From nowhere, to everywhere

Jeremy Gordin writes on how the Covid-19 epidemic has hit Gauteng

If you don’t already know, take it from me that “we” – and specifically we in Gauteng – have the most gorgeous winter weather in the world. Outside your house or dwelling, that is. If you’re not at work or travelling, you can step out at about 9am into lovely sunshine ...

But more and more this seems to be all there is to boast about. Yesterday, to take just one example, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu announced an increase in “irregular, unauthorised and wasteful expenditure” among municipalities for the 2018-19 financial year – up to R32.06 billion from the R25.2 billion reported for the previous year. With me? R32 billion has, er, simply disappeared ... Whoosh!

Then, of course, let’s not overlook the hippo, elephant, rhinoceros or whale (choose whichever large animal you like) in the room – in, it seems, all our rooms, in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and now Gauteng.

Why, I wonder, have I used the clichéd “elephant in the room” – which Wikipedia says is a “metaphorical idiom in English for an important or enormous topic, question, or controversial issue that is obvious or that everyone knows about but no one mentions or wants to discuss ...”?

Why, given that the Covid-19 contagion has apparently ignited like wildfire right here in Gauteng, right here around my house, does it still feel as though it’s happening to other people?

Partially, I suppose, because I’m probably just thick, as in “lacking mental agility” or “insensitive”. Partially because living where I do, having my skin colour, being my age, and all that, I have been enclosed for close to 100 days in a bubble of sorts.

But also because, even if one watches TV and keeps in touch with the news, what’s happened – and is happening right around us – to us – has in some way been muffled. Unless you’re a so-called front-line worker, it’s as though it’s all taking place in another country.

Well, I have news for me and anyone else who might feel the same way. Covid-19 isn’t “apparently” sweeping through Gauteng. It is here. Now.

Suddenly, in my immediate environment, people I come across in the street know someone who has tested positive. Suddenly, my daughter has a friend who has tested positive – and my daughter must self-isolate and my wife and I, who are prime candidates for having a hard time if we get infected (I note that 26% of deaths are in our age range), need to start paying much closer attention.

This morning I passed by a coffee shop where I like to buy the sourdough sandwiches a certain fellow sells at the door. But no sandwiches today. Why? “He [the sandwich man] found out a friend with whom he had coffee the other day has tested positive, and he’s self-isolating,” I was told.

Suddenly another merchant, with whom I’ve long been acquainted, comes to chat to me. But charming as he might be, he’s one of those folks who keeps advancing on you when he speaks, talks directly at your face and has just been exerting himself moving something or other, so he’s huffing and puffing to boot. Notwithstanding his face mask and mine, he, as they say, freaks me out.

This morning the Parkview cop shop was “temporarily” shut down – for “decontamination”. As was Woolworths in the Rosebank mall. As was the Parkhurst Clinic.

On Wednesday, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported that 8 124 new cases of Covid-19 had been identified, of which 3 063 or 38%, were from Gauteng.

Also reported on Wednesday was that there were 92 more Covid-19 related deaths – 17 from the Eastern Cape, 28 from Gauteng, 10 from KwaZulu Natal and 37 from the Western Cape – bringing the total of confirmed national deaths related to the disease to 2 749. (This is likely to be an undercount.)

Total deaths in Gauteng were reckoned at 244, with 3 091 people in Gauteng hospitalised. In other words, Gauteng hospitalizations had tripled since 24 June when they were at 1 045. For the moment, figures suggest there are still available beds, but things are starting to look serious.

Noting that Gauteng has the largest number of active cases and that the pandemic is running “slightly ahead” of the models (some report that the Gauteng epidemic is “way ahead”), no wonder that Gauteng Premier David Makhura said on Thursday that Gauteng had experienced an “exponential” rise in the number of coronavirus cases in June, “a significant increase” in deaths and warned that “July would be even more difficult”. He added: “[I]t is quite clear that we are going to have to do something extraordinary given where we are now”.

But what? Makhura said: “This may mean asking the national command council to introduce some of the restrictions we had in the earlier phases (of the lockdown).”

This might “feel” like the right thing to do – but, of course, the horse has long bolted. New infections are likely running far ahead of what the public health care system is able to count and record.

When the initial lockdown was announced, almost 100 days ago, some people did point out that unless extensive testing was carried out, and acted on, in lockstep with the lockdown, the latter wasn’t going to help much. Government barely tested at all in the first weeks. Even when state testing increased it seemed pretty scattershot in many places. It was noted on Politicsweb that “[a]n absence of positive test results in an area in the early stages of an epidemic can mean one of two things. Either the disease is not there. Or the disease is there, but clusters are not being successfully identified and isolated, which is allowing the disease to seed itself unchecked”.

Well, clearly identification and isolation didn’t happen sufficiently well. The number of Gauteng hospitalisations had been running about three weeks behind those of the Western Cape until about a week or so ago, when they took off (they are now almost double). It didn’t require a Ph.D. to know that it was only a matter of time.

In short, while the initial lockdown was probably a worthwhile public relations exercise – it certainly got the nation’s attention – it spawned a great deal of energy-sapping nonsense (the moronic regulations, such as those curtailing the sale of tobacco products, not being allowed to exercise outdoors, etc.), resulted not only in an increase of GBV but also murder and violence by the police and army, many pockets of hunger, bureaucratic bungling on an industrial scale, and above all pulverized the formal and informal economies. It exhausted and impoverished the country and has made it much harder to impose a lockdown now.

But no point playing the “I told you so” game. What now?

So far our total of national deaths of 2 749 (a mortality rate of 1,7%) is much less than other countries – and at least we don’t seem to have lost the plot completely, as has, apparently, Brazil, and even, it seems, some states in the US.

We must just hope that our doctors and nurses can hold out and that we have enough beds and enough oxygen. Meantime, as for the rest of us who haven’t done so properly, I guess we’d best wear our masks tightly, keep washing our hands, keep our distance from others, self-isolate if we are high risk, and, sunshine or not, haul our heads out of the sand.