File picture: African News Agency (ANA)
File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

SANDF gearing up for the Covid-19 worst

By Mzilikazi Wa Afrika and Karabo Ngoepe Time of article published May 17, 2020

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Johannesburg – The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) is setting up four field hospitals to the tune of almost R50 million as part of what the government believes will be a devastating impact of Covid-19 when the country reaches its expected peak period in August.

The army, which ordered all its staff back to work on May 1, is also planning to convert 2010 Soccer World Cup stadiums into countrywide field hospitals after being warned to “expect the worst”.

These plans are contained in an SANDF document, marked Summary of Operation Notlela V1 and has been seen by the Sunday Independent, which reveals that the army’s Covid-19 disaster management budget estimated the cost of the four field hospitals to be R48 544 304.28.

While the spreadsheet does not name possible venues, a senior SANDF official said FNB Stadium in Johannesburg and Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban were among the four venues.

“We will start with the four field hospitals for now but we are looking at establishing 55 across the country should the coronavirus pandemic deteriorate. For now we will start with FNB and Moses Mabhida stadiums and take it from there,” he said.

Spokesperson Colonel Louis Kirstein confirmed there was “nothing new or out of the ordinary in the setting up of field hospitals and other temporary health facilities throughout the country during this period.”

“Field hospitals have been part of the plan to augment health facilities and quarantine sites as the spread of the virus continues to rise. Various sites in different provinces, including stadiums but not limited to that, have been identified for this purpose,” he said.

Kirstein couldn’t confirm or deny that the SANDF has budgeted R48.5m for the field hospitals.

“There is a budget for the field hospitals as well as for any other facility or requirement,” he said.

Siphiwe Dlamini, spokesperson for Defence Minister Nosiviwe Maphisa- Nqakula, said the recalling of soldiers was in line with the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) circular 18 of 2020.

“The DOD (Department of Defence) has issued an instruction recalling staff members as of 1 May 2020. The expected return of identified employees will be done in a staggered and phased-in manner as determined by the head of every service or division in accordance with the DPSA guidelines,“ Dlamini said.

Two weeks ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa warned the country that “the worst is still coming”.

“We’ve got to plan for the worst. We are informed that the worst is still coming. We are going to get more people infected.

“The important thing is that we need to show that we lessen the pace at which these infections take place,” Ramaphosa said, while addressing the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Command Council in Durban two weeks ago.

The president has deployed more than 73000 soldiers in addition to the initial 2820 army personnel that were sent out to help the police enforce lockdown regulations. The SANDF has budgeted R4.6 billion for the operation.

A source within the Department of Defence said there were preparations in the background for the army to take over should the need arise.

“We are currently on standby for things to get worse. The relaxation of the regulations is expected to have grave consequences.

“Just look at the number of cases lately, they are above 250 per day. We are heading in the direction of Italy, and when that happens, we will see a full state of emergency with soldiers being given the ultimate power,” said the source.

One of the managers of Moses Mabhida Stadium confirmed an approach has been made by the government about plans to turn the stadium into a field hospital.

“We are in talks but I am not allowed to make any comment about the negotiations as they are being discussed at the command centre and eThekwini mayor’s office,” the source said.

Mluleki Mtungwa, spokesperson for Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, said the municipality would be guided by the provincial department of health on the possible way forward regarding the possibility of Moses Mabhida being a field hospital.

The country’s coronavirus cases increased by 785 to 13524 on Friday, with 247 deaths and 6083 recoveries. More than 421000 tests have been conducted countrywide.

Western Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape are the worst-affected provinces.

The same senior SANDF official said the government warned to expect the worst, comparing what happened in Italy and America, where the army were seen transporting bodies and burying them in mass graves.

“Experts are saying our outbreak would be like Italy and America because most people are either taking government warning for using masks, staying at home and social distancing for granted. In the townships around the country, it has been business as usual and once we have tested half of the population, we expect the number of infections and possible death to be alarming,” the official added.

Professor Shabir Madhi, a Wits University vaccinology expert, said South Africa’s Covid-19 peak was expected towards the end of August provided the regulations and measures were followed strictly.

However, if the public failed to adopt interventions, the peak would happen sooner.

“It all depends on how the citizens respond to what is requested of them to assist us in reducing the rate of transmission. The thing with the peak is two-fold - when it happens, and we want it to happen as late as possible so our hospitals can get better prepared by the time the surge comes,” he said.

Madhi said the nation needed to know and accept that people would be infected and the virus would be part of their lives for the next few years.

“That is exactly what a respiratory virus does, it infects people. It’s not like HIV that you can prevent yourself by staying away from someone who has it. Respiratory viruses are all open-air environments; they might be in the air while you’re walking because somebody coughed. We need to accept that people are going to get infected.

“This is not going to be a problem just for 2020. We will probably be peaking again the same time next year because we are going to continue having waves of the pandemic. It’s going to come and go for at least two to three years.”

Madhi added that between 50% and 80% of people who contracted Covid-19 would not know because they would be feeling well.

“In New York, as an example, about 25%-50% of the people have been infected. The majority did not know they were infected, they could only tell they were infected because they did a blood test which showed someone was infected in the past.

“Of the other 30% of people that are going to develop symptoms, the majority will have a mild self-limiting illness. They won’t need to go to the hospitals, they can take Panado and they will get well on their own.

“It’s about 5% of people that could end up in the hospital. Out of that, more than 80% of them are people with medical conditions, including people who are over the age of 65. In the younger group, if you have diabetes, cancer and hypertension, unfortunately, you’re also at an increased risk.

“Those people make the group of those who might actually die from the virus. People in the age groups of 18-55, there are very few people who might die because their body’s immune system is able to fight off the virus.”

The Sunday Independent

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