Schools, restaurants, and crowded taxis may prove to be the perfect vectors for Covid-19, according to an expert, who says lack of ventilation will cause havoc while government and sectoral operating bodies fuss over regulations
Commuters are pictured at Bree Taxi rank in Johannesburg, 29 June 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark.
Masks and sanitiser won't be enough to deal with the perfect storm of contagion which is about to hit, as schools, businesses, and the taxi industry prepare to return to full or near-full operational capacity. Experts have warned of a potential surge in Covid-19 infections in coming days, with poor ventilation possibly being the next silent killer. According to epidemiologist Dr Jabulani Ncayiana, the opening of schools, restaurants and increased air and land transit could spark a new wave of infections in the next two weeks. "It will become clear in the next couple of weeks how far the impact…
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Masks and sanitiser won’t be enough to deal with the perfect storm of contagion which is about to hit, as schools, businesses, and the taxi industry prepare to return to full or near-full operational capacity.
Experts have warned of a potential surge in Covid-19 infections in coming days, with poor ventilation possibly being the next silent killer.
According to epidemiologist Dr Jabulani Ncayiana, the opening of schools, restaurants and increased air and land transit could spark a new wave of infections in the next two weeks.
“It will become clear in the next couple of weeks how far the impact of these industries will go. But if certain assumptions are to be made about the behavior of people in general, who have not been following what we call Covid-19 safety guidelines, we can expect to see a surge of cases emanating from the activities that will begin this week,” he said.
“The regulations are completely useless and meaningless if compliance is not achieved. We have seen even on live television the many different ways not to wear a mask for instance.”
In addition to existing poor mask etiquette by the general public, small, shared spaces such as taxis and restaurants were generally poorly ventilated, and operators needed to ensure the constant outflow of stale air from these spaces using windows and correct air conditioning practices.
Schools the perfect breeding ground:
Schools opened for more grades nationwide as part of government’s gradual reopening of the school system, amid concerns that these facilities were already becoming sites for rapid Covid-19 transmissions.
In North West, government confirmed at least 106 new Covid-19 cases at schools in the province. These included 11 non-teaching staff, 73 teachers and 22 learners. Last week the Gauteng education department confirmed that 188 teachers and 58 learners tested positive for the virus since the partial opening of schools, with the disease affecting 176 schools in the province.
Professor Alex van den Heever, chair of the Wits University school of Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies, warned that ignoring the importance of ventilation could render masks almost useless at protecting people from catching the disease, because in spaces with poor ventilation, droplets containing the virus could stay suspended in environment longer. This was why it was safer to be in open public spaces where the air was continuously displaced, lowering the chances of air-borne transmission.
A pupil sanitises her hands before entering the school premises at the CR Swart High School in Pretoria on June 8, 2020. – Grade 7 and grade 12 pupils in South Africa began returning to classrooms on June 8, 2020 after two and a half months of home-schooling to limit the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. (Photo by Christiaan KOTZE / AFP)
“The reasons why illnesses such a the flu and indeed covid-19 flourish in cold weather can in part be attributed to to the fact that people tend to close windows and adopt poor ventilation practices when it is cold,” van den Heever pointed out.
This was clearly evident in the informal taxi industry, where it was difficult to gain consensus to travel with open windows, especially entering into the colder months.
The schooling environment was prone to the same bad practices.
You might be safer in an aircraft than you think:
Aircraft ventilation systems made these spaces safer in this regard compared to taxis, buses and restaurants, according to a member of the South African Airline Pilots Association (SAAPA).
According to the commercial pilot, aside from the several air vents which ensure outflow of air from the plane, the aircraft’s pressurisation system ensured that air was constantly flowing in and out of the aircraft.
“Pressurisation and how we provide air-conditioning in an aircraft is the same thing. What we do is we take high pressure air, we run that through some filters through an air-cycle machine which cools the air down to the point where we can use it. We then introduce that into the aircraft at a certain rate,” he explained.
At cruising altitudes, most planes could replace the air in the craft every two to seven minutes.
