SA COVID-19 response is exemplary

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

South Africa, together with the rest of the African continent, has handled the COVID-19 pandemic well, given the circumstances that the world finds itself under.

“I think we’ve handled it well. Much more proactively than other countries. I think Africa as a whole, what has been apparent is a significant amount of coordination among African countries early on,” said Chief Executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) Elizabeth Sidiropoulos.

Speaking to SAnews, Sidiropoulos said the African continent has taken lessons learnt from other countries in dealing with the pandemic that has grappled the world.

“I think both South Africa and Africa have taken the lessons learnt from other countries and responded with seriousness...which has not been the case in a number of other countries,” she said.

She said that as far back as February 2020, African Ministers representing health had come together to chart a way forward to address the pandemic that has killed many across the world. Recently African Union Chairperson (AU) Cyril Ramaphosa convened a second teleconference meeting of the AU Bureau.

In responding to the pandemic, many countries had fallen victim to what Sidiropoulos refers to as “mixed messaging” and a lack of coordination.

“One of the most important things when dealing with pandemics is that there has to be a sense of public trust. Citizens have to trust that the government actually knows what it’s doing.  That has not been the case in other countries,” she said.

In her view, the response to the pandemic in some countries has been politicised.

“I think it has been politicised and we have done less of that in our case,” she said.

South Africa’s first case of COVID-19 was reported on 5 March 2020, when a KwaZulu-Natal man came back home after travelling abroad.

In an ever-fluid environment, where the number of confirmed cases is a state of change, the country’s confirmed cases of the virus have surpassed the 1700 mark.

Sidiropoulos has commended government’s efforts to curb the spread of the disease, including the implementation of a 21-day national lockdown that started at midnight on 26 March 2020.

Also commending efforts put in place to stop the spread of the virus, is Dean of the University of KwaZulu-Natal's School of Nursing and Public Health, Professor Mosa Moshabela.

“Firstly I must commend government for instituting the lockdown so early. We saw initially when the National Disaster was declared that people were still confused and did not really cooperate with it in that first week. For government to move to what I consider a 'heavy duty lockdown' which is considered to be one of the strictest lockdowns, in the world, was really a swift, rapid response with purpose,” he told SAnews. 

Moshabela’s comments come as the lockdown approaches the halfway mark.

Over the course of the lockdown, South Africa, he said has seen better government coordination in the way that the various Ministers have addressed regulations put in place to deal with the virus.

“On the health systems side, we have seen a lot of preparation. The Minister of Health will always emphasise the need to increase capacity for laboratory testing, wanting up to 36 000 tests a day. On top of that, add the relaxation of testing criteria to make sure that there is mass screening of the population.  You can see that the Department of Health, the Ministry is using the time to put things in place which we might not have had the time to do, had we not had the lockdown.”

Moshabela is of the view that citizens are taking the lockdown seriously.

“People are now beginning to say that if government has to respond like this, then maybe we need to do what we’re being asked to do,” he said.

He also expressed concern about the peddling of fake news around the pandemic, an issue which government has moved to address.

This week a 55-year-old man was arrested for allegedly circulating a misleading video clip on COVID-19 test kits.

The man has since appeared in court in the Western Cape.

“What I was real happy about was when we started to see arrests of those who were peddling misinformation because people were falling victim to this misinformation. The lockdown has really done us good,” he said.

While South Africans have been asked to heed the directive of the lockdown by staying at home and practising social distancing among other things, one may wonder about the state of mind of health practitioners at this time as essential service workers are expected to remain with their stethoscopes firmly around their necks.

“I think I would characterise the health practitioner’s state of mind as anxiety. It was worse at the beginning of the lockdown and I feel like it’s subsiding a little bit at the moment as people come to terms with things,” said the Professor.

As the country deals with this first lockdown since the advent of democracy, there has been increasing reports of health workers contracting the disease.

“Our health workers are warriors. They have fought through many things in the history of our health system and they are prepared to fight COVID-19. All they are asking for is personal protective equipment [PPEs] which is appropriate for the task at hand.”

