Prediction models work but accurate data is vital

Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo

Has the Eastern Cape hit the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic?

While this question is on the lips of many, the answer, at least for the Eastern Cape, is no.

And Nelson Mandela Bay may well be the driver of this regional surge, hence our statistics will be important if the Eastern Cape wants to know when its peak will be.

Mathematical modelling and computer simulations help us to understand how the disease spreads.

One of the simplest models, the D-Model, is being worked on in collaboration with SA and international scientists.

This looks at reported daily deaths and the cumulative number over time.

However, adding factors such as demographics and quarantine measures makes it more complex.

We have only recently started to see the full effect of lifting lockdown restrictions from level 4 to 3.

In other words, we now see the effect of an infection picked up 20-30 days ago.

If a person dies because of Covid-19, the statistics of reported deaths are less ambiguous compared to the number of confirmed cases or confirmed recoveries.

The death rate is an indication of reported cases and not synonymous with the number of infections.

NMU science dean professor Azwinndini Muronga, who says the phased reopening of the economy is complicating predictions
NMU science dean professor Azwinndini Muronga, who says the phased reopening of the economy is complicating predictions

The daily death rates have a peak.

However, the cumulative total deaths will only plateau when people no longer die from Covid-19 or the pandemic has ended.

It is easy to create a predictive model when a population is highly restricted, but each reduction in restrictions opens another window for the virus.

This makes prediction increasingly complex, but doable.

In the beginning, statistics on reported deaths from the Western Cape drove national data, but recently Gauteng and the Eastern Cape saw a surge, which could be attributed to the relaxation of rules from level 4 to 3.

Western Cape numbers are gradually winding down while they are sharply climbing in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

A model is only as good as reported data and it was alarming  when all a sudden, in one day, the number of deaths rose to 572 in SA, 400 of these from the Eastern Cape.

This cannot be the case.

Consistent and constant reporting of the data is vital for model prediction.

Though the purpose of science is to inform without scaremongering, the number of deaths reported right now is scary.

On the positive side, big collaborations are happening behind the scenes.

Nelson Mandela University is working across all disciplines and departments to tackle the pandemic.

Our findings will also help us with future outbreaks because they will prepare SA and Africa to tackle other health challenges such as HIV, malaria and Ebola more effectively.

Modelling is not merely an academic exercise; it is essential so we can counter fake news with science communication based on research and data modelling.

One thing SA has not done well over the lockdown is to educate.

We failed to explain to the public why it is so important to follow the three key guidelines — wear a mask, maintain physical distance and sanitise.

We focused on resources and infrastructure, not education.

In lockdown, we should have gone on a massive, evidence-based educational drive which later would have saved resources.

NMU has campaigns such as #MaskUpMandela and #ItIsiInYourHands.

These messages need to go out on a wider scale to more people, not just those linked to the university.

We still have time. We should not say afterwards “we should have educated our people”.

Let’s invest in the evidence-based education campaigns even while in the eye of the storm.

For example, schools have been closed but we have seen viral videos of children playing around with sanitisers; then there are those people making jokes about alcohol.

This indicates a lack of evidence-based education.

We must show with evidence what happens if we adhere to preventive measures.

Some countries have seen second Covid-19 waves.

If or when a second wave of Covid-19 hits us, we should have prepared our communities by empowering them with evidence-based education so they can defend themselves.

People need to know why they must sanitise.

We do not want to be in the position where we say “we should have”, so let us rather act now.

Covid-19 is teaching us many lessons.

First, it has driven home the importance of evidence-based education and clear, simple communication from scientists and government to communities. 

This will help to save lives and livelihoods, as well as limited medical resources.

Second, we need to collaborate across health, science, engineering, social sciences, humanities and others.

Third, modelling alone, using data without understanding the micro and social dynamics of the population, is not enough.

The resultant model will miss fundamental problems and causes.

Fourth, the disruptive nature of the pandemic is asking us to view things differently, not only in what we do and how we live, but in terms of technology.

One benefit of Covid-19 is that it has forced Africa to immediately embrace technology.

Before we would look to the West for production; now we have been innovative and developed our own sanitisers, ventilators and face shields.

Success in fighting this pandemic will only come once the right information has been placed in the community’s hands.

Azwinndini Muronga is executive dean of the faculty of science at Nelson Mandela University

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