Impact of the Covid-19 epidemic and related social distancing regulations on social contact and SARS-CoV-2 transmission potential in rural South Africa: analysis of repeated cross-sectional surveys

BMC Infect Dis. 2021 Sep 8;21(1):928. doi: 10.1186/s12879-021-06604-8.


Background: South Africa implemented rapid and strict physical distancing regulations to minimize SARS-CoV-2 epidemic spread. Evidence on the impact of such measures on interpersonal contact in rural and lower-income settings is limited.

Methods: We compared population-representative social contact surveys conducted in the same rural KwaZulu-Natal location once in 2019 and twice in mid-2020. Respondents reported characteristics of physical and conversational ('close interaction') contacts over 24 hours. We built age-mixing matrices and estimated the proportional change in the SARS-CoV-2 reproduction number (R0). Respondents also reported counts of others present at locations visited and transport used, from which we evaluated change in potential exposure to airborne infection due to shared indoor space ('shared air').

Results: Respondents in March-December 2019 (n = 1704) reported a mean of 7.4 close interaction contacts and 196 shared air person-hours beyond their homes. Respondents in June-July 2020 (n = 216), as the epidemic peaked locally, reported 4.1 close interaction contacts and 21 shared air person-hours outside their home, with significant declines in others' homes and public spaces. Adults aged over 50 had fewer close contacts with others over 50, but little change in contact with 15-29 year olds, reflecting ongoing contact within multigenerational households. We estimate potential R0 fell by 42% (95% plausible range 14-59%) between 2019 and June-July 2020.

Conclusions: Extra-household social contact fell substantially following imposition of Covid-19 distancing regulations in rural South Africa. Ongoing contact within intergenerational households highlighted a potential limitation of social distancing measures in protecting older adults.

Keywords: COVID-19; Contact survey; Indoor; Reproduction number; Social contacts.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • COVID-19*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Epidemics*
  • Humans
  • Physical Distancing
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • South Africa / epidemiology