Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
Westpark Cemetery, Johannesburg. The funeral of an 80-year-old man whose death was linked to Covid-19. Picture: Alon Skuy
Westpark Cemetery, Johannesburg. The funeral of an 80-year-old man whose death was linked to Covid-19. Picture: Alon Skuy

There’s a point at which numbers become so enormous they simply overwhelm the imagination and are rendered almost meaningless.

The International Monetary Fund this week estimated that Covid-19 could cost the global economy $12-trillion over this year and next. In GDP terms, that’s a whole China.

Also this week, the International Labour Organisation revised its employment numbers for the second quarter: in terms of lost working hours, the virus is thought to have claimed the equivalent of 400-million full-time jobs from April to June. That’s more than the number of people living in the US and SA combined.

Last month the World Bank revised its poverty estimates. On its baseline scenario Covid-19 will push 71-million people – more than the population of the UK – into extreme poverty (measured at $1.90 per person per day). At worst, that number could reach 100-million – the population of Egypt.

Such is the scale that the number of infections seems almost benign by comparison. Almost. In just a week the global case load is up 700,000, to 10.7-million infections, and 516,000 people have died from Covid-19.

In SA we’ve passed the 168,000-infections mark, with almost 3,000 deaths. Even closer to home, by yesterday there were almost 50,000 confirmed cases in Gauteng.

And yet there’s a strange refuge to be found in these numbers: they’re an abstraction of death and, with it, of grief.

As Shannon Pufahl argues in this New York Review of Books essay: “We live in a world of measurement, the mind ordered around quantities that tell us how to feel about loss and how to gauge the relative tragedy of an event.”

As far as human history goes, pinning authoritative figures to large-scale tragedy is a relatively recent development. Pufahl traces “the imagining of death in numbers” to the American Civil War in the mid-19th century, an event that claimed 620,000 lives. The numerical exercise offered a means “outside of language or politics to make sense of enormous loss ... it made death bearable, contained, specific.”

Pufahl’s is a fascinating exploration of how our response to calamity has evolved and how the individual in such instances is lost to the mass, leaving “the moral accounting that accompanies tragedy empty and algorithmic”.

But the retreat into statistics can be only a temporary distraction. As Covid-19 creeps ever nearer, the fallout becomes more personal, its imagining more vivid, and the full horror of what awaits more clear.

For an intimate portrait of this dystopia you couldn’t do much better than this Vanity Fair piece, in which Josh Sanburn traces the response of a family-run funeral home in Queens, New York, to the virus.

It’s an evocative, terrifying glimpse of the burden facing the “last of the first responders” as they try to march in lockstep with the virus. The six-inch stack of papers atop a filing cabinet – the funeral requests they have been unable to fulfil – is a depressing testament to their inability to keep up.

But the article speaks to broader failings too; specifically of a health-care sector that’s simply not equipped for the numbers it’s seeing. Corpses – the overflow from overfull hospital morgues – are crammed into refrigerated trailers outside; the undertakers search for identification tags by the light of their cellphones.

It’s a picture of despair.

Plotting a pandemic

Of course there’s a middle ground, of sorts, between the sanitised statistics and the lived reality, and that’s the space occupied by policymakers. As Pufahl puts it: “The numbers tangle with concepts like risk and freedom, and when they are sufficient or convincing or convenient they determine policy.”

Right now Gauteng is set to overtake the Western Cape as SA’s Covid-19 epicentre. Models used by the provincial government suggest a case load of 120,000 by the end of the month and 300,000 by August. As premier David Makhura said yesterday: “The storm has arrived in Gauteng.”

Gauteng health MEC Bandile Masuku admits the health-care sector is under pressure, but Eyewitness News reports that he yesterday denied that the province’s hospitals are full and turning patients away, as claimed in a WhatsApp message doing the rounds.

It’s cold comfort, given that his spokesperson at the same time told News24 that Gauteng’s hospitals are at “maximum bed capacity” and patients requiring admission may be redirected to other hospitals.

The sense from yesterday’s provincial command council briefing is that authorities are still trying to get up to speed. It’s unclear, for example, what’s happening at field hospital sites in Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, or when the promised additional beds using “alternative building technology” will be available at existing hospitals. It doesn’t inspire much optimism for the months ahead.

This is not a plan

If everything right now feels like a rear-guard action, that’s because it is. And we have no-one but ourselves to blame. As this Economist article shows, the world has for years ignored warnings about a looming zoonotic pandemic – and this despite the earlier threats posed by SARS, and MERS, and avian flu.

As Covid-19 has deepened its hold on the world the response has been “to move into a costly panic mode intended to slow the spread of the disease while scientists race to develop a vaccine”.

“This is not a plan,” disease ecologist Peter Daszak tells the magazine.

Indeed, it’s not.

(It’s worth reading that article alongside this one, also from The Economist, on “catastrophic and existential risks” and “why plans and early warning systems are always a good idea”.)

The article points to the need for a three-pronged approach to pandemic, consisting of preparedness – the worldwide tracking of pathogens – the monitoring of blood samples from people in likely incubation areas and a programme that collates all this data so that scientists can get a head start on producing vaccines.

Some programmes have already yielded important information, like PREDICT, which focuses on possible disease threats arising from the proximity of people to wild animals. But others haven’t been able to get off the ground.

The ambitious Global Virome Project, which aims to sequence the genomes of as-yet undiscovered viruses, hasn’t been able to secure funding for even a scaled-back project, never mind the $4bn that would get it properly up and running.

Maybe Covid-19 will provide the push that’s needed. If not, we should brace ourselves for more of the same. PREDICT estimates that animals and birds host 700,000 to 2.6-million unknown species of viruses. “Between 350,000 and 1.3-million of these unknown viruses ... could have zoonotic potential.”

Now those aren’t pretty numbers.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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