Fri, 30 Oct 2020

As much as the health response to the Covid-19 pandemic has seen feverish preparations of hospitals and the marshalling of tens of thousands of healthcare workers to fight the surge, it is also a battle for hearts and minds in an age of disinformation and denialism powered by social media and messaging apps.

When the first case of Covid-19 was recorded on South African soil back in March, imported from a distant ski resort and unwittingly incubated on an aircraft home, the South African government threw down the gauntlet to contain the spread of the virus in the country.

An uncomfortable, biting national lockdown followed as the virus reached almost every community in South Africa, transcending race and socio-economic barriers.

As South Africa's borders were closed, office buildings emptied and the streets rendered quiet in cities across the country, the Department of Health was clear: the potential for disaster was imminent if South Africans were not informed - and on the information provided to them.

A thorough and vast communications system - run on diverse platforms in all of South Africa's main languages - kept most South Africans largely informed on regulations and strategies during each lockdown level. This ensured that everyone could take the necessary measures to curb Covid's spread. In the process, denialists who touted the deadly virus as "just a flu" were also effectively combatted.

As the number of new cases now begins to dip and our recovery rate hits the 86% mark, it is evident that the government's emphasising of hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing has been fairly successful.

Mask use in SA

Step out in South Africa today without a mask and you are likely to be stared at. Social distancing is not easy in a country where our lives are lived in close proximity and are based on social gatherings. We pray together, mourn together, celebrate together, and live together. Yet, social distancing, wearing masks and adhering to basic safety and hygiene measures are now woven into the fabric of our new normal.

The University of Johannesburg and the Human Sciences Research Council's Covid-19 Democracy Survey revealed that 73% of participants always wore a mask when they left home.

In the United States, according to a study by Gallup, only 47% of Americans "usually or always" wore a mask outside of the home. With over 200 000 dead, and more than 6 million infected - the US under Covid-denying Donald Trump - has the highest number of deaths and infections.

Despite some hiccups during certain aspects of the lockdown and government response, South Africa's rejection of Covid denialism and the promotion of mask-wearing and social distancing stands in stark contrast to countries where the gravity of the disease was downplayed.

Take our BRICS compatriot, Brazil, as an example.

In April, Brazilian researchers and academics revealed how contradictory messages and communication from the Brazilian government acted as a catalyst for the rapid spread of the disease.

Speaking in March when the outbreak had just begun, Brazilian populist leader Jair Bolsanaro said during a national address: "...with my history as an athlete, if I were infected by the virus, I wouldn't need to worry. I wouldn't feel anything or, if very affected, it would be like a little flu or a little cold."

Only a few days later, the 65-year old falsely asserted that Brazilians, somehow, are immune to the disease. At the time, Brazil already had 3 000 confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Bolsanaro visited bakeries and supermarkets in open defiance of the recommendations of health care experts and of health care regulations in place in the capital city, Brasilia.

The Brazilian leader incited his supporters to oppose lockdown measures adopted by local governments by holding mass rallies and marches without social distancing and the wearing of masks.

He promoted unproven drugs on social media as miracle cures to the disease. Then he fired critics in his health department as the body count rose.

With over 123 000 dead and nearly four million infected with Covid-19, Bolsonaro still refuses to admit to having made mistakes, and has fiercely resisted all pressure to take this pandemic seriously. Not only does Bolsanaro refuse to fight the pandemic - he obstructed it by embarking on an aggressive anti-mask campaign.

Researchers found that concerns around the under-reporting of positive cases and deaths and conflicting messages about social distancing and mask-wearing have have led to a loss of faith on the part of Brazilian citizens in those with their hands on the levers of power.

The inadequate reporting of testing and positive cases has made predictions around the impact of Covid-19 on Brazil's population unreliable and guesswork at best.

Not surprisingly, Brazil is second only to the United States in terms of number of cases and deaths in the world.

Anti-mask movement

Despite widely published research and the World Health Organisation's findings that face masks were pivotal in arresting the spread of the virus, a global anti-mask movement is emerging.

Videos of furious individuals hurling abuse at mask-wearing shop assistants went viral and trending hashtags like #NoMask are amplifying the voices of anti-maskers.

In July, several hundred people assembled in London's Hyde Park to protest rules making face masks mandatory in shops and supermarkets to help control the spread of Covid-19. This was not an isolated event. Similar protests have occurred in many places around the world.

Dr David Blunt from City, University of London, has tracked the consequence of these anti-mask protests.

"Protests of this nature have grave repercussions as individuals within these protests are putting their own lives as well as the lives of the people around them at risk for infection. By not wearing a mask, individuals who are affected are able to infect the individuals around them through respiratory droplets freely, and it exponentially multiplies the risk of infection," Blunt's study found.

Battle against Covid-19

Blunt says that these protests are often informed by misinformation. It is not surprising, then, that Bolsanaro encouraged these types of protests in Brazil.

Political leaders around the world were forced to make life-or-death decisions early on during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Whilst South Africa's response may not have been perfect, we are fortunate that our leaders - unlike in Brazil and the US - did not waste precious time fighting reality, and not the disease.

As we head into Level 1 of the lockdown, where larger numbers of people will be able to gather under strict conditions, we must ensure that measures such as face masks, consistent sanitization, and social distance remain an essential part of our daily lives in South Africa.

The battle against this deadly virus is far from won, and anyone who denies the coronavirus's danger makes us all less safe.

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