COVID-19 Third Wave: Is It Time To Relax?

IF there is one thing I have been yearning for, it’s a return to some kind of normalcy. It’s been such a long journey of restricted lifestyles, and if truth be told, that’s not how we envisage life as human beings. We are social beings, with inborn instincts to mix, mingle, be outdoors, free-spirited and have fun.

By Grant Murewanhema

Christians want to be in that temple, singing songs of praise and worship, exchanging mics, and dancing without being restricted, and without being overly cautious to make sure that the microphone is sanitized, and without having to keep these physical distances. Similarly, those who enjoy their booze want to do so freely, without being overly anxious about contracting a virus from their regular exchanges. Yet, on the other hand, people’s subsistence has been severely affected by the COVID-19 control restrictions.

For a population that largely survives from hand-to-mouth, people want to rapidly return to their ways of making ends meet, to make sure they meet all those financial obligations. For a country with an economy in the intensive care unit, we know the COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating socioeconomic consequences on the populace.

So the big question that naturally comes with declining numbers, as we have witnessed in the past 2-3 weeks is, “Is it time to relax now? Is it time to go back to the usual activities of life? or is it time to at least be outgoing, go on holidays freely, and go and make money, especially as we prepare for the rainy season, and subsequently the festive season. Obviously, there is no black and white answer to these questions, but by now, it should be largely apparent to the people that this virus called SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay for quite a while.

Like flu viruses, SARS-CoV-2 will be an important respiratory disease causing organism for the foreseeable future. One of the chief reasons why this is so is because this virus continues to mutate in several ways, and it seems, instead of attenuating it, each mutation is making it stronger and more aggressive. Since the onset of the pandemic, several variants of concern have emerged, and the most popular ones have included the alpha, beta and delta variants.

The beta variant was known as the South African variant in common language, and was responsible for over 75% going up to over 90% of the COVID-19 cases during the second wave in Zimbabwe, whilst the delta variant, known as the Indian variant, has been responsible for over 98% of the cases during the third wave in Zimbabwe. The delta variant has been very concerning for several reasons. Firstly, it multiplies more efficiently and therefore infects more people within a short period of time, and secondly it has a tendency to cause more severe clinical disease.

However, what’s been more worrisome for me is its tendency to cause symptomatic and more severe disease in children and younger people. Reports from the USA and other countries suggest that even school children have been attacked by this virus, and some have lost their life to this virus. What is even more perturbing about this is that school children do not enjoy the protection conferred on the adults by vaccines, as in general, those below 18 years of age have not been eligible for SARS-CoV-2 vaccination.

We need to send kids to schools, and varsities and colleges must open. Online 
learning is difficult in Zimbabwe because the costs of data are prohibitive, and 
not all children have access to gadgets. We must imagine the damage the restricti-
ons have done to the academic progress of the kids, and the gradient its already 
creating amongst kids from different socioeconomic divides owing to differential 
access to learning material.

As a country, we have made significant strides in vaccinating the population, but less than 10% of the population is fully vaccinated to date. We are still a long way from vaccinating a proportion sufficient enough to confer herd immunity on the population, yet the emergence of newer variants in the future may pose threats to the effectiveness of the vaccines if there are significant structural viral changes. However, for now, the vaccines we have are ok for the delta variant, and we have to accelerate vaccination to reasonable levels before the onset of the rainy season and increased human mobility in December.

Vaccination, as proven by evidence that continues to come, has been a great intervention for reducing the chances of death and hospitalization from severe COVID-19, and is a reliable tool to make sure we have reduction in the loss of our loved ones from this menace. At population level, we continue pushing for mass vaccination because we know once we reach a certain threshold, even the new infections will reduce too. We know as a people, we are gradually become tired of the pandemic, and more complacent in terms of observing infection prevention and control measures, and the nice thing about vaccines is at some point in the future, not now, they may allow us to do away with some of the inhumane control precautions. However, for now, we have to continue reminding ourselves that we need to put on that face-mask, and we need to continue observing that physical distance; its not yet uhuru, but the day is coming.

So why am I mentioning all these things? Yes, the wave is settling, the numbers are coming down, and the deaths are coming down too, but we have to remind ourselves of some few facts. At the end of May 2021, as a country we had a cumulative confirmed number of cases of around 38 000, but fast forward to two months later, by the end of July 2021, we were at 120 000. Take into account those who never got tested and never made their way into the statistics and you will see that we may be way above this number. Let’s remember how this current wave decimated Mashonaland West, which had been previously relatively spared, and we can see the unpredictable nature of future waves; no area is safe. The number of deaths from the virus rose significantly over the two-month period, from a starting point of about 1600 deaths, and now we stand at over 4000. The damage done by the third wave over a two-month period exceeds that over whole 14-month period in terms of mortality.

So, what should we do? I sincerely believe that for now, the government must allow schools and colleges to open, and must conditionally allow most socioeconomic activities to return. Conditional in the sense that we need a vaccinated population, and I am strong proponent for mandatory inoculation of all people whose jobs involve interacting with the public. This protects not just themselves, but their clients, and in an emergency setting, health protection is our key priority and mandate. Once again, we need to put in place efficient and monitored infection prevention and control measures in schools, colleges, workplaces and church and wedding gatherings.

The question of big funeral gatherings remains contentious, as anecdotally, they seem to be doing more harm than good as super-spreader events. Critical though is that the public must continue to be reminded through and through that COVID-19 is real, and it chiefly remains their possibility to protect themselves and their families, as the government and authorities can only do so much. The issue of public transport needs to be solved expeditiously and permanently. It’s no secret that ZUPCO cannot meet the public’s demand for reliable and efficient transport, and the hustling and tussling for transport poses a significant public health thread in terms of COVID-19 control. Maybe, the kombis must be allowed on the road again, but with serious checks and balances in terms of roadworthiness and suitability to operate as public transporters.

On the other hand, the government must prioritize capacitating the hospitals to adequately deal with future outbreaks. During each wave, the public continues to scramble for admission beds in hospitals and oxygen, and this leads to exploitation of the public by unscrupulous traders. Additionally, this has exposed the public to useless and sometimes harmful treatments which are sought as alternatives. This has partly led to delayed presentation and fatal outcomes. In particular, treatment packs that contain zinc, doxycycline, azithromycin, ivermectin and a concoction of vitamins has given people false reassurance, leading to late presentation with fatal COVID-19 disease. The vaccination drive remains the most important public health intervention to deal with the spread, morbidity and mortality associated with the disease and indeed we must keep the momentum, or accelerate the drive.

So, in as much as we yearn, it’s not yet time to fully relax. We must be allowed to return to socioeconomic activities in controlled environments, and we must keep protecting ourselves, our families and our communities.

Lets continue seeking wisdom and understanding, and God bless us, God bless Zimbabwe and God bless Africa.




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