'Stay home and be united,' says Dr Iqbal Survé

Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Photographer: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Apr 1, 2020


CAPE TOWN - An unseen and invisible enemy has brought about a profound change in the way we humans view what we call life.

In our usual world, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, culture, religion, wealth or poverty status, and even age are often used to discriminate against people who are different from us. This is even more prevalent since the dawning of the “follow-me” era of social media, where people follow those with similar likes and interests, eschewing those who don’t fit the bill.

But, in a world dominated by Covid-19, there is no place for our foibles because Covid-19 does not discriminate. Having crossed from animals into humans, Covid-19 sees no differences and needs no one to follow it, but it will surely follow YOU.

A previously unknown betacoronavirus (hCoV-19), Covid-19 was first detected in China and reported on in December. It is a virus that attacks the respiratory system in humans and has been linked to bats and pangolins. Experts confirm the virus is not a living organism.

“It is a protein molecule (DNA) covered by a lipid (fat) protective layer, which, when absorbed by the cells of the ocular, nasal or buccal mucosa, changes its genetic code (mutation), and it turns into aggressor and multiplier of cells.” (Johns Hopkins University).

At the time of writing, there are well over half a million people across the world who have been infected with the disease. Data modelling suggests we might well hit the million mark soon. This is just the beginning.

The lockdown South Africans and many other nations across the world are undergoing is vital to stem the rapid spread of the disease. It is not going to eradicate it but rather slow it down to allow science to better understand it and develop the tools to fight it and give healthcare systems an opportunity to deal with the casualties.

As frightening as the reality is and should be - for all of us - there are a number of silver linings to this dark cloud. One is the level of collaboration and innovation we are seeing across the world - whether this is to find solutions to this coronavirus or people and businesses coming together to help each other in our human hour of need. Another is cessation of hostilities between warring parties across the globe. Long may the peace last!

The planet is appreciating a pollution ceasefire too with the closing down of many industries, giving our Earth an opportunity to recover a little. Perhaps it also gives us the chance to consider the effect we, as humans, have on this Earth a little more deeply and to alter our behaviours in a post-Covid-19 world. At least, I hope so.

That could be a while because our understanding of the coronavirus is evolving. But there is hope: hCoV-19 data from GISAID exclusively enables real-time analyses tools such as CoVSurver or NextCoV for scientists and researchers to get the best information about how to combat the pandemic.

Much of the containment measures we are implementing are modelled on China’s stringent and effective prevention and control plan.

The Chinese government, by placing a high priority on the prevention and control of the Covid-19 outbreak interrupted the chains of transmission of the virus, nationwide.

What made this so effective were stringent measures that were context-specific and dependent on the infection rate in each area.

What we have all come to know as “social distancing” and quarantining were implemented at grass-roots level. Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, and neighbouring cities in the Hubei province, were shut down and 50 million people have been under mandatory quarantine since January 23.

China also made use of technology like artificial intelligence, which they deployed to trace those who had come into contact with infected persons.

Cellphone apps such as WeChat and Alipay were successful at allowing the government to track and stop confirmed infections from travelling. Colour codes on cellphones, much like that of a traffic light, allowed guards to allow or deny entry into train stations and other checkpoints.

Israel too has seen excellent results from its government’s mandatory tracking of all citizens.

The potential strain on the health-care system was also controlled by the government making a number of crucial decisions.

First, healthcare workers from across the country were mobilised and sent to outbreak centres.

Second, the government reportedly built two hospitals dedicated to Covid-19 cases in just over a week in Wuhan. This bold and rapid response to a crisis ensured that the general healthcare system was not overburdened, and resources were accessible to those who required it the most.

South Africa needs this same approach if it is to have a hope of containing the disease. The same can be said of Africa as a whole.

What we need now is true unity. United in our vision for a Covid-19-free world. That means adapting our behaviour to follow the rules set down for our safety - stay at home. Continue contributions to funds and donation portals to mitigate the loss of income and provide for those who have nothing. Look after our animals and our environments. Everyone in this country is our collective responsibility.

We also require the government to act decisively, waive the red tape and get the job done.

More information on the spread of Covid-19 can be found through the GISAID Initiative, a private-public organisation that promotes the international sharing of all flu virus sequences-related clinical and epidemiological data associated with human viruses from across the world.

It uses Big Data analytics (among other tools) to analyse copious amounts of real-time information for scientists to better understand the behaviours of viruses like Covid-19.

* Dr Iqbal Survé is the executive chairman of Sekunjalo and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Global Influenza Surveillance Initiative (GISAID)

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