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When is the peak? A question that many scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, social scientists and data analysts have tried to predict as close to accurate an answer to, using various data models.

Predictions made through data modelling have been key to the national response to the pandemic. They have helped predict the scale of the pandemic’s impact relative to the country’s health system capacity, while also being used to gauge the success of government’s policy regulations and intervention strategies.

The answer to the burning question remains a simple one, according to Nelson Mandela University Professors Azwinndini Muronga, Darelle van Greunen and Lungile Pepeta.

It is in our hands.”

During a data modelling webinar on Wednesday (24 June 2020), hosted by the University and moderated by its Director of Research Management, Dr Kwezi Mzilikazi, the panellists unpacked some of the available models in a bid to answer the question of when South Africa will reach its COVID-19 peak.

Highlighting some of the health factors present in the South African context, the Professors stressed the potentially devastating impact of the virus, if people do not adopt positive habits and behaviours conducive to the fight against COVID-19.

“This pandemic gives us an opportunity to reflect, as South Africans and the world, on the fact that there has been no war as big as the one we are currently fighting,” said Prof Pepeta, who is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and an advocate for preventative rather than curative healthcare.

“The enemy that we are fighting is one that, no matter what we do, we do not have weapons to kill it.  We cannot cure COVID-19. Let us stay out of the way of the virus by doing the simplest of measures and ensure that we do not contract the virus.”

As at 24 June 2020, South Africa has 111 796 confirmed COVID-19 cases, of which 54 922 remain active. The Eastern and Western Cape provinces have respectively recorded 19 214 and 55 162 cases, of which 9 546 and 17 928, respectively, remain active.

Prof van Greunen, who does a lot of work in communities in developing accessible ICT solutions as part of the University’s Centre for Community Technologies, highlighted some major health system factors that will make the COVID-19 response in Africa more challenging than in other parts of the world.

“The African context is unique. There are population structure differences, high prevalence of endemic diseases and the double burden of disease, with health systems that are stretched thin with minimal critical care capacity,” she said.

“A robust COVID-19 response for the continent will need to take these factors into account and include community engagement, health leadership, and involvement of youth and religious leaders to drive containment.”

Prof van Greunen said education about the virus was key to influencing behavioural change with regards to the virus.

“Make sure that you understand what this virus is about,” she said, adding that there was a lot of fear concerning the virus and that has led to the apparent stigmatisation.

“Prevention is always better than cure. In this case, I also want to say that prevention is better than being tested. Make sure that you take the necessary precautionary measure; that you do not have to be tested.”

With the varying global and national contexts and social layers, it is important to have accurate and up-to-the-minute data, otherwise models may be rendered little more than sophisticated guess work.

The Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science, Prof Muronga, said while there are a number of factors affecting the accuracy in data modelling, such as under reporting, a formal mathematical model remained key to understanding the dynamics of disease spread.

Epidemiological models contained in his presentation showed that the country was fast approaching its peak in the next few weeks, around mid-July.

“The question is whether any model can predict the evolution of an epidemic from partial data. Models from previous pandemics can help us to understand the current COVID-19 pandemic, and modelling COVID-19 will help humanity to be better prepared in the future,” he said.

In the meantime, we stick to the basics. We need to educate the public and our colleagues about the importance of physical and social distancing, as well as daily health habits that we all need to undertake in our spaces.”

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777