Numbers suggest it is time to return to a normal life

We're now into the 38th week since President Cyril Ramaphosa put the country into lockdown to try to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and thereby contain the Covid-19 disease the virus causes. As with most of the rest of the world, South Africa was seized with panic when it saw the images of overflowing hospital wards in places like Italy, Spain and the UK, with people lying on the floor, gasping for breath. That panic heightened when the epidemiological number crunchers began making dire predictions of the number of people who might become infected and who might die. In...
We're now into the 38th week since President Cyril Ramaphosa put the country into lockdown to try to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and thereby contain the Covid-19 disease the virus causes.

As with most of the rest of the world, South Africa was seized with panic when it saw the images of overflowing hospital wards in places like Italy, Spain and the UK, with people lying on the floor, gasping for breath.

That panic heightened when the epidemiological number crunchers began making dire predictions of the number of people who might become infected and who might die.

In the case of South Africa, the initial wild prediction was that as many as 375,000 people could die.

Those numbers of dying people and, therefore, a much larger number of people severely affected by Covid-19 would obviously have collapsed our health services, both government and private.

So, it seemed some sort of effort to combat the spread of the virus – to buy the medical sector time to prepare – was unavoidable.

Many of the decisions made early on in the pandemic were based on limited information about the virus and how it spreads, how many it infects and how it presents clinically; while the treatment regimes have evolved dramatically over the past nine months.

What is clear now, as South Africa approaches an easing of lockdown restrictions, is that many of the doom-laden predictions in the beginning were way off the mark.

An alarmist projection of deaths by Imperial College London – which drove many of the reactions globally – was found to have been based on almost laughable bad assumptions and bad applications of technical code.

In South Africa, experts advising the government have toned down their projections markedly, too.

The global Covid-19 projections website, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to derive its predictions, says, though, that the death toll in South Africa could reach just under 19,000 by the beginning of November.

It is already at more than 15 000. That is a figure which is significant – and made even more so by experts saying there has probably been a marked under-counting of Covid deaths.

The core debate over Covid-19 was whether the lockdowns were justified at all. Now that the predictions don't seem as bad, that argument seems to carry some weight.

However, experts at Discovery Health said this week that as many as 16,000 lives had been saved because of the restrictions.

That, surely, means all of the other suffering – economic and psychological – that the country went through was worth it.

Lockdown opponents argue, however, that the loss of jobs and an increase in poverty which are direct results of the restrictions – along with the fact that normal medical services have been disrupted for months – means that more people will die from the effects of the lockdown than from the virus itself.

There is no way to know that exactly – whereas, imperfect though they may be, the figures for Covid deaths have some solid basis.

We believe there was no alternative to a lockdown at the beginning – but, given the evolution of events, it does seem that it has outlived its usefulness.

It is well beyond time that we loosen the restrictions and use the opportunity to rebuild our economy and try and get back to as normal a life as possible.

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