Simple measures

Good habits can go far in mitigating common illnesses – such as flu – that also have an impact on the economy

Simple measures

If it does indeed take just 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic, then using hand sanitisers and masks should by now be an entrenched habit for South Africans, who’ve been in lockdown since the end of March. And perhaps it’s one we don’t want to kick any time soon.

COVID-19 is truly in a league of its own, forcing people across the globe into varying degrees of isolation to contain its spread. Hundreds of thousands have died and economies left decimated – in SA, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni predicted in June that GDP would shrink by 7.2% this year, its worst showing in almost nine decades.

The impact on the country’s already ailing health infrastructure has yet to be quantified, but it will undeniably take a massive toll in a scenario where, as Bloomberg reported at the end of last year, 84% of the country’s 58.8 million people have no medical aid – and rely on a system ‘with too few doctors and dilapidated facilities’.

The habit of handwashing or sanitising, combined with the wearing of face masks, may seem insubstantial in the face of the enormity of the COVID-19 threat. But the world’s most respected health authorities are adamant that these work – if we are consistent. So why not for other viruses too?

Take flu, for example. The statistics reveal that flu kills as many as 11 000 South Africans every year, about half of them elderly. As with COVID-19, the elderly are most susceptible. As with COVID-19, people with chronic illnesses such as HIV, diabetes, lung disease and heart disease are at increased risk of being hospitalised if they contract the flu. And, as with COVID-19, flu is mainly spread, says the Department of Health, by droplets released when people cough, sneeze or talk. You can also catch it by touching a contaminated surface or object, then touching your mouth, eyes or nose.

It may well have taken the global crisis that is COVID-19 to spark conversations about other preventable threats to SA’s public health, and to consider how easily we can make simple interventions part of the national response to these medical challenges – such as the flu – which put unnecessary pressure on our health system and cost the country’s economy dearly.

Employee absenteeism costs SA between R12 billion and R16 billion annually, according to Occupational Care South Africa and Stats SA. About 14% of absenteeism is related to flu and upper-respiratory-tract infections. With figures that suggest on average 15% to 30% of staff could be absent on any given day, you can be sure that small businesses fare far worse than the big corporates, because they simply cannot absorb those kind of deficits.

Interestingly, in the early days of the country’s COVID-19 response, professor of vaccinology at Wits, Shabir Madhi, was quoted in Spotlight as saying that hospital-bed occupancy spirals 80% to 90% during SA’s annual flu season. He points out that if people were vaccinated against flu, the pressure could be significantly reduced.

Usually, SA procures about 1.2 million doses of the vaccine but seldom uses them all. Despite upping that to 2 million doses this year, supplies ran out amid medical recommendations that the vaccine may mitigate some of the effects of COVID-19.

Madhi adds that he hopes this increased vaccination rate, thanks to people buying into the message, will be a positive legacy of the coronavirus.

Perhaps the very same can be said for the ubiquitous supplies of hand sanitiser in public places, and the increased focus on the message that the simple act of hand-washing can be a lifesaver.

By Di Caelers