File picture: IANS
File picture: IANS

SA urgently needs emergency measures to contain Covid-19

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Mar 20, 2020

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In order for South Africa to “get ahead of the epidemic”, the government was absolutely correct to close schools and impose a travel ban on foreign nationals from the worst affected countries. But we need to move to the next phase, and fast. South Africans are still congregating in restaurants, shops, parties and at church services, in the misguided belief that Covid-19 won’t come to them. 

The day after President Ramaphosa declared a State of National Disaster and stipulated that people should not gather in groups of more than 100, I witnessed a line up to pay in Makro of no less than 200 people before I promptly walked out. 

This is precisely what happened in Italy and Spain before the Coronavirus spiralled out of control. In Italy the death toll has now reached 3 405, exceeding that of China. Last Wednesday (10 days ago) Spain had 1 235 infections, almost double that of the US. Three days later the number had risen to 5 757 - making it the second worst hit country after Italy - and forced the government to declare a national State of Emergency. Since then the number has been increasing by more than 1500 new infections a day, so that by Thursday this week the total stood at 17 149. This type of exponential increase in Spain, Italy and the UK is why the Archbishop of Canterbury has described the outbreak as being like a nuclear explosion.

While we have taken brave measures this week, we do not have the luxury of time to wait before taking a second raft of measures in order to clamp down hard before the virus wreaks havoc in our informal settlements. 

China is the only country whose approach in curbing the spread of the virus has proved successful. As of yesterday, China reported no new cases, and the last 34 new cases had all been from people who had come to China from elsewhere. How did they do it? In addition to closing schools they closed workplaces, imposed travel restrictions on much of the population which was enforced by deploying the army, and in the worst affected province of Hubei the population was put under strict lockdown. 

If we want to beat this epidemic we will have to accept that our government needs to take the same measures before it is too late, and we become victims of the type of explosion we are seeing in Europe. The situation is now so dire in Madrid that those who are found outside their homes face fines of 30 000 euros.

This is not an epidemic that will likely be curbed by the middle of April, not here and not elsewhere. A friend who is a lecturer at Cambridge in the UK says that the University is preparing to close until January next year, at which time it is hoped there may be a vaccine which could be disseminated. 

As scientists race against time to come up with a vaccine, it is interesting to note that among the 30 medicines the Chinese National Health Commission selected to fight the virus was the Cuban anti-viral drug Interferon Alpha 2b, which is believed to have effectively cured more than 1500 patients from the Coronavirus. The drug was developed by both Cuba and China in a joint venture. 

Cuba has sent a team of doctors and supplies of Interferon B to Italy where it is working alongside Chinese experts to help combat and contain the outbreak. Cuba has now developed 22 drugs that are set to be used to contain the outbreak. Given our exceptionally strong relations and solidarity with Cuba, it would be worth securing a supply of Interferon B from Cuba to be used to combat the virus in South Africa if the government hasn’t already done so. It would also be useful to invite a team of Cuban experts here to start to work with the Department of Health as they are doing in Italy, as part of our efforts to get ahead of the epidemic. BioCubaFarma, which produces the drug, has been supplying it to many countries that have realised its effectiveness. Nehawu has called on our government to procure the drug from the Cuban government as soon as possible. 

The other issue that needs to be addressed urgently is the lack of ventilators in the country. According to one of the doctors at Zuid Afrikaans hospital, considered one of the top private hospitals in Pretoria, they only have 12 ventilators, and other top private hospitals in the city have less than 20. This suggests a serious shortage considering that ventilators make the difference between life and death for those critically ill with the virus, as they help patients to breathe who cannot breathe on their own. 

The US and the UK have moved into high gear given their own shortage of ventilators and are now asking their car manufacturers to start making ventilators. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has approached Rolls Royce, JCB and Unipart to start making ventilators. The UK only has 5,000 ventilators, which means many critically ill patients will not be able to be treated. The US currently has 160 000 ventilators which is wholly insufficient given the size of their population. 

It is unknown how many ventilators South Africa has, but it is something we should urgently ask China to assist us in procuring now that China has stopped seeing new cases of the virus emerging.

The speed and scope of transmitting and spreading the virus is beyond people’s imagination. All we can do is to take the necessary draconian measures until we see no new cases emerging, or a vaccine is found.  

* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor.

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