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A message to South Africans from the epicentre of the coronavirus crisis

Published Mar 23, 2020


South African born and bred, Dr Amy Kenyon did her undergraduate degrees at Rhodes University before completing a PhD in Immunology at the University of Oxford. She now works as an immunologist in Northern Italy, the epicentre of the current Covid-19 crisis. She writes: “This in no way makes me an expert on the virus that in a matter of months has changed our lives forever, but I would like to share my experience with you.”

I live in the metropolitan centre of Italy, Milan. Usually buzzing with tourists and locals, the city under strict lockdown has fallen quiet.

Today is the 23rd of March. It is currently 12:00 am which means that I have heard about 11 ambulances going past my apartment just this morning.

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On Saturday, 793 deaths were reported in Italy alone.

Three weeks ago, we were still discussing how many people are killed by flu annually and that the cases in Italy just looked bad because Italy was testing more people. What was I thinking!?

On the 8th of March, only two weeks ago, lockdown was enforced in Lombardia, a region in the North of Italy, that has been hit the worst.

The result was hundreds of Italians fleeing to their families in other parts of the country and in some cases taking the virus with them. It is easy to judge in retrospect, but fear and panic make us as humans do strange things.

Local hospitals, a number of which now only take Covid-19 cases, are completely overwhelmed.

Many victims will never return home, their families will never see them again. Family members receive a call saying that their loved one has passed away, sometimes hours or days later. They do not get to pay their last respects. They too are in quarantine.

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In Northern Italy, the mortuaries and crematoriums cannot cope with the sheer volume of bodies and some are transported to other cities. 

This is a text message that I received from an Italian colleague and friend: "The aunt of my mother died on Thursday from covid 19, she died after 12h in the hospital and the hospital made a mistake and they didn't say anything to us until mid-morning of the day after (she died the day before at 2:30 pm and we knew it at 12 pm of the day after). It was a really bad day, and also a bad weekend. Also my grandmother is dying (not for Covid I think, but I'm not super sure), and she is alone in that place for old people and no one can go there. My mother is really sad and I'm here. I was strong until that, now I'm a bit shaken and shocked by everything."

All over the world governments are enforcing strict measures (or in some cases not) to try and protect their citizens from this silent killer.

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Amongst all the tragedy, there are some stories of "success". In China, draconian lockdown measures with guards on every corner meant that in a country with a population of 1.3 billion people, at the time of writing this letter, only 81 093 cases and 3 270 deaths were reported.

South Korea, where lessons were learnt from the 2003 SARS epidemic, implemented early extensive testing and quarantine measures that were effective in reducing the spread and mortality rate.

Thousands of South Koreans were tested in drive-through testing stations. As of the 23rd of March, Germany had reported 26 198 cases and 111 deaths.

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German laboratories are said to be conducting ~160 000 tests a week.

What will the South African story be?

My fear, and the fear of many, is that the story will be one of blatant inequality. And yet, I know as South Africans we can pull together as we have before (easy to say from my desk in Italy).

I see posts on Facebook,"you have the opportunity to save the entire human race by staying home and doing nothing". If you live in Europe, this may be true.

But as we all know, South Africa does not have the social infrastructure, healthcare system or economy for this to be sufficient. And so the question I ask is "What can we as South Africans do?"

We can’t act when the hospitals are already overwhelmed. We can’t act when people can’t self isolate because that means their families starve. We have to act today.

So I implore each and every one of you to think what your contribution can be. Maybe you can help set up drive-through testing stations. Maybe your contribution can be financial.

Maybe you have lab experience and can carry out testing. Maybe you have an Aibnb/B&B/hotel and can offer rooms to doctors and nurses who will inevitably need to be quarantined away from their families.

Are you a business owner/CEO – set up the infrastructure today for your employees to work safely from home.

Please, don't travel within South Africa.

Are you a student? Can you safely and responsibly do grocery shopping for the elderly that live in your area? Can you/your business donate tests, medical supplies, respirators and I hate to say it, generators to those in need?

Let South Africa be the country that turned self-isolation into selfless-isolation.

Dr Amy Kenyon


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