While South Africa has passed the first wave of COVID-19, experts warn that infections could surge again as life starts to normalise under more relaxed public health measures.
Dr Jantjie Taljaard, Head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Stellenbosch University says moving to level one is better for the country and economy, but that citizens should remain cautious as they increase contact with other people.
“Hand sanitising regularly, wearing masks and avoiding the 3 ‘Cs’: crowds in closed spaces and close contact will contribute significantly to preventing new infections.
“Current data suggests that poor areas in SA have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 infections. The highest case counts are concentrated in densely populated settlements. Figures show that the Coronavirus has infected twice as many South Africans living in poor areas compared to those residing in more wealthier suburbs.
“The living conditions in informal settlements make it very challenging to contain the virus due to difficult socio-economic circumstances, such as over-crowding and sharing of communal taps and toilets. Many vulnerable community members still don’t have access to quality cloth masks, some wear scarfs, while others don’t wear any form of facial protection, which significantly heightens the spread of COVID-19.”
He says an important component of the data story is to understand how COVID-19 is affecting certain communities and to respond by implementing more effective prevention strategies.
“Many South Africans, especially the poor, are still without masks – this is a concern that can be addressed with relative ease – a low hanging fruit in our quest to limit viral transmission,” says Dr Taljaard.
Whilst access to masks has increased, access to quality cloth masks as per the World Health Organisation (WHO) and national government specifications, remains a significant challenge.
Western Cape Health MEC, Nomafrench Mbombo says studies show that a three-layer mask made from polycotton offer the most protection aside from medical masks.
“In order to ensure communities across the country are properly safeguarded, the Western Cape Government’s Health Department has partnered with The Health Foundation, the Infection Control Africa Network (ICAN) and local clothing manufacturer, Coconut Jazz to create UbuntuCare – an initiative that provides both employment and free quality cloth masks to those in at-risk communities.
“The masks manufactured by UbuntuCare conform to national and international specifications. It consists of three layers – the outer layers being polycotton (polyester for droplet resistance and cotton for breathability). The middle layer of the mask is a 50gsm non-woven polypropylene, which acts as a filter and prevents approximately 70% of droplets from entering the covering as tested by Stanford University in the US. This is considered more than adequate to stop transmission from one person to another,” remarks Min Mbombo.
Fiona Hoadley, co-owner of Coconut Jazz and UbuntuCare partner says the mask-making initiative has allowed 150 seamstresses to earn a living and put food on the table for their families during the pandemic – most of whom live in the same impoverished communities that are desperately in need of proper masks.
Based on the latest figures from Statistics South Africa, the current unemployment level is at an all-time high of 30%, which is predicted to jump to a crushing 50% due to large parts of the economy being shut for months during the lockdown.
The UbuntuCare initiative aims to employ more than 400 seamstresses and craftspeople by mid-2021.
Liba Magwali, Operations Officer for The Health Foundation says with the arrival of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns, it very quickly became apparent that not only was the world facing a health pandemic, but also concurrent pandemics of unemployment, poverty and starvation.
“UbuntuCare was born out of a need to attempt to address all of these crises in some small, but significant way. In the coming months, UbuntuCare will evolve into a more holistic initiative. Masks are the springboard for seeking out and marketing untapped talent and skills within impoverished communities. After the need for masks abates, the project will continue to work with the communities under the UbuntuCare umbrella to facilitate skills upliftment, routes to market and access to mainstream consumers, ensuring a continued stream of income into these communities.”
Actuaries say the probable infection rate for the entire SA population is around 22%, which is approximately 13.1 million people. This translates to one in three adults. They predict that the real number of local deaths is in the region of 40 000 and expect a further 11 000 people to die before the end of the year.
“COVID-19 is most likely going to be with us for some time,” warns Dr Taljaard. “Therefore, we cannot become complacent when it comes to social distancing, hand sanitising and the wearing of masks. For now, these measures are our best defense.
“If we could get at least two, three-layer masks to every person that still does not have a good quality mask, we could significantly help reduce the spread of the virus and limit the implications for especially the poor who are most at risk.”
The Health Foundation is appealing to the public to get all South Africans masked up. “Research has proven that the wearing of masks significantly slows the daily COVID-19 growth rate. Help us get as many masks to those in impoverished communities who cannot afford to buy quality masks,” urges Magwali.
With the purchase of every two-pack UbuntuCare masks, one will be donated to a community in need. All funds raised, whether through masks sales or financial donations, are channeled back into the project to ensure that all monies are used for the procurement of masks.
UbuntuCare masks can be ordered online from www.ubuntucare.org and cost R70 for two in a pack. Delivery is free to anywhere in the country.