A commonsense guide to community response to Covid – 19 Part 1: Understanding the new normal

Global research, conceptual image. Scientist holding a globe with a laboratory bench and glassware in the background. image is to demonstrate a community organizer helping the community and autistic people with autism how to navigate the covid-19 corona virus

I’m gonna be real with ya’ll about what I feel we should all be doing to cope with the new coronavirus. I’m just gonna sit here and have this talk because I’ve been mainlining data for a days now to try to discern what is hype and what is real and just how much we ought to be preparing for.

I’m no doctor, so this isn’t a medical guide to this pandemic. This is a community organiser’s guide to being a community during times of disaster. I might not know the latest stats on the virus, but I understand community organising a little bit.

Here’s what I have been thinking on this:

If you can stay home and self-isolate without serious consequences, you absolutely should be doing that. I am doing so myself already, and wearing a surgical mask in public (I am immunocompromised). I have hand sanitiser in my bag when I go out to wipe down surfaces in public, and I am ramping up hand-washing and avoiding physical contact with those not inside my own household.

For anyone still in doubt about it, these are not hysterical, extreme, or overly-reactive measures. They are the minimum bar of entry for epidemiological control in any outbreak, no matter what disease we are dealing with, large or small. So far from this being some kind of hysteria, it is a conservative, serious, and reasonable response to a real medical emergency.

I think all international visitors with elective trips like holidays or social visits abroad should certainly cancel their visits and remain home instead of risking infection in an airport lounge, plane, or foreign country.

Limiting the movement of people is a practical way of reducing opportunities for diseases to spread. That is not hysterical, either. Though it will have heavy economic consequences, I think it is eventually going to be necessary and in a number of countries this is already the status quo.

I do not believe there is reason to fully close all border access or shut down trade as this would interfere with the movement of needed rations– which would impact on the supply of food and medicines.

The consequences of doing so would be so devastating that they would make the direct health impacts of the virus look like child’s play. In South Africa we are now seeing a lockdown that permits the movement of groceries and medicines but not much else.

We are already tasting the fruit of the impact of such options in other countries. And in the collapse of the economic markets, shortages of market products as production and shipping falter, and medication shortages arise as panic-buying and the sheer size of the epidemic overwhelm local stockists in many countries. If you are able to purchase a month or two of supplies in advance, you should absolutely do so at first opportunity.

I think to go into full lockdown is a rich man’s game, and I doubt many countries can actually afford to do so for any truly lengthy time due to dependence on outside resources and manufacturing. Either way, it is already too late to prevent the outbreak by that method– unless you’re Taiwan who had the right idea when it mattered. Too late now guys! We will see what the measures we are currently using buy us in due time.

We have probably lost the window of opportunity to completely prevent infections from reaching us in most countries, considering that it has had three (nay four) months to make landfall.

My gut tells me to expect that there will be a peak of deaths here within South Africa somewhere in late April to early May (just based on the flow of events in China),  and we should see things clear up roughly three months after the first local reported case… which puts us at the centre of South African winter flu season.

Americans will be in the first days of spring and summer. If it doesn’t mop up by then, g-d help us all, because then it will be here to stay for a good long while.

Apart from all the very good advice published by our national South African government– which I support wholeheartedly– I urge community leaders and activists not to rest on their laurels. Start organising small groups of support for people to lean on in times of trouble.

Become active in promoting measures and becoming prepared, but please avoid stirring panic and hysteria. Folks, we have to handle quarantine in a better way than to panic-buy three months worth of toilet rolls and hand sanitiser. We can do this by working together as a community of friends.

We all have people we call “family,” whether they are blood or some other kind of kin. This is a time when we should be focusing on building our communication and collaboration skills with these peoples and creating fire breaks against potential risks that might arise.

Risk management is not accomplished by isolating ourselves from the community *digitally* even as we isolate ourselves physically. That is the beauty of online connections: Germs don’t spread over Whatsapp, but loving support, planning, and emergency management strategies definitely do.

I believe the most crucial intervention right now is to provide free sanitation services  and possibly testing kits to people in townships in densely-populated regions, and those working in public spaces like schools, hospitals, transit spaces like train stations and bus services, and to persuade churchgoing people and businesses with large in-person contact presences like malls to suspend their services.

Those in industry, business or leadership positions should try to use their influence to direct such decisions toward funding and relief aid to such spaces where it is possible for them to do so. If you have personal financial means to contribute to such causes, now is the time to show your goodwill for mankind by supporting local community health initiatives as they roll out outbreak response programs from their often limited funds.

These interventions are far more affordable, would impact on the economy in a negligible (and perhaps even positive) way and could have a really wide impact on par with any travel ban or other measures controlled by state edicts since it would target the main internal vectors of transmission where locals could share the virus within national borders in a way that state services are simply not equipped, as a central government with limited manpower on the ground, to do with ease.

The duty rests on our leaders locally to equip their villages with the needed measures by being active citizens. Getting healers up to scratch on recognising symptoms, disease safety protocols and when to refer people away to be tested is a great way to support any ad hoc clinical services under your command such as school nurses or traditional healers.

We need as many hands on the ground as we can get.

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2 Responses

    1. I affirm that the official advisory from the WHO at present is that masks are not advised for those who are not in the high risk category (ie. immunocompromised, medical professionals, those who work in human waste disposal) or those who are currently ill. Since I am immunocompromised due to comorbidities (as many autistic people are) I wear a medical mask, as advised.

      That said, I have seen some conflicting perspectives on this even from experts within the medical fraternity. In Asia, the advisory has been very much the opposite to that from the WHO.

      See this informative pieces on the matter for more detailed discussion of the differing attitudes to masks: https://time.com/5799964/coronavirus-face-mask-asia-us/ as well as https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottasnyder/2020/03/26/unmasking-differing-us-and-south-korean-approaches-to-covid-19/#cb109093e3bb .

      From that perspective it is my impression that there is no firm evidence for or against masks being used by the general public which can be irrefutably supported by peer reviewed evidence. The best we have available right now is expert advisories, such as those from the WHO. This has a high index of authority for me, but it is not the same thing as a settled and established consensus view on how to address the issue of the use of masks.

      From my own reading I have observed that the formal research on this topic appears to have been intended not for public settings but based on medical environments (which have an unusually high viral load, and particular risk factors not seen in public use) which means we don’t really have solid peer reviewed information about the usefulness of masks for the environments that apply to the general public as far as I am aware. I reserve the right to have a different opinion and formulate my own response.

      The most compelling arguments against broad community use has been the fact that those who are not educated about using masks may actually use them incorrectly and place themselves at greater risk. I implore people looking into this issue to ensure they receive good expert advice on the matter and understand the objections of those arguing BOTH sides of the discussion so that we may make good decisions in our own local contexts and personal situation. Those choosing to use masks should ensure they are familiar with good practice regarding the safe handling, distribution, use and sanitisation or disposal of them. Having a sword does not equal being a good swordsman, and so being familiar with good practice around using a mask is as crucial as having the thing itself.

      It is also worth keeping in mind that grassroots reporting shows a very large number of hospitals currently actively asking people to manufacture cloth masks for doctors and nurses to use. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/coronavrirus-medical-staff-beg-for-masks-social-media) and so I continue to encourage people to manufacture masks from home according to the guides offered by various hospitals for doing so.

      I hope this explains my position for you more clearly.

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