Coping with winter in a time of Covid-19
As we move into the middle of winter, we need a sensible approach to ensure that we remain safe and healthy at work and in our homes. Infections, especially respiratory or lung infections tend to be more common in winter, as we close windows and doors to keep the cold out, resulting in poor ventilation and promotion of their spread. This year we have an extra issue to think about – COVID-19, caused by the coronavirus. The first case of COVID was seen in Cape Town in early March 2020 and the epidemic will peak this winter.
In order to stay healthy, we should always ensure good personal hygiene, like covering our mouths when coughing and washing our hands, to prevent the spread of infection. However, because coronavirus is spread much more easily, we need to take extra care. In order to limit spread, we have been in a state of lockdown since the end of March. Initially lockdown was largely to limit spread by preventing as much contact between people as possible.
More recently contact restrictions have been relaxed, but we need to ensure a safe physical distance from other people, avoid public places and even small groups of people, wear a mask whenever we come into contact with other people, and avoid crowded public transport, where commuters sit or stand close together and where there is often poor ventilation.
At the moment we are moving closer to the peak in the number of cases of COVID-19 in the Western Cape. It is expected to peak in July and to continue for a number of weeks. As the number of infections increase, we are becoming more and more likely to come into contact with someone who is infected with coronavirus. As we know, most people infected with coronavirus have no symptoms, so it is difficult to know who is infected and yet they are still spreading the virus. So, it is important to regard every contact as a potential source of infection.
As the virus becomes widespread in our communities, no one can blame any other person if they contract the virus. We need to show care, compassion and empathy to anyone who has contracted the virus and become ill, and to their families. It is important that we do not point fingers or blame anyone for “bringing the virus” into our communities or workplace.
Stigmatising anyone will only result in reluctance to be open if we have contracted COVID-19 and this will put others around us at risk. The more care and compassion we show, the easier it is for everyone to openly share their story.
At the moment lockdown restrictions are gradually being lifted and many of us will be returning to work and will worry about the safety of our workplaces. At most workplaces special precautions are being taken to ensure that buildings and facilities are safe, that everyone takes precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and that we limit access to persons with possible symptoms of COVID. However, despite all these efforts, it is still very likely that COVID cases will occur in many workplaces, even though the infection may have been acquired elsewhere.
There are at least three important things we can do to ensure that our bodies and, in particular, our immune systems that fight off infections, are at their best to cope with any winter bugs. If our bodies are strong and healthy, we are less likely to be sick and have complications, when we are infected with the coronavirus.
If possible, ensure you have a healthy balanced diet. Fresh fruit, leafy green vegetables, eggs and milk are all good sources of vitamins and trace elements that keep our bodies and immune systems strong. Try and have at least one source each day. Ensure a good mix of the different sources of nutrition and drink lots of fluids such as water. Limit the intake of alcohol, as too much affects our immune system.
Exercise also keeps the body in peak form. You don’t have to run a marathon, but it is good to be active. A walk or jog, three or four times a week, is good for both the mind and body. Exercise has been shown to improve the immune system as well as prevent other chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diseases of the vessels such as around the heart and in the brain, causing heart attacks and strokes.
Life can be very stressful and this can have a negative impact on the function of your immune system and body. We all need to find ways to relieve stress. Give your mind some rest at different times of each day and simply concentrate on one of your five senses – hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting and touching. For example, sit in a quiet place for 10 minutes and listen to and concentrate on all the sounds around you. There are also counselling services available to help deal with these life stresses, as well as issues related to COVID.
The flu kills about 10 000 people in South Africa each year and also places a heavy load on our health care system and economy. It mostly affects older people and those with chronic conditions, such as breathing problems. There is a vaccine available to prevent the flu and all persons over 65 years and those with chronic conditions are encouraged to get it. Also, as the symptoms of the flu and COVID are similar, if you have had the flu vaccine your symptoms are unlikely to be due to the flu, and we are therefore more likely to suspect and treat you earlier for COVID.
Many people get coughs, colds and sore throats, sometimes with a fever, each winter, but now with coronavirus around, we need to stay at home if we are sick, as COVID also presents with these symptoms. This will prevent the possible spread of coronavirus to others.
If the symptoms get worse, we should contact our health provider or phone the COVID Hotline on 021 928 4102.
* Emeritus Professor David Coetzee is a public health specialist and a senior scholar in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town.