With South Africa seemingly on the brink of a shift to Level 1 lockdown, it would be easy to think that we’re nearing the conclusion of this hellish experience. Unfortunately, no vaccine has yet been successfully developed, and while daily case reports are decreasing, epidemiologists have warned that we “aren’t out of the woods” just yet. 

They have also warned that “new strains” of COVID-19 may enter the country upon the reopening of borders for international travel, but with South Africa’s tourism industry desperately in need of a boost, the move seems inevitable. 

‘International travel during Level 1 must be carefully monitored’ 

Speaking to Cape Talk on Tuesday 15 September, Dr Jody Boffa, Epidemiologist and Research fellow at Centre for Rural Health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) said that the reopening of borders poses risks but that this shouldn’t necessarily sway government to keep them closed. 

“One thing that we haven’t had that the rest of the world has is movement internationally,” she said. 

“I think that with the opening of borders for international travel will come increased risk and the possibility of new or different strains coming into the country.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think we need to remember what the rules are and remember that we aren’t out of the woods yet.”

Boffa advised that strict regulations apply to travellers entering the country from afar so that the shift doesn’t become the reason for a second wave hitting our shores. 

“I think it makes sense to look at what the infection rates are and say that if you are coming from highly infected places then you have to self-isolate for a period of time, or if the numbers are particularly high [in one’s country of origin], those people will be simply blocked from entering the country,” said, adding that people coming into the country will also have to follow the rules in terms of the fact that masks are mandatory here.

Epidemiologist warns of complacency  

Speaking with specific reference to the numbers currently recorded in Cape Town and the Western Cape, Boffa said that it’s easy to think that we’re over the worst of the pandemic. 

“Our numbers, especially in Cape Town, are very low, so your chances of coming into contact and contracting it are quite low,” she said. 

“That doesn’t mean that you won’t, there are still cases out there and there are always the risks of people who don’t know they have it spreading it.” 

She said that there are some lingering misconception about contracting the virus that are still prevalent and need to be cleared up to avoid the instance of a second wave. 

“Only 2% of people in the city have experienced testing positive for COVID-19. If you haven’t had it and you think you’re safe with a strong immune system, more than likely you just haven’t come in contact with it,” she said. 

“I imagine it’s probably closer to 10% when you factor in the people who weren’t able to be tested at the peak and who weren’t showing signs of it, but that’s still a far cry from the 80% that we talk about in terms of herd immunity.”

SA ‘not out of the woods’ until a vaccine is produced

She warned that people need to continue wearing masks even as the country creeps towards summer and Level 1, when she predicts that the wearing of masks will feel like a far more uncomfortable prospect than it has been during the winter months, and used the dreaded “new normal” superlative to remind people that adapting to protocols remains just as important now as it did during the surge. 

“Until we have a vaccine, people are just going to have to keep in mind that every move they make can put people at risk.”

“Keep in mind your grandparents, and people with co-morbidities, they are going to be the ones most at risk. You never know how your body is going to respond to it.” 

“We need to open up the economy and return to our lives but we have to be aware of the risks too.” 

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Presh JM Reporter

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