Above: Two Stellenbosch residents walking with their masks in Dorp Street. Photo: Francois Lombard.

– Lia Snijman

As Stellenbosch’s Covid-19 infection rate has slowed down considerably, it is more and more common to see people walking around without their masks in the town. Has our town reached a plateau for Covid-19 infections or are we toying with a second wave?

Restaurants and pubs in Stellenbosch all generally have a mask and sanitising policy, along with temperature checking and having their guests check in. Many shops can be seen displaying posters that inform customers they must have masks if they wish to be served. Yet there are many events where people seem to enter an area with their mask and, once past the entrance, remove their masks and freely mingle with others.

Sandra Maritz, spokesperson for the Cape Winelands district for the Western Cape Department of Health, said that on 28 October, Stellenbosch infections were “under control”. “We are carefully monitoring the situation and quickly responding with contact tracing to reduce the spread of the corona virus. The monitoring and swift response is continuing across the province. The new infections are not linked to a specific event or gathering but is attributed to sporadic infections,” she said.

She reported that Dr Richard Davids, Medical Manager of the Stellenbosch Sub-district, expressed his pride in the medical teams that ensured everybody has access to the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). “Everyone has been committed, accountable and dedicated towards results,” said Davids.

“As we move forward, we need to think of creative ways to go about our activities safely. We must continue to wear a mask (covering the mouth and nose) and to avoid: large gatherings where there is poor ventilation; large groups of people where it is difficult to maintain 1,5 m distance from others; and places where you can expect to be in close contact with others (for example close conversation),” said Maritz.

Professor Taryn Young, Director: Centre for Evidence-based Health Care and Head: Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Stellenbosch University, said, “Prevention is key. It is especially important for individuals with underlying conditions to protect themselves and to be protected. And each one of us has a role to play. “

A recent article in Daily Maverick, written by a group of doctors and health experts, reported on the possibility of a second wave as the USA and numerous western European countries face one. They deemed it “unwise to simply extrapolate outcomes from the current resurgences in Europe and apply them to South Africa”. They added, “It is imperative that knowledge of transmission and exposure patterns relating to SARS-CoV-2 in SA’s own setting must inform a calibrated and transparent response, not least because the most important component of the response is willing and voluntary compliance with mitigation measures by the public.”

They explained that a resurgence of Covid-19 cases is likely as people become less compliant with mitigating methods (wearing a mask, social distancing, hand hygiene, etc.), although it will be different to the type of resurgence currently in Europe. There is still uncertainty about how long immunity lasts once you’ve already had Covid-19, but it seems that areas that initially didn’t have a high infection rate, will suffer more during a second resurgence. They said SA still does not have a rate of infections that will enable herd immunity.

They said another lockdown would not be useful and that there should rather be a focus on getting people to comply with mitigating measures, clear communication, better testing and tracing capabilities, sufficient quarantining facilities, and improving health infrastructure. They pointed out that the “highly restrictive and even coercive lockdown measures” have made people more mistrustful and thus less likely to comply with mitigating measures.

Adherence to mitigating measures can also be a struggle in SA as overcrowding and compromised access to water are part of many South Africans’ lives, they said. Even the partial adherence to mitigating measures has been “the most effective aspect of our public health interventions”.

A reduction in cases in SA and Europe has been shown to correlate with the change to warmer seasons. “Although climatic factors may play some role in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the role of changing human behaviour in reaction to the weather is probably the deciding factor,” they reported. “Spending more time outdoors and the ability to ventilate closed (taxis, trains, etc.) and indoor spaces is a critical factor.”

While it seems that Stellenbosch does not need to panic now, compliance with mitigating measures is essential if we want to keep things this way.

“In South Africa, our adherence to these tried and tested public health interventions to control Covid-19 must continue unabated. This is absolutely critical if we are to be spared the worst ravages of the kind of resurgence being witnessed in the northern hemisphere,” conclude the doctors and health experts.