South Africa goes from cracking 'corona' jokes to tension, confusion and fear

2020-03-18 22:22

Despite all the warnings, Mama Pinda and Mama Thando decided to go to church.

Dressed in skirts and colourful head wraps, the two ladies in their late thirties met on Monday evening to walk to their church service in Troyeville, Johannesburg.

Now more than ever, they felt the urge to pray.

"People are scared," said Mama Pinda, as she hurried up the hill.

"We are chasing the coronavirus away in our prayer," she added with a laugh.

Mama Pinda and her friend, who brought her toddler along, stubbornly tried to defy appeals to avoid crowded spaces amid a general atmosphere of hesitation in the streets that followed the announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa of a series of drastic measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

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'Very, very worrying'

By Wednesday, South Africa had 116 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and no deaths.

Despite the relatively low numbers, one of the main worries is what will happen once the virus reaches the crowded inner cities and townships.

"We must alert all South Africans that the internal transmission risk is now settling in," Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said in a statement on Tuesday. "Once this infection starts spreading in taxis and buses, it will create a new dynamic."

Covid-19 infects people of all ages, but evidence to date suggests that older adults and those with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk of becoming severely ill.

In South Africa, about 9% of the population is 60 years or older, while the situation is complicated by the country's dual burden of HIV and tuberculosis.

"We have seven million people who are HIV-positive, and two million are not on treatment," said Professor Susan Goldstein, a health specialist and deputy director of the Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science.

"That is very, very worrying."

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Due to the disparate societal and demographic structure of South Africa, there is growing uncertainty about what may happen if the coronavirus is not contained.

"We also don't know how it plays out in very poor areas, where there aren't places for quarantine and bed-sharing is not possible," added Goldstein, who holds some hope that the strong private health sector may open to everyone.

"Then we may have enough beds. That is what the National Health Insurance is currently trying to achieve."

Dilapidated public health system

More than 25 years after the fall of apartheid, South Africa is still one of the most unequal countries in the world, which translates into the failure of delivering basic services to its people, including health care. 

Eighty-two percent of people living in South Africa have no health insurance and rely on public clinics and hospitals. These facilities are overcrowded and understaffed, and often fall short of coping with the high amount of communicable and infectious diseases.

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Health professionals agree that only a drastic public health response can prevent the virus from spreading at a fast pace, warning that societal factors such as a lack of access to information and a lack of a sense of empowerment - people often do not know where to seek help or what they can do to protect themselves - complicate the fight to contain Covid-19.

Compounding the challenging situation is the country's high unemployment rate of 29.1%.

Spread of rumours

Meanwhile, in the streets of Johannesburg, the mood has shifted from cracking "corona" jokes to general tension and confusion.

In Bertrams, a low-income neighbourhood just east of Johannesburg's inner city, people started moving into the local supermarkets to equip themselves for what was coming. Shops and other places frequented by