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Raging regret as super-spreader event hits community

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A matric pupil lies in high care at a Johannesburg Netcare hospital. Her peers are being admitted to hospital or are locked down, battling respiratory symptoms, fatigue, body aches, and nausea.

Families are quarantined and long-awaited holiday plans are put on hold. Doctors and virologists fear a wave of contagion that will impact our most vulnerable. All because of a single celebration – Rage in Ballito from 27 November to 4 December, declared a “super-spreader event” by the health department on 6 December.

“I don’t know of a single matriculant that didn’t catch COVID-19 there,” says one mother, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s been an unmitigated disaster,” says physician and pulmonologist Dr Anton Meyberg. “The worst part is that parents are saying they weren’t warned, so I’m not sure what we’ve been doing for the past 10 months. These kids are now sick, many have co-morbidities and some have been admitted to hospital. Everyone thinks young people can’t get sick, but this virus doesn’t have any boundaries. There are no rules for COVID-19.”

General practitioner Dr Daniel Israel agrees. “It’s madness. We’re seeing a lot of panic. There’s definitely a three or fourfold increase in cases [in Johannesburg]. Matric Rage should never have happened because it was so tempting for teens. It’s putting a stumbling block in front of the blind.”

Subsequent Rage weeks at other coastal towns, which traditionally allow Grade 12s to celebrate the end of school, have been cancelled in light of the rate of infection at Ballito.

A matriculant who went on Rage and contracted COVID-19, says, “I knew the risks, but I had so much taken away this year. I had nothing to look forward to. Going on Rage felt like it was only fair. I haven’t seen friends, I walked around my own home with a mask on since September, I haven’t touched my family. It’s just been work, online lessons, extra lessons, and studying.” Now locked away in her room, she is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms including body aches, headaches, and fatigue.

“I was anxious about going. I knew the huge risk. I was really scared, as were three of my friends. At one stage, we considered pulling out, but then decided to go. We were as careful as we could be. But once you’re there, it’s so different. To keep your mask on the whole time is so unrealistic. You eat together, you’re in your room together, and you can’t sleep with your mask on. So it’s all pointless.

“The actual Rage events were so strict. They would stop the music if people weren’t keeping a social distance. They refused to let people in if it reached the limit, and blasted sirens to remind people to keep apart. There was also a police presence,” she says.

“A lot of people went to restaurants and clubs where it wasn’t so strict. I think it was mainly spread at restaurants, and I saw the people making my food had pulled down their masks. The Rage organisers tried their best – we weren’t even allowed to buy alcoholic drinks at their events, so many people got bored and left. I don’t want to spread the virus, and have been really careful since I got back.”

A mother whose daughter attended Rage and contracted the virus blames the organisers. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she says there was “immense pressure on parents” to allow their children to attend the event.

“I know better, and I realise the extent of COVID-19. Yet we still sent our kids because of the huge Rage marketing campaign that has been going on since last year. There was talk of cancelling, but then it went ahead and they kept kids as interested as they could. Parents couldn’t say no in the face of that campaign and after a year of lockdown. From the outset, it should have cancelled.

“Yes we can blame parents and some are regretting that they didn’t exert their authority, but the fact is that we’ve kept 18-year-olds locked up for a year. They were told there was a party happening and it would be safe. But there was no way to make it COVID-safe. It was negligent of the organisers to put that bait there. They may have got regulations passed and protocols in place, but it doesn’t mean anything. It was a recipe for disaster.” She is angry and admits that, “While sending my child on Rage was negligent, I didn’t have a choice. There was extreme pressure that came with the event being offered.”

Another parent whose son contracted the virus on Rage says, “Rage was the one thing that got my child through matric. He had the time of his life, but at what cost? We have been so careful, but we just couldn’t say no to this. I was hoping the government wouldn’t allow it, but when it went ahead, I must admit I wanted him to have fun and put the struggle of this year behind him.”

Professor Lucille Blumberg, the deputy director at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) says, “The risk of lots of people being infected from this event is very high because of the very close contact with other attendees . We are going to see the secondary effects on healthcare workers, families, the elderly, and those with co-morbidities within the community. Matrics really need to take responsibility now to break the chain of transmission, but it is likely the spread has already occurred.

“All those who attended Rage must quarantine for 10 days post last contact with anyone from Rage, irrespective of presence of symptoms or not,” she says. “If any attendees develop symptoms they need to test for the virus and follow national guidelines. It is recommended that all attendees have a COVID test – if no symptoms then probably testing seven days after last contact with someone at Rage would be a reasonable time.

“Even a negative test doesn’t exclude COVID-19 – the tests aren’t 100% sensitive and the virus could still be incubating. So you must self-isolate for 10 days from your last point of contact with anyone who was at Rage, irrespective of your test results,” she says.

Says Israel, “People didn’t get COVID-19 on Rage because they went to a hotspot, they got COVID-19 because the behaviour at these events was inappropriate. This time is about taking personal responsibility. The same way you wouldn’t go outside and not wear clothes, you shouldn’t go outside and not protect yourself against the immediate COVID-19 risks around you. Matrics have now gone back to their communities, and they are likely to spread it to their families, who will now travel again. There needs to be immediate containment.”

Says Meyberg, “We’ve all been restricted in some way this year, so you can’t say matrics are different to other groups. This has been a huge wake-up call to people in the community, and I’m seeing more people wearing masks and being careful. We are now trusting that people will quarantine. We also need to comply now so that next year, people are able to go back to school, work, and university.”

Says Israel, “Rage definitely increased anxiety in the community. We’ll will see whether the quick action of GPs, the NICD, and the health department is going to prevent secondary infections. Time will tell.”

Picture: from a pre-COVID-19 Rage party.

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