Saturday, July 4, 2020

We should learn to live with coronavirus

In exasperation with lockdown, I have heard this argument being thrown around by some. Those who have shared it have not fully developed it. So, it lacks clarity. I too think we should learn to live with coronavirus but not as some imagine it. There are those who argue that we should open the borders, open the businesses, and return the country to normalcy. They argue that we should allow those who die, die, with the hope that we will attain the so-called herd immunity. By herd immunity they mean “the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population that results if a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to the disease, especially through vaccination.” The danger however is that we do not know how herd immunity can be attained, firstly, because covid-19 is still largely unknown. Second, because nowhere in the world has this been achieved previously. Instead of any country attaining herd immunity, people have died in unimaginable numbers around the world. The search for herd immunity is therefore a dead end which will lead to disaster.

However, the desire to open the country, is not misplaced. Business are struggling and some pushed to the verge of bankruptcy. Lives have been significantly disrupted. Only a small number of people can bury their dead. Stock is low in many shops. You must register and sanitize prior to entering each shop, or restaurant in a mall. Additionally, to the credit of our COVID-19 team, Botswana like many African countries, has not experienced huge coronavirus numbers. Our success in managing coronavirus has therefore diminished its debilitating effects. Our country has not seen people dying like flies such as in Italy and the United States. 

This sadly has borne complacency. Many people in our country therefore think that the coronavirus threat is overstated. This is where I believe they are wrong. Some of us have followed the horror that coronavirus has brought to the doorsteps of families in over 100 countries. The picture is sickening. Over 120,000 dead in the US; over 42,000 dead in the UK; over 45,000 dead in Brazil; over 34,000 dead in Italy; over 29,000 killed in France; over 27,000 killed in Spain, the list goes on. Many of these are countries with health systems that surpass ours a 100-fold. 

And we know that there is higher mortality amongst populations with underlying conditions. This we know for a fact. Botswana, South African and Eswatini have some of the highest levels of HIV and Aids cases in the world. Many of our people are old and suffer from hypertension. Some are diabetic. Our clinics and hospitals are poorly equipped and ill-staffed. The entire country has fewer than 100 ventilators. Think what would happen if coronavirus hit just one school! And as schools open, we see school-going children walking the streets with masks hanging around their necks like the albatross in Samuel Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Danger is not imminent. Masks have become a requirement for accessing public spaces and they are not seen as essential elements of public health. This must be corrected in a hurry before things worsen. 

This brings me to this point:  we must learn to live with coronavirus – by shutting down zones, villages, towns, borders, schools once a positive case has been identified. The COVID-19 team must not hesitate to lockdown villages, towns, and regions if they sincerely believe that such an action will go a long way in controlling the spread of the virus. Once a bomb threat has been received in a packed shopping centre; the police move swiftly to clear the mall urgently to get everyone to safety with minimum regard for the man who is still cutting his juicy steak or the teenager who is still enjoying a refreshing creamy milkshake. Everybody must leave. Upon investigation it may be discovered later that the whole thing was a hoax – the work of a deranged young soul. Instead of C4, the whole package was full of chocolate cake. The threat would have passed – the public can return to their normal daily business. The police officers would see their actions as having been in the best interest of public safety. Criticized by those they were trying to protect as too zealous and wasting everybody’s time, they would respond calmly with: “What about if the threat were real and lives had been lost? It is better to err on the side of caution.” Prevaricating will not help. Those who oppose shutting down parts of the country have no helpful alternative. They simply see a lockdown as an inconvenience – purely as public nuisance. Their sentiments do not outweigh concern for public safety and the COVID-19 team must stay focused on protecting the lives of Batswana and the public. We must not allow the virus to spread to a 100 people before we act. A couple of weeks ago I predicted that borders will for a long time remain the new battle front. It is so. The country must stay vigilant. So far, we have won the battle against coronavirus as a country. But the battle is not over yet. We cannot give up now.

We know that businesses, schools, churches, sports are all suffering. But we must exercise forbearance and continue to heed the advice of our experts who have served us magnificently so far. We must learn to live with coronavirus by adapting to the new realities and not frustrate the efforts of those who are trying to keep the population alive. One day, there will be no coronavirus. Until that day arrives, let us keep everybody alive.

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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.