A SAAPA source, who could not be named, said the body welcomed the move by government to reopen all domestic air travel, adding it was the a decision which would help rescue the South African economy and thousands of jobs in the sector.
No seating limits for restaurants:
Meanwhile the restaurant industry hit the ground running, disseminating a comprehensive best practice manual for all restaurants, as dine-in services were set to resume this week.
Wendy Alberts, CEO of the Restaurant Association of South Africa (RASA) pointed out that no directive existed from government on capacity limits inside restaurants, leaving much to individual discretion.
Restaurant manager, Nsawi Dos Santos scans a client before entering the premises at Spilt Milk in Melville, 25 June 2020. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark
“It is clear that neither the regulations released on Thursday, nor the directions released today, impose a restrictive number on how many guests are allowed to be served onsite. Through numerous telephone calls and messages we have confirmation from within the Department of Tourism that our reading of the regulations is correct and that there is no 50 person limit on the number of patrons allowed to be seated (again provided the social distancing directions are adhered to).
“We must follow the regulations and directions as they have been gazetted and not look at social media and the like for our answers.”
Despite this the industry body was optimistic of the overall benefits of reopening the sector, vowing to take heed of all guidelines and regulations.
Mbalula warns taxis not to test government:
Meanwhile, Transport minister Fikile Mbalula attempted to quell rising anger in the informal taxi industry, amid threats from taxi group Santaco of protest action and outright defiance of the remaining restrictions on the sector.
Talks over additional financial assistance from government, permission to travel between cities and filling taxis to full capacity broke down over the weekend with Santaco making various announcements on their planned actions.
At a briefing announcing the reopening of domestic airline flights, Mbalula was forced to address the fallout between government and the taxi industry. The minister insisted that talks between the two entities were still open, despite Santaco releasing a statement vowing to defy current capacity and route restrictions.
Mbalula said it was difficult to offer the industry the same benefits enjoyed by other industries, due to the lack of formalisation, which he said he hoped would be improved by next April.
He warned the industry, which had promised to resume 100% loading and interprovincial travel in violation oof Covid-19 regulations, that these actions would put it on a collision course with law enforcement.
“In that instance, the law will have to maintained. You are daring the law. There is no need to do that.”
Taxi drivers at the Bree taxi rank in Johannesburg had their say on the restrictions, saying the little money they make has to be spent on petrol, sanitizers, masks and the owners share, leaving them with very little for food.
Taxis parked outside Bree taxi rank in Johannesburg, 22 June 2020, during a strike over government’s R1.135 billion relief fund Picture: Nigel Sibanda
The taxi drivers feel they are risking their lives by loading people who might be infected with Covid-19, with little reward.
Sakkie Maluka explained the measures commuters follow when entering his taxi.
“Everyone entering my taxi needs to wear a mask and to sanitize before entering. I need this job because it is my source of income and I worry about how I will meet my monthly needs since we have to comply with the Covid-19 restrictions.
“We as the industry have been neglected during these times and have not had a voice in how we think things should operate,” Maluka said.
Belinda Banks who used a taxi to travel from her home in Noordgesig told The Citizen she feared using a taxi during the pandemic but had no other way of traveling to town.
She said: “I try not to use the taxi as much as before the pandemic, but when I do I trust God to protect me and keep me safe from Covid-19 because I need to buy the necessary food to feed my family and pay my monthly bills. I don’t have a choice. If taxis are filling up more passengers than usual I cannot tell the driver what to do or else I would not get to where I need to.”
Lucas Ruplang, a queue marshal at the rank, explained that they tried to keep things under control by complying with the new restrictions, but it was difficult because some commuters refused to cooperate.
“We are trying to cope. I have to make sure people are complying by wearing their masks and sanitizing their hands before entering a taxi. Some people are hardheaded and refuse to wear a mask when they enter a taxi. Many of them complain about the hand sanitizers we provide, saying it does not smell nice and prefer to use their own,” Ruplang said.
Additional reporting by Sonri Naidoo
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