Dear Mr President, have we reached the peak yet?

Public sentiment won’t help us win Corona war

One of the things parents who have taken long drives with children observe is a manifestation of impatience in the form of the question: “Are we there yet?”

So common is this phenomenon that some creatives have turned it into a movie of the same name, starring Ice Cube, Nia Long and troublesome kids Aleisha Allen and Phillip Bolden. Needless to say, it was a trip from hell for Ice Cube. This 2005 feature film was followed five years later with a three-season sitcom.

The psychology behind it is that children’s sense of distance and time is not only limited, it also spawns impatience. During trips to Limpopo, my daughter Lethabo would ask me five times between Joburg and Pretoria if we were getting any closer to Polokwane before giving in to sleep in the back seat.

As a nation, we are no wiser than children about where we are headed with this COVID-19. Have we hit the peak? Has it passed or is it still ahead? It is very possible that we may be making plans to survive the COVID-19 peak, ostensibly weeks away, when, in fact, we may very much be in the maelstrom.

Scientists are divided over when the peak will be. Some say the peak is behind us given the decline in the rate of infection. This makes sense. But what if we are just testing less? Others, like Bruce Mellado of Wits University, say anytime between November and January is likely, depending on how the country deploys regulatory tools to mitigate unhelpful conduct.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize welcomed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) “surge team” on Friday and immediately poured cold water over suggestions that the peak was over. “We have received queries why there would be a need for the surge team if we are past the surge. I would like to emphasise for our people that we are not past anything, we are still the country with the fifth-highest positive cases in the world,” he stated matter-of-factly.

At the risk of sounding like children on a road trip: if we are not past anything, when are we going to? A short answer is that no one knows. Well, never mind the peak – do we know how many people in South Africa or around the globe are infected? Again, the answer is no.

And if we don’t know, the basis of all plans and actions, including bringing in WHO’s “surge team”, are a result of mathematical suppositions. Well, to show deference to academic guess work, let’s call it modelling. The world over, though, there is no model that brings you closer to the actual truth than a country’s ability to conduct as many tests as it is possible. And these tests are costly. The time lag between testing and getting results, which can be anything between two and 10 days, complicates efforts to establish the true extent of infection.

Contact tracing, worse here but a problem around the globe, is one of the reasons we are in this hot mess. If you’re in doubt, just think of the first 10 people who arrived in the country from some European sojourn, with the first positive test identified in KwaZulu-Natal. If we had our surveillance and contact-tracing game on, we had no more than 100 people to get to very quickly to ensure they were properly quarantined and virus did not spread. We failed. The numbers steadily multiplied. We took too long to close down our borders. More people arrived asymptomatic while the virus multiplied internally.

We are now in a space where no one actually knows how many people are infected, much less when the peak will be.

The blind spot for the country, and the globe, is the many people who simply die without having been tested, especially those with comorbidities. When they die, and there are uncontrolled funerals, there’s just no hope for contact tracing.

What we do know is the number of people who have tested, that being the operative word, positive.

If we have test kits in short supply, as was recently suggested, then we go further in the dark. We keep asking: are we at the peak yet? But the tests themselves are far behind the actual rate of infection. The Medical Research Council released a report recently that shows that the actual rate of deaths is 60% higher than it was this time last year. The only variable that has changed is Coronavirus. Yet the rate of infection released by the Health Department, and the official fatality rate, still lull us into thinking the peak is still ahead.

What if the peak is now and we just don’t know because we have no way, other than academic guess work, of knowing? How do you successfully wage a war against something you don’t fully understand, something whose effect on society is subject to mere speculation? The result is decision-making informed by public sentiment. And we know politicians like to be liked.

Where we, as society, did not help the process is that we put so much pressure on President Cyril Ramaphosa to move us to level two of lockdown so we could access alcohol and cigarettes. We made him look unreasonable and hard to like as our favourite drinks and cigar shops remained shut.

And this is so because we have not been not focused on winning the war against the virus. We are possessed of children’s impatience. Are we at the peak yet? Have we passed the peak? And our President could not resist the temptation to be liked and unbanned alcohol and cigarettes.




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