We all knew it was coming, it was just a matter of time. The national state of disaster declaration had signaled a path that we were on. The storm was brewing, lockdown is coming.
The Rest of the World Locked Down
The crisis in Italy was in full swing and they had entered full lockdown just a week before. I made a call to a friend and collegue in Torino in the north of Italy not far from Lombardy where the worst outbreak was.
He explained to me that he and his family were in their 3rd week of isolation at home, only going out to buy food or medical supplies. I could hear in his voice the seriousness of the situation. He was hoping for a peak in the crisis by the end of the week, sadly it took several more weeks. He explained that we in South Africa were several weeks behind Italy and that I should prepare for the worst, more reality set in for me.
Many of the Asian countries were hit by SARS in 2003, and all of them learned from it. They learned how viral and lethal it could be, so they knew to take it seriously. They had systems in place like China having dedicated disease centres to accept infected patients without contaminating hospitals.
Taiwan immediately implemented strict screening and isolation of all foreign travelers and used mobile-based tracking mechanisms to keep track of infected people. That’s why all of their graphs, despite starting to grow much earlier, still don’t look like exponentials. Despite all of this the rest of the world was slow in reacting. It was still early for us and many people were calling for a lockdown despite its dire economic effects.
Flatten the Curve
The most effective way of controlling the virus was by testing, tracing and isolating. There is a lot of science behind how a virus spreads and techniques to control it. The rate of the spread is a key factor in controlling it and it is this multiplier effect that results in the exponential growth.
A study of how the virus spread in Korea demonstrates this effect well. The sudden surge in cases in late February centred mostly around one main cluster. From a church in Daegu city that was linked to single individual “Patient 31”. The Korean clusters explain how if proper tracing and isolation are not done then the situation can quickly get out of control.
Suddenly everyone was talking about “Flatten the curve”, referring to the exponential growth rate of the virus spread and death rate where new cases and deaths were doubling and tripling daily. The way to flatten the curve is to stop exponential growth by minimising and eliminating contact between people.
This was the logic behind the lockdowns, effectively delaying the spread and buying time to relieve medical facilities and be more prepared. This Washington Post article describes it well Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to “flatten the curve” .
The overload of information had started, it was something that I have never experienced before. Normally there is a crisis in one part of the world. That in itself creates a lot of information and is difficult to keep up with. But now there was a crisis spreading effectively to every country in the world. So the amount of information was also increasing exponentially.
It was not something that I felt I could ignore because that’s what I had done initially. We were all going to be affected by this so it was important to understand the threat properly. The situation was changing so quickly that the mainstream media was also overwhelmed.
Thank goodness for social media like twitter. It was possible to get accurate information directly from the source. The government and health department were exceptional in their communication from the start. Using a dedicated whatsapp service, a website www.sacoronavirus.co.za , and even the health minister Dr Mkhize on twitter.
Still I was learning and understanding how this virus worked and it seemed like there was an infinite amount of info to digest. But every now and then I’d come across something that explained it all so well. This video by a local South Africa doctor is a great explanation and summary of the SARS-Cov-2 virus.
Fake News and Panic Buying
All of this uncertainty was also the ideal feeding ground for fake news, both deliberate and by accident. People were forwarding information left right and centre without checking facts as usual, made worse with levels of fear growing. So you couldn’t believe anything no matter where it came from.
I resorted to double checking everything and always checking at the original source of the info. If I couldn’t verify it I would take it with a pinch of salt. You also had to be aware that even honest people with good intentions were caught out. There were so many unknowns it was not always possible to be exactly correct.
All of this meant that panic buying was now in full swing as people started stocking up on essential items. Toilet paper, handwash and sanitisers were sold out everywhere. They were expecting the worst as the media was painting a bleak picture and people were really worried.
For the first time I found myself going to the shops and being so acutely aware of every single surface that I touched, from the fingerprint at my complex, to the boom gate at the mall, the groceries, my credit card, my car door handle, the steering wheel, the list was endless.
Many people started social distancing voluntarily and work from home options were being exercised widely. We were glued to the rising COVID-19 confirmed cases count as it climbed, still mostly from people with foreign travel connections.
VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity
This week was a whirl wind both at home and at work. Businesses were being forced to come to grips with the rapidly changing situation as some businesses saw steep drops while others were overrun. Seeing what was happening around the world we started looking at scenarios and what they would mean.
The biggest realisations that were setting in were that it was no longer business as usual. It was going to get worse, probably for many months at least. Cashflow and liquidity were the biggest threats that we had to prepare for. By the end of the week the government had announced that the President would address the nation on Sunday night.
The Historic Briefing
On 22 March 2020 in a historic briefing we were all glued to the TV, the whole family. I felt like I had travelled back in time when these TV addresses were the way of communicating with the masses. It was a historic moment as President Cyril Rhamaposa laid out the situation and declared that we would enter a 3 week lockdown from 27 March.
We were all expecting it, but now it was actually happening, we were in shock.
The rules were simple, all businesses would close except for essential services. Everyone was expected to stay at home and only go out if authorised for essential work or to buy food or medicine. It really was extraordinary, both the president and minister of health Dr Mkhize were showing exceptional leadership and really inspired confidence that they were doing their absolute best in a crisis situation.
If we thought that the previous week was crazy, fast and unpredictable, then the next 4 days were triple that. It was the mad scramble to get businesses ready for the lockdown, understanding legalities around leave, forced closure, salaries etc.
Coming to grips with the forced changes to our lives and what we could and couldn’t do. Most people got it and were on board and committed to doing their bit for #stayathome and making their contribution to stopping the spread.