Zoo Lake. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Zoo Lake. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The evidence is overwhelming: the odds of contracting the coronavirus are far higher indoors. So why has the government opened entertainment venues such as cinemas and theatres, while keeping public parks locked down?

Nature reserves, botanical gardens, public parks and corridors along water bodies remain closed to South Africans, as they have been since March.

It’s mystifying, since the evidence shows that mostly the virus is transmitted between people inside a household. Public transport and the workplace, of course, also carry greater risks. The point is, close contact is usually required for transmission to take place.

We also know now that the coronavirus is going nowhere. And South Africans are in the thick of it: Cape Town may be approaching a peak, but infection rates in Gauteng are beginning to rise. The near future looks bleak, which means we will probably be social-distancing for at least another year.

It is for this reason that people should be free to venture out of their often cramped, badly ventilated homes. Parks are one of the few ways they can get a dose of sunlight, fresh air and exercise easily and safely – and without cost.

It’s an easy boost for the immune system and, in seeking to balance a socially distant life with the mental health challenges that this can trigger, parks are a welcome respite. It’ll create a happier population too, less likely to resist the regulations meant to stop the virus. As we’ve learnt in this ordeal, authoritarian rules just breed noncompliance.

Which doesn’t mean it’s entirely risk free. Outdoors, people may be less likely to wear masks, and it’ll be harder for authorities to police mask wearing and adherence to social distancing. And we still don’t have all the answers about how easy it is to contract the virus by touching surfaces, like park benches, gates and playground equipment.

But those risks are the same as anywhere else – and they can be managed. Higher-risk areas, such as playgrounds and outdoor gyms, are sealed off in most parts of the world. The fact is, the likelihood of contracting Covid-19 by touching an infected surface and then your face, or from inhaling tiny particles suspended in the air, is greatly reduced outdoors.

All this makes it undeniable: the benefits of visiting the park responsibly outweigh the risks of contracting the virus. It is far safer than attending a religious gathering, visiting someone’s home, going to the cinema or eating at a restaurant. And it’s entirely overdue.

Cross-class benefit

The value of public spaces extends well beyond the middle class – the sector of society most vocally in support of parks reopening.

Parks are contested spaces. Urban parks were conceived as places of relief from the sickness, disease and darkness of cramped settlements. In this article the Financial Times describes it as “curious” that in a pandemic, dense cities are closing their parks, forbidding entry and policing their use in doing exactly what they were intended for.

Parks, playgrounds and pools are a way to reimagine the city. They have traditionally benefited those living in crowded apartments and public housing, yet they’re also at the centre of power and class warfare. In many countries, parks were built on the demolished homes of poor and black residents, who were later deliberately excluded from them.

Urban parks are usually conceived as a public good, but they always embody another agenda, the FT says. These “agendas” can include “gentrification, slum clearance, inflating real estate value, protecting palaces from public encroachment or entrenching political power”.

Yet to close the parks when they are needed most looks like a particular cruelty, it says.

Meanwhile, the Daily Maverick has published a detailed and clear account of the risks of contracting Covid-19, authored by eight local academics and medical professionals.

It suggests doing everything possible outdoors, and opening windows to improve the airflow inside homes, offices and public transport vehicles. “Outside air is your best friend, and we may all have to start dressing more warmly in winter as many activities move outdoors and windows stay open.”

The publication recommends that people socialise outside, keeping a 2m distance. An outside braai or picnic is much safer than visiting someone in their house. An outside shebeen, with physical distancing, is far safer than an indoor shebeen with masks and obsessive hand washing. Outdoor sport is also very low risk, unless it involves prolonged close contact.

The sunlight myth

And what about the effect of sunlight on the coronavirus?

The very recent resurgence of infections in the US, which is midway through a hot, sunny summer, confirms what other countries already knew: a warm sun is not enough to slow the virus’s spread.

In April the University of Connecticut published a paper assessing the impact of the sun’s ultraviolet rays on slowing the spread of the virus. Researchers applied weather and UV data to global infection rates and compared trends. It looked at the potential growth rate of the disease in the absence of interventions like social distancing or staying at home.

The university’s model suggests that temperature change and UV light intensity play a role in weather-based risk, accounting for about 20% of the variation in the potential growth rate of the disease.

This means the northern hemisphere might see only a slight, temporary decrease in virus transmission in the summer months, while the southern hemisphere will see increasing rates of transmission as it goes through its winter.

But, the academics caution, even if there is a dip in transmission risk in the northern hemisphere in the summer months, it won’t be as dramatic as some are expecting.

Studies have also quickly debunked claims that vitamin D can protect people.

A paper published on Monday says there is no evidence to support taking vitamin D supplements to prevent or treat Covid‑19. It is published by the UK’s National Institute for Health & Care Excellence, a body of the health department.

It suggests only that people should continue to follow medical advice on daily vitamin D supplementation to maintain bone and muscle health during the pandemic.

Experts from the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition have come to the same conclusion: the evidence doesn’t support the view that adding vitamin D to your intake will prevent any acute respiratory tract infections – or infections of the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs.

* Munshi is News & Fox editor of the FM​

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