As many South Africans have found creative ways of staying sane while at home, according to the Professor, there is a feeling of uncertainty. This uncertainty is around one’s mortality, according to him.

“You feel helpless when you have to think about not knowing what’s going to come next. You then have to grapple with the fact that you’re not invincible and that you’re vulnerable as well, when you see people getting infected.

“I do think there’s a lot of uncertainty, but I think that what has helped is the good communication from the President [Cyril Ramaphosa] and Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, as well as other Ministers, in terms of updating people. It helps in that people are not completely lost; they see what is going on,” he said.

While South Africans have come up with creative ways, which can be seen across various platforms to stay sane, the country is working to address the socio-economic distress that citizens are facing.

This includes a 1.2 billion COVID-19 disaster fund intervention in the agricultural sector, as a response to assist small-scale farmers.

Recently, Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister, Thoko Didiza, announced the details of how the funding will work.

 “A threat to the success of efforts being made is that people are feeling unrelenting socio-econmic pressure. For some that is as basic as being hungry because they depend on daily wages. People are losing income while others are facing pay cuts. These are threats.  These contribute to the problem of psychological distress,” said Prof Moshabela.

He said there is a need for a coordinated, cohesive response to the socio-economic and psychological distress that people are experiencing.

What the country is also in need of is behavioural interventions. This he says is as a result of the previous focus having being placed on medical intervention.

The fight against COVID-19 also requires behavioural change from citizens.

“You can cut off cigarettes and alcohol but if you don’t put in place measures to help people deal with their need to take alcohol and cigarettes, you’re not helping them in the long run,” he said, citing an example.

While citizens can shop for essentials during the lockdown, the sale of alcohol and cigarettes has been prohibited until the end of the lockdown, which is scheduled until midnight, 16 April 2020.

On whether government will extend the lockdown post 16 April, the Professor said South Africa could become a victim of its success.

“My view is that when we look at how we are doing so far, the President has mentioned that they will look at the evidence of performance [during the lockdown]. So far, in as much as there are challenges, including the fact that we are not testing everyone yet; we don’t really know the true figure of what the burden is. Based on the numbers it looks like we are doing well.

“The problem with doing well is that you are actually flattening the curve and when you flatten the curve the problem of COVID-19 is going to remain low for much longer. When you become a victim of your own success, it means that you have to be subjected to an extended lockdown because you are doing well at keeping the figures low,” he said.

However, the professor warned that citizens could suffer from “lockdown fatigue”.

“Our lockdown is so stringent that it is going to cause a lot of fatigue in the population and people might then defy it. Government has to think about what is the safe way to proceed without letting the foot off the gas, for lack of a better expression.”

Sidiropoulos had similar views, adding that how governments respond, is crucial to saving lives. Countries like Italy and Spain, she said had extended their lockdowns given the exponential growth in confirmed cases.

“They had no choice. My sense would be just by looking at the pandemic and how easily it spreads and the figures that we have, should not make us feel complacent about getting on top of this. It would probably be the wise route to extend it,” she said.

However, the extension of the lockdown would have consequences for the South African economy.

“The trade-off relates to the economic consequences which are already dire. You also don’t want a situation where you relax, and the virus spreads like wildfire,” she said.

South Africa has also recently repatriated foreign nationals who wish to return to their respective home countries as the virus spreads.

“It’s an issue that all countries have been facing and all countries have been involved in with their own nationals or to work together with other countries. I think that’s to be understood and I think the government here would have indicated that if people are coming back, they would be put into quarantine for a period of time to make sure that they are not infected. Certainly, we did that with South African citizens from Wuhan, China. Everything that was possible for them to be done was done to ensure limited possibility for infection,” she said.

Both experts expressed pride at how South Africa, during these pressing times, had come out in support of one another. This as those who have, have continued to donate to those who have very little or nothing.

In a time of unprecedented change, South Africa’s principle of “Ubuntu” continues to shine. -