Sales staff from a travel agency wait for customers at a travel expo in Bangkok, Thailand, this week. Picture: EPA-EFE
Sales staff from a travel agency wait for customers at a travel expo in Bangkok, Thailand, this week. Picture: EPA-EFE

Coronavirus - not something to be ‘sneezed at’

By Kevin Ritchie Time of article published Mar 7, 2020

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Plagues and pestilence are no laughing matter - they’re certainly not to be sneezed at - but it’s difficult not to wonder if there isn’t just a hint of hysterical giddiness (and hypocrisy) about the coronavirus sweeping the globe.

That is, everywhere but here - where the Department of Health tells us we’ve got nothing to worry about.

Leave it to the trolls, in the nether reaches of the Twittersphere, to remind us that our combination of a compromised public health care system, and a public with a compromised health, left us vulnerable to being taken out by something as innocuous as polony, two years ago.

The world, though, has survived a variety of super bugs - from bird flu, swine flu, Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) - both before and after the Rogue Unit, Mers (Middle East respiratory syndrome), Ebola from sub-Saharan Africa and Zika from mosquitoes in Brazil.

Many of these have gone on to spawn horror movies but, thankfully, we keep on emerging relatively unscathed; it just seems to be the hype that increases unabated.

Many are correctly bemoaning this - more people have died in South Africa from interpersonal violence or in road accidents, since December, than the number from the coronavirus.

HIV and Aids are no longer regarded as a death sentence in this country, thanks to the incredible efforts that have been put in through private public partnerships over the past 25 years, but rather as a manageable chronic disease. Yet, in 2018, according to Statistics SA, 115 167 South Africans alone died - 22% of all our recorded deaths that year - from Aids related deaths. Thirteen years before, the death toll was almost triple that, at 289 833.

In comparison, by late this week, the global death toll from the coronavirus stood at 3 286. There had been 95 483 cases worldwide, of which 53 688 people had fully recovered, while 38 509 were currently infected.

Shelves in shops, in countries like Britain and Australia, have been stripped bare by citizens’ panic - buying whatever tinned food they can lay their hands on to “self-isolate”; Italy has closed all its schools in a bid to isolate the virus.

In other countries, if someone who even looks remotely Chinese coughs in a crowded place, the venue empties faster than FNB Stadium after a rugby Test. Here at home, as cartoonist Zapiro suggested this week, Jacob Zuma might self-isolate for the foreseeable duration of his corruption trial.

Across the world, people have become so paranoid about contact transmission that they aren’t even shaking hands.

In the north, hypochondriacs - hiding behind surgical masks - show their naked racism by wondering why we in Africa haven’t been hit by a rash of infections yet.

In the meantime, the only

advice the medics can give is to wash your hands thoroughly or, as one wag put it, borrowing from Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Wash your hands like you’ve just convinced your husband to murder the true King of Scotland!”

Shouldn’t we be doing that already, flu or no flu? While we’re at it, we can stop killing animals that we shouldn’t be eating in the first place, like pangolins - or rhinos.

* Kevin Ritchie is a journalist and a former newspaper editor.

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