What you need to know about Covid-19 to protect yourself

There is much we do not understand about the virus and how it will affect our bodies, especially after Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize said that 60% to 70 % of people could be infected by Covid-19. The Mail & Guardian asked different experts — including disease specialist Dr Richard Lessells, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) —  for information about this coronavirus.

Here is a compilation of their answers.

Why wash your hands?

The genetic material at the core of the virus is ribonucleic acid (RNA). The surrounding is a fatty outer layer called an envelope, and there are spikes on the surface (the spikes look like crowns, which is where the name coronaviruses comes from — “corona” meaning “crown” in Latin). The spikes help the virus to attach to the cells inside our body. The weakest link of the virus is the envelope (the fatty outer layer). Soap and water kill the virus very effectively, because the soap dissolves the fatty membrane and the virus falls apart. Alcohol-based gels and sanitiser also do this, but not as effectively as soap. Soap is the best!

How is Covid-19 different from the influenza?

The current Covid-19 outbreak is because of the SARS-CoV-2 or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-related coronavirus. The SARS coronavirus is the virus that caused the original SARS epidemic in 2002-3. It is genetically similar to the viruses responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003 and the Mers-CoV outbreak of 2012, because they are part of the same family of coronaviruses.

One of the main differences between SARS-CoV-2 and seasonal influenza that people need to be aware of is that SARS-CoV-2 spreads more easily than seasonal influenza. On average each person with Covid-19 will infect two to three other people, whereas for influenza the average person infects about 1.3 other people.


In addition, Covid-19 has a higher case fatality rate than influenza. About one in every 1000 people with influenza will die (0.1%). For Covid-19, it is 10 to 30 times higher than this (1% to 3% of people will die). 

What must we do with the dead

Transmission is not currently a concern when handling human remains or performing postmortem procedures. Postmortem activities should be conducted with a focus on avoiding aerosol-generating procedures.

The virus remains mainly in the respiratory tract — so the risk in handling the body is if you do anything that causes respiratory droplets to be expelled. The precautions are much the same as when the person is alive — mortuary workers will wear personal protective equipment (PPE) in much the same way a doctor or nurse will. It’s not like Ebola or similar viral infections where there is a high risk of exposure to the virus after death. 

How long can Covid-19 remain on surfaces, such as wood, door handles, handrails, ceramics, plastic and surgical gloves, that have not been disinfected?

It seems as if the virus can probably stay viable for several hours to maybe a few days. This matches what we know about other coronaviruses. How long it stays alive depends a bit on the surface — for example, it seems to be more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard. It will also depend on the temperature (hotter temperatures will mean it remains alive for a shorter time) and humidity (more humid conditions will mean it remains alive for a longer time). Of course, it’s important to note the virus is easily killed by disinfectant, so if we clean surfaces regularly the virus will not survive.

How does Covid-19 get into my body?

An infected person releases droplets when coughing, sneezing, talking or just breathing. A droplet is just a tiny spatter of water that can contain human cells and infectious agents, in this case, SARS-CoV-2. If another person is close (within about one metre), these droplets can land in their mouth or nose, or be inhaled into the airways and lungs. Covid-19 affects your respiratory tract (nose, throat and lungs). The infection, therefore, results in respiratory symptoms. It’s also possible that a person can get infected by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes. The virus can then travel from there to the airways and lungs. 

What about smokers?

Smoking has an effect in a few different ways. Smoking weakens the first line of defence in the lining of the airways (smoking paralyses little hair cells called cilia that can expel infectious agents). This makes the person more susceptible to infections of all types. Smoking may also make it easier for this specific virus to enter the cells in our lungs. Lastly, smoking makes it more likely that the person has some degree of chronic lung disease or impaired lung function. Chronic lung disease means that someone has fewer reserves and is less able to cope when they get an acute insult to the lungs, such as pneumonia. They are, therefore, more likely to need ventilator support to help them breathe. 

Can people get reinfected?

We don’t really know the answer to this question. We know that infected individuals develop antibodies after a few days, as we see in any viral infection. We are assuming at the moment that this will protect that individual from being reinfected, but it’s too early to say how long people will remain protected. Patients affected by the Mers-CoV outbreak of 2012 were unlikely to be reinfected shortly after they recovered. 

We don’t know whether the virus might change to evade our immune system as influenza virus does.

What about my unborn baby? Can the virus be passed on in utero? If so, how? If not, what is the biology around that?

At the moment we think not. The virus is not found in the blood of infected individuals and does not spread through the bloodstream. One study that tested amniotic fluid, cord blood, neonatal throat swabs and breast milk samples from Covid-19-infected mothers found no evidence of the virus. In a different study, three placentas of infected mothers tested negative for the virus. There has been one report suggesting transmission from mother to child but it’s more likely that transmission happened after birth because of close contact.

Why are older people more acutely affected?

This is commonly seen with many infectious diseases. As we age, our immune system weakens and we are more vulnerable to infectious diseases and at higher risk of becoming very unwell. It seems that older people are more likely to get the main complication called acute respiratory distress syndrome (Ards), which is a life-threatening illness in which the lungs are severely inflamed. The WHO and US Centre for Disease Control agree that older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19.

In addition, as we grow older, we are more likely to have other chronic health conditions such as chronic lung disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. These all make a person more vulnerable to the effects of an infectious disease. There is evidence emerging that, as well as the lungs, the virus might directly affect the heart and this might explain why people with heart disease and hypertension are at higher risk of severe disease and death.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Athandiwe Saba
Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession.

Related stories

Fort Hare students test positive for Covid after partying

The 30 students, who went to a bash at a tavern in East London, were not wearing masks, did not sanitise their hands nor keep to social distancing regulations.

Totally gone mad: Covid-19 and the Trump presidency

Tracing America’s bungling of the containment of the coronavirus, Totally Under Control unveils the deep rot in Trump’s presidency

The challenges of delivering a Covid-19 vaccine in Africa requires a new approach

It is imperative that we train healthcare workers and participate in continent-wide collaboration

The quiet front line battle of South Africa’s rural nurses

The focus may have been on urban nurses during the Covid-19 pandemic, but those in rural areas suffer similar fates. However, very little is known about how they have been able to cope

Load-shedding’s silver lining: Lower levels of sulphur dioxide air pollution

Analysis of Nasa data shows that although SO₂ emissions around the world have fallen by about 6%, the levels are high enough to harm the health of billions of people.

Citizens tired of being played for a fool

The use of a South African Air Force jet by ANC officials without the minister following the required procedures is one such case — and more questions arise on examination of that case
Advertising

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Finance probe into the Ingonyama Trust Board goes ahead

The threat of legal action from ITB chairperson Jerome Ngwenya fails to halt forensic audit ordered by the land reform minister

Ailing Far East Rand hospital purchases ‘vanity’ furniture

Dr Zacharia Mathaba, who purchased the furniture, is a suspected overtime fraudster and was appointed as Gauteng hospital chief executive despite facing serious disciplinary charges

Eusebius McKaiser: Reject the dichotomy of political horrors

Senekal shows us that we must make a stand against the loud voice of the populist EFF and racist rightwingers

Seals abort pups in mass die-off

There are a number of factors — a pollutant, virus or bacteria or malnutrition — may have caused the 12 000 deaths on Namibia’s coast
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday