12 Myths about COVID-19 in South Africa

12 Myths about COVID-19 in South AfricaPHOTO: Finbarr O’Reilly, courtesy of Médecins Sans Frontières
News & Features

COVID-19 (Coronovirus Disease 2019) has fuelled fear and panic among many people across the globe – often based on misperceptions and unfortunately often against people from Asian descent. Here we try to dispel some myths and answer some common questions based on the available scientific evidence.

Since the COVID-19 virus is a new virus that is still being studied, some of the information below may change as we learn more about the virus. At the time of writing, several important questions remain unanswered.

Myth 1: Most people who contract COVID-19 will get very sick or die

Around eight out of every ten people who become infected with COVID-19 only have mild disease and recover. Around 1 in 20 get so sick that they may require hospitalisation. Only around 1 in 30 to 1 in 50 people diagnosed with COVID-19 have died (if you factor in people who have not been diagnosed the death rate is probably under 1 in 100). This makes COVID-19 much less deadly than other recent viral outbreaks such as SARS (8%) and MERS (>30%) – In the technical jargon, COVID-19 has a lower case fatality rate than SARS and MERS. As we learn more about COVID-19 in the coming weeks and months some of the above numbers may change, but probably not too dramatically.

Myth 2: Since COVID-19 is less deadly than SARS, it will kill fewer people

COVID-19 has already killed more people than SARS – even though SARS was more deadly. This is because COVID-19 is more infectious and has infected more people. The fact that it infects so many people means that the death toll can be high, even though the risk of any specific individual diagnosed with the virus dying of COVID-19 is relatively low.

Myth 3: You can stay safe by avoiding Chinese and Italian people

Though the COVID-19 outbreak started in China, there are now significant outbreaks in a range of countries, including Italy, Iran, France, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and South Korea. So far there is no evidence that any race or nationality are more likely to contract or to transmit the virus. While recent travel to one of these countries is still an indicator that someone is at an increased risk of having been infected with COVID-19, this is becoming less and less so over time. Most people contracting and transmitting the virus in South Africa today are normal South Africans and not people of Chinese or Italian descent.

Myth 4: Only older men need to worry about COVID-19

It is true that older people, and men in particular, are at higher risk of dying of COVID-19, but everyone is at risk, except it seems children under 10. Those suffering from pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes and heart disease, are more likely to get sick. It seems plausible that people living with HIV who are not on antiretroviral treatment or who have low CD4 counts may also be at higher risk of getting seriously ill or dying of COVID-19. However, there is no international data on this yet.

Myth 5: All I need to protect myself from COVID-19 is a mask

Probably the most important things you can do to protect yourself is to regularly wash your hands and to touch your face as little as possible when you are in public. The general rule is that masks are better at preventing someone with a viral infection from transmitting the virus than it is at preventing a healthy person from contracting the virus. As such, masks are recommended for infected people, or people who may be infected, who are in public places and not recommended for most healthy people. The exceptions to this are healthcare workers and other people who care for infected persons. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises people to only wear masks if they’re healthy and looking after someone who contracted the virus or when you are coughing and sneezing. It’s important to note that the efficacy of these masks also depend on which mask you buy, and if you are using/wearing it correctly.

Myth 6: People with COVID-19 are easy to identify

One of the most challenging things about COVID-19 is that it can infect anyone and is relatively hard to diagnose. The symptoms are generic and hard to distinguish from other illnesses, such as a cough, chest infection or flu. Reported symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Some people also show only very mild symptoms – but can nevertheless transmit the virus. This makes the spread of COVID-19 extremely hard to prevent.

Myth 7: Government is hiding South Africa’s real COVID-19 numbers

There is no evidence that government is hiding any figures relating to COVID-19 in South Africa. That said, as in all countries, there may be cases of COVID-19 that have not been diagnosed – this is especially so since symptoms are similar to that of many other upper respiratory infections and most people only have mild illness. For this reason the official figures – like everywhere – will almost certainly be an underestimate. However, using official figures and other things we know about the virus and its spread, epidemiologists should be able to come up with reliable estimates of the actual number of cases (diagnosed plus undiagnosed).

Myth 8: People who cough in the coming weeks probably have COVID-19

Although COVID-19 symptoms include coughing, the first sign of a cough does not necessarily mean someone has COVID-19. Coughing is a symptom of many commonly occurring conditions in South Africa, including the common cold, flu, and tuberculosis. Thus, unless things change really drastically, most people you come across with a cough will NOT be infected with COVID-19, but with something much more familiar to us.

Myth 9: There is a secret cure for COVID-19

A number of different antiviral medicines are currently being tested against COVID-19, but nothing has been shown to work yet. Some of them may turn out to be effective. It is not yet known for certain. For now the treatment of COVID-19 mainly involves managing symptoms and keeping patients alive (for example through breathing support).

There is no evidence that any vitamins, supplements, or other remedies can prevent COVID-19 disease or help treat it once someone is infected.

Myth 10: My pet is at risk from COVID-19

So far there has been only one reported case of a dog in Hong Kong that has contracted the COVID-19 virus. The dog has only low level infection and it is not known whether the dog can transmit the virus to humans. The advice from the WHO is still that your pet is safe. Generally, the WHO advises that people wash their hands with soap and water whenever they’ve touched their pets since it can help protect you against common infections that can pass between pets and humans.

Myth 11: I should avoid Chinese food until COVID-19 is forgotten

There is no reason for people in South Africa to stop eating Chinese food. In fact, if you want to help counter some of the irrational responses to Chinese food and Chinese businesses you might consider specifically supporting Chinese businesses as is being done in the #iwilleatwithyou campaign.

Myth 12: Protecting yourself and your loved ones is the only reason for social distancing
It is true that by going out as little as possible to shops, restaurants or on public transport, you can reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. It is also true that this kind of social distancing is a key way to keep you and members of your household or others at your workplace as safe as possible. It is not true however that these are the only reasons for social distancing. Social distancing is also something we do for the greater good. The more people practice social distancing, the slower the virus will spread in our communities, and the better the chances will be that our hospitals and healthcare workers will not be unbearably overloaded.
*Visit the South African government’s website for COVID-19 updates here: www.sacoronavirus.co.za. The website is data-free.
Useful contacts for more updates:
Emergency Hotline – 0800 – 029 999
WhatsApp Support Line – 0600 123 456

For more information see this excellent Q&A prepared by the UK’s National Health Service. (If South Africa’s National Institutes for Communicable Diseases produces something similar we will post a link to that here as well.)

*Note: Thank you to Dr Tim Tucker for checking a draft of this article. Spotlight takes sole responsibility for any errors the article may contain. Should you spot any inaccuracies, please let us know by commenting in the comment section below this article.