Is the spread of Covid-19 in the Western Cape because we're a bunch of slackers?

We’ve all been watching with horror as Covid-19 runs rampant worldwide. In South Africa, there has been particular concern about the rapid spread in the Western Cape, where more than half the current confirmed cases have been reported.

Pundits wax lyrical with pet theories, but a favourite (at least among those outside the province) is that people from the Cape are slackers and haven’t been taking the lockdown and social distancing rules very seriously.

It was thus with great interest that I learned from the most recent NakedData newsletter that Google have released Community Mobility Report data, based on anonymized location information from personal devices. I thought I’d spend my lunch time whether people from the Western Cape are slackers relative to the rest of the provinces.

Follow the link for more info on the data. Suffice to say that they’re not perfect, but they’re useful. The data are broken down by country and subregion (province in the case of South Africa), and chart movement trends across different categories of places as percentage change relative to a baseline for each day of the week derived from the period 3rd January to 6th Feb, 2020. Note that the data only go to 29th May, so I’ll hav to update this post as new data come out. Categories include retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential.

Here I plot each category split by province. Hover over the graph to see values by province for particular dates and play with the sliders underneath each graph to select specific date ranges.

Residential areas

As you’d expect. We’re all spending a lot more time at home, with big increases since the declaration of a state of disaster and then full lockdown (level 5), and a smaller decrease with a lowering to alert level 4. No major differences, other than the Gauteng (but then we all know they’re slackers anyway). You’ll also notice there’s something weird going on with weekends, but I think this has to do with Google using rolling averaged.


Aha! Seems like folks from the Western Cape are the best in the country at avoiding work - especially when told to!

Retail and recreation areas

Again, Western Cape shows the biggest dip in activity in retail and recreation areas.

Transit stations

Ditto for transit stations…

Grocery stores and pharmacies

And grocery stores and pharmacies!


We’re even avoiding the parks!

While there are a lot of ifs and buts about the data, and the data don’t really allow interrogation of interactions when people are in close proximity (i.e. adherence to social distancing), people from the Western Cape seem to be taking the lockdown very seriously. More so than the rest of the country it turns out. I think residents from other provinces should take this as a warning against complacency!

It seems like we may need to explore some of the other hypotheses behind the higher number and rate of confirmed infections in the Western Cape. Some of these being:

  • Testing rates and strategy
  • Greater numbers of introductions due to tourism
  • Rainfall/humidity seasonality
  • Zol
  • Etc

As to whether people from the Western Cape are slackers, the jury is still out. All I can say is we’re very good at avoiding work when we’re told to ;P

Jasper Slingsby Written by:

An ecologist working on global change in terrestrial ecosystems.

comments powered by Disqus