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Infection prevention ‘takes a whole community’




So said Professor Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. Schoub was one of five speakers to address the rapidly unfolding pandemic in a webinar hosted by the Union of Jewish Women on Tuesday.

From medical insight to economic analysis, the impact of coronavirus was assessed from a variety of angles. Speakers included infection control expert Phenelle Segal; the deputy chairperson of Sasfin Securities, David Shapiro; recovering COVID-19 patient Gary Sweidan; and tax practitioner Ernie Lai King.

Schoub offered a comprehensive timeline of the outbreak, beginning with its origins in Wuhan, China, in December last year, and tracing its development to the present.

“While we thought it would remain confined to China, the virus spread rapidly to South Korea, Iran, Italy, and then the rest of the world,” said Schoub. “Its expansion has been rapid.

“It all began in January, only three months ago. The first 100 000 cases took three months. The second 100 000 took 12 days, and the next batch a few days only. We’re all susceptible to it simply because we all need to breathe.”

Two approaches have been used to address the outbreak. The first is known as an “early approach”, and entails the identification and isolation of cases prior to a dramatic spread. Because this proved insufficient, the mitigation approach has been implemented worldwide involving mass community closures and lockdowns.

Schoub said that these techniques weren’t new. During the 1918 epidemic, the American cities of St Louis and Pittsburgh adopted different approaches with distinctive results.

“In St Louis they implemented social distancing and a form of lockdown,” said Schoub. “Consequently, the death rate was 358 per 100 000. In Pittsburgh, almost no measures were taken, causing an explosive spike of 807 per 100 000.”

Segal, an ex-South African living in America and the founder of Infection Control Consulting Services, stressed that the only way to prevent a dramatic infection spike was by staying at home. Moreover, the public must act in the interests of healthcare workers who are on the frontline of the disease.

“Stockpiling of personal protective equipment is detrimental to healthcare workers,” she said. “These are the people who save lives. Masks are controversial because if you misuse them, you can still contaminate your face. The same is true of gloves. We need you to know that the doctors fighting this [disease] need everything they can get.”

While under lockdown, Segal said it was essential to remain informed using only approved sources of information. “Avoid the myths which tell you to use certain things to prevent or cure the disease,” she stressed. “A couple in America took medicine intended for animals, and it resulted in death. Listen to expert advice only. Myths will scare and harm you.”

“While at home, try your best to stay away from the TV and news as much as possible. You have to limit your anxiety. Use whatever methods you can to keep well. Your president has got ahead of the game, and maybe you can arrest the spread better than we have.”

Infection prevention takes a whole community, she stressed “You need to co-operate and be understanding. Remember that Anne Frank and those with her were stuck for two years in a confined space, but that it won’t happen to us. This will end, and we will all be fine.”

Shapiro said the economic slowdown caused by the virus wasn’t altogether tragic, having been foreseen and addressed in advance. In spite of the repercussions it will have on businesses, it will also yield positive outcomes.

“We’re probably closer to the end financially than we think we are,” he said. “Yes, sellers are exhausted, and buyers aren’t ready to buy just yet, but confidence is picking up and will be restored within a few weeks or even a few days. We just don’t know when.”

As soon as the public is confident that health authorities are in control, things will improve, Shapiro said.

“This is an imposed recession. Don’t get frightened when you see the stats and hear that America could go into recession. We were aware of this. Understand that the slowdown isn’t a normal market recession but one we implemented.”

When matters improve, Shapiro believes there will be massive investment in public healthcare.

“We’ve learned so much in terms of economy – working from home, using cloud technology and the like. When we emerge from this, we will probably experience a strengthening of data streaming infrastructure and a continued system of working from home.”

Moreover, food delivery services will also rise to greater prominence, as will online conferencing platforms like Zoom.

Shapiro concluded, “Positives and opportunities will emerge from this once we emerge. The banks are in a good position, and are invested in seeing us through.”

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