In an opinion piece originally published in GroundUp, DTHF COO, Linda-Gail Bekker, describes what it has been like contracting Covid-19 despite taking precautions.
I heard someone say recently: “this variant is really catchy”. My family can bear testimony to this. We have just had a markedly quiet Christmas and new year, all of us holed up with positive Covid-19 results.
This came as an unwelcome surprise – no doubt as it has to the more one million South Africans who have been infected by the novel coronavirus. We are infectious disease researchers. We’ve walked the long HIV and tuberculosis roads – we have grappled with pathogens and epidemics in the past. A number of thoughts arise from this recent too personal encounter with SARS-CoV-2.
It is a really catchy virus. We have been careful. Damn it, we are the outspoken protagonists on the importance of good ventilation to prevent TB. While getting our research sites open again to ensure HIV, TB and Covid research could safely continue, we have really tried to model good behaviour. We have sheltered in place whenever possible and avoided crowds, closed environments and all close encounters. We’ve been reading all the reviews and published data.
But it’s been a brutal year for many, not least for the matric class of 2020. They have lost so much of what makes the final year of school memorable – everything from tours, to balls to first team seasons. Our eighteen-year-old hasn’t hung out in bars or beaches. He hasn’t gone to raves. A single matric cocktail party on an open field without a buffet and with symptom screening may have been our undoing — or maybe not? Maybe it was a quick stop at the supermarket despite masks and distancing?
The point is we have observed the non pharmaceutical intervention code and still have caught this catchy virus. The result: symptoms that together with positive nasal swab results spelled the end of holiday celebrations.
Ten days later, we are still battling an array of symptoms but we are incredibly fortunate. We haven’t had to seek the assistance of our courageous clinical colleagues or take up a valuable hospital bed. We are not among the at least 29,000 South Africans who are no longer with us due to this virus.
For us, the non-pharmaceutical interventions have not been infallible – and we have a spacious home, a small family and provisions. How much more inadequate in crowded environments, where need has necessitated work and exposure? How easy to blame those who have struggled to adhere to regulations and non-pharmaceutical interventions as the purveyors of contagion, to stigmatise the young whose natural drive is to socialise and congregate?
Just as shaming individuals to adopt safer sex behaviours to prevent HIV acquisition did little but increase stigma around HIV, calling out individuals who may have few options or little inclination to adopt non pharmaceutical precautions will do little to contain the pandemic.
We have, it seems, lost the overall Covid plot. The short term emergency strategy in adopting non pharmaceutical interventions was just that, a short term intervention to bridge to the rollout of a viable preventive vaccine. How soon the “safe and effective vaccine” would take to be found was a gamble, how quickly that vaccine can be rolled out should have been less of a gamble.
We are 30 years into the quest to find a vaccine against HIV and we are still hunting. What amazing innovation and good fortune that the Covid virus has proved amenable to an effective vaccine and so quickly. I’m so very glad that we were able to employ much of the machinery and technical know-how generated in the HIV field to expedite the development for not one but a few effective Covid vaccines. What a wonderful triumph for science.