Protective behaviours and secondary harms from non-pharmaceutical interventions during the COVID-19 epidemic in South Africa: a multisite prospective longitudinal study

medRxiv. 2020 Nov 15;2020.11.12.20230136. doi: 10.1101/2020.11.12.20230136. Preprint


Background: In March 2020 South Africa implemented strict non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to contain Covid-19. Over the subsequent five months NPIs were eased in stages according to national strategy. Covid-19 spread throughout the country heterogeneously, reaching rural areas by July and peaking in July-August. Data on the impact of NPI policies on social and economic wellbeing and access to healthcare is limited. We therefore analysed how rural residents of three South African provinces changed their behaviour during the first epidemic wave.

Methods: The South African Population Research Infrastructure Network (SAPRIN) nodes in Mpumalanga (Agincourt), KwaZulu-Natal (AHRI) and Limpopo (DIMAMO) provinces conducted longitudinal telephone surveys among randomly sampled households from rural and peri-urban surveillance populations every 2-3 weeks. Interviews included questions on: Covid-19 knowledge and behaviours; health and economic impact of NPIs; and mental health.

Results: 2262 households completed 10,966 interviews between April and August 2020. By August, self-reported satisfaction with Covid-19 knowledge had risen from 48% to 85% and facemask use to over 95%. As selected NPIs were eased mobility increased, and economic losses and anxiety and depression symptoms fell. When Covid-19 cases spiked at one node in July, movement dropped rapidly, and missed daily medication rates doubled. Economic concerns and mental health symptoms were lower in households receiving a greater number of government-funded old-age pensions.

Conclusions: South Africans reported complying with stringent Covid-19 NPIs despite the threat of substantial social, economic and health repercussions. Government-supported social welfare programmes appeared to buffer interruptions in income and healthcare access during local outbreaks. Epidemic control policies must be balanced against impacts on wellbeing in resource-limited settings and designed with parallel support systems where they threaten income and basic service access.

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