especially in areas where quarantine will be difficult.

Staying at home matters. A priest in Georgetown in the US tested positive for the virus on Monday, after coming into contact with more than 500 parishioners on Sunday. As a result, all are at risk of developing Covid-19 now.

The Catholic church in SA released a letter last week telling priests to avoid shaking hands during the service, halt the practice of drinking wine from a shared cup during communion and tell their sick congregants that avoiding a service can be an act of charity.

SA’s population would do well to heed that message.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.