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Welcome to the post-Covid new normal – we must embrace a permanent future of masks, fist bumps and hand sanitising

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Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

Ultimately life goes on and we will do better if we embrace some of the valuable lessons Covid-19 has taught us. The pandemic has indeed added extra credence to the fact that the future is neither guaranteed nor predictable.

This past week amid the local government election frenzy, Tembisa Hospital on the East Rand announced that it had discharged its last two Covid-19 patients. The news might have been drowned out by the elections, but it was an important piece of information in South Africa’s fight against an invisible but devastating enemy. It meant that it was the first time since the pandemic hit South Africa’s shores that the hospital had no Covid-19 patients in its wards.

This is by all accounts a significant development, especially considering that the hospital is located in one of Gauteng’s most densely populated regions that is dogged by poor infrastructure development, lack of access to basic services and poverty. The news is a stark reminder of how far we have come as a nation in our efforts to fathom life while facing a formidable foe that continues to wreak havoc on many lives and livelihoods. As is well documented, the pandemic has indeed added extra credence to the fact that the future is neither guaranteed nor predictable.

That said, there are so many useful lessons that we need to carry with us to that equivocal future. What that future should be called is a highly contested matter. However, if the common catchphrase is anything to go by, many seem to prefer to refer to it simply as post-Covid-19. However, there is a school of thought that believes that there will never be such an era. The disease, they argue, will always be among us, albeit in a (medically) manageable form, just like influenza and common colds.

There are many people, including denialists and doubting Thomases, who – as sad as it is – have perished due to influenza, and that will still be the case with Covid-19, albeit not on the same scale as during the height of the pandemic. Instead of post-Covid, this school of thought advocates for the “new normal”. Irrespective of the concept that tickles whoever’s fancy, ultimately life goes on and we will do better if we embrace some of the valuable lessons Covid-19 has taught us. There are certainly many such lessons. However, the following should, as far as the non-pharmaceutical interventions are concerned, rank high on the list.

Hand sanitisers for life

Covid-19 has exponentially increased the demand and use of hand sanitisers. While the regular washing of hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is also a notable way of protecting one against Covid-19, hand sanitisers are convenient as one can always keep them on one’s person. Many places have hand sanitisers at their access points. This is a good practice and must be part of the new normal.

There are many establishments (such as some private hospitals and retail companies) that started with these practices, even though not compulsory, way before the pandemic. For employers, the provision of hand sanitisers should be part of their efforts to provide a safe and healthy working environment. This will surely increase the cost of doing business. However, safety and health should take precedence over profits.

Mask it when unwell

It should be standard practice for those with a touch of influenza or diseases that are similarly transmittable from one person to another to wear a mask in public. This should be done as a courtesy to one’s fellow human beings. It is common in Asia, particularly in China, for those who feel under the weather to put a mask on when they venture outside.

Most importantly, sick employees should take sick leave when they don’t feel well. While it is common for employers to dismiss employees for missing work, Covid-19 has demonstrated that employees who tested positive for the virus could instead be dismissed for showing up at work. Employers should sternly deal with employees who intentionally come to work while afflicted with (easily) transmittable diseases such as influenza and common colds. The legally prescribed processes must be followed.

Just wave or say hi!

We should be used to not shaking hands by now. Some commentators are bold enough to opine that Covid-19 has killed the good old handshake. Probably by fist and elbow bumps. Do we then continue with the elbow and or fist bumps? While these forms of greetings may be more hygienic, it does not mean they are safe. For example, it is encouraged that an elbow should be used to cover the mouth when sneezing or coughing to avoid spreading the virus. Yet, the same elbow is or supposed to be used as an alternative to a handshake. This does not make sense. It seems that just saying hello, waving or both should be good enough in the new normal. Those who believe in the power of the handshake, especially in business, are probably fuming by now.

A handshake is commonly perceived to be formal while the elbow and fist bumps are considered informal. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that some of these practices should and are bound to evolve or, depending on the time and context, disappear.

For example, there is a time and place in history where men took an oath or vowed by clutching their privates or those of whoever was administering the oath or whoever they were vowing something to. It must have been normal then. However, in a contemporary world, such a degenerate gesture is deplorable and will certainly be met with great fury if directed at a rational individual.

Whether reference should be made to “post-Covid” or “new normal” is a matter of academic interest. One thing is clear: we must adapt and change our ways. The sooner we do that the better. This will stand us in good stead in dealing with future pandemics, especially when one notes the widespread contention that those pandemics will be more severe and frequent. DM

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