Study reveals COVID-19 perceptions in SA

While many South Africans know a great deal about COVID-19, the majority still believe they are at low risk of contracting the disease.

This is one of the main findings contained in the report released by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) on Sunday.

Delving into the public perception on awareness levels, knowledge about the virus and the impact of the lockdown on South Africa, the report found that 46% of survey respondents considered themselves at low risk.

Only 22% perceived themselves to be at a high risk of contracting the disease. Meanwhile, 32% believed they had a moderate chance of contracting the virus.

Presenting the report during a virtual press briefing in Pretoria, the HSRC’s Dr Priscilla Reddy said the study was a starting point to balance the country’s response at this crucial point in the fight against the pandemic.

Reddy led the survey, which was conducted in two phases from 27 – 31 March and 9 – 16 April 2020.

The survey included 19 330 South Africans of all race groups aged 18 and older, including healthcare workers. The majority of participants were from Gauteng.

Reddy said knowledge on the correct use of masks (not touching one’s nose, face and eyes), and the washing of hands frequently for 20 seconds, among others, varied between 85% and 97%.

Research found that the lockdown, where people are urged to stay at home, could have given people a sense of security, leading them to believe they are at low risk for COVID-19.

“One in five people believe that they are at high risk for infection.

“If the burden of disease is high and generalised, the mortality is high, most people would perceive themselves to be at high risk,” said Reddy.

However, when the curve has flattened and mortality is low, most people would perceive themselves to be at low risk.

“This complacency could be due to the success of the lockdown. We may become victims of the successes gained during the lockdown,” Reddy said.

The HSRC said the results indicate opportunities for stronger behaviour change campaigns. Reddy urged all South Africans to take responsibility for their behaviour.

Adherence to the lockdown

According to the survey, the majority of people are adhering to the lockdown regulations and are staying at home.

The survey revealed that 30% of people have not left their homes since the start of the lockdown last month. Only 62% of respondents went out to get food and medicine.

“This tells us that the majority of people adhere to the lockdown. The results show that 99% either left for food or social grants and the rest stayed at home,” Reddy said.

However, 8% of respondents had met with more than 50 people.

Fifty-one percent of the respondents reported that they had come into close contact with 10 or more people during the past seven days when out of their homes. In addition, 15% had to use public transport to get to the shops.

“These are all high-risk situations. South Africans need to disrupt their social relations and activities in order to save lives by adopting social distancing. Anyone can be infectious with or without symptoms,” Reddy stressed.

She said everyone has a duty to protect others by wearing masks whenever they are outdoors. She also called for social distancing in and outside minibus taxis.

COVID-19 and poverty

The research showed how inequality and poverty is affecting communities, with about 24% of participants having no money to buy food. The challenge is more pronounced among informal settlement residents, with about 55% of them having no money for food and two-thirds of people in townships suffering a similar fate.

Between 45% and 63% of respondents said the lockdown would make it difficult for them to pay bills, earn an income, feed their families and keep their jobs.

Approximately 13.2% of the respondents indicated they had no easy access to their chronic medication, mostly in informal settlements, rural areas and farms.

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“Impoverished and remote communities continue to face barriers to healthcare access. People who are struggling to access chronic medication during the lockdown will probably be the same people who struggle to access healthcare services related to COVID-19,” Reddy warned.

What could be an option, she said, is the delivery of medication to households.

“Perhaps we can take the medicine to their homes.

“Government and society as a whole should acknowledge that some communities are struggling, and people may have no money to buy food.  A social compact must be created with communities and the public and private sector to ensure sustainable financial and social relief,” Reddy said.

The study also revealed that cigarettes, which have been banned in the current lockdown, were more accessible at 11.8%, compared to alcohol at 2.5%, which is also banned.

A quarter of people from informal settlements were able to buy cigarettes during the lockdown.

Emphasis on education

Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande said the survey revealed that much more remains to be done on an ongoing basis.

“It’s good that research is showing this. We have to intensify education for people to understand the point that everyone is almost equally at risk; no one is more at risk.

“It is, indeed, possible that elderly people are more at risk and vulnerable once they actually contract the virus, but in terms of contracting the virus itself, we are all at risk,” he said.

Nzimande said government needs to increase its education drive around the pandemic, which was the purpose of this research and this ought to inform the response going forward.

The Minister said the findings will assist government to formulate a response to the management of the lockdown.

“Sometimes the disease is as bad as the attitude that people have towards it. You might find that a negative attitude or lack of cooperation may make the situation worse, as opposed to when people cooperate.”

The search for a vaccine

The Minister said although there were currently no COVID-19 vaccine trials being undertaken in South Africa, two plant-based expression technology vaccines were being investigated.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and University of Cape Town are using plant-based expression technologies (also called biopharming), and have proven their ability to locally produce vaccines in plant-based expression systems.

He said that Cape Bio Pharms is in discussion with Biovac to assist with final filtration, formulation and filling – should a plant-based vaccine be approved.

In addition, South Africa is participating in an international study of treatments for COVID-19 in-hospital patients, who are receiving drug regimens believed to have an effect on the disease. The Solidarity Trial is coordinated by the World Health Organisation.

The main objective of the trial, said the Minister, is to provide reliable estimates of the effects of antiviral treatments on in-hospital mortality. It will also assess the effects of such antivirals on the duration of hospital stay and on receipt of ventilation or intensive care.


The drive to produce ventilators is underway, said the Minister.

“Working with a range of parties, the Department of Science and Technology is part of a process to support efforts to formulate and implement strategies for the development and manufacture of ventilators in the country,” he said.

Working with the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure, the department will deploy fuel cells for some medical facilities in rural areas.

Seven stationary fuel cell units are ready and no additional funding will be required for their deployment, said the Minister. – SAnews.gov.za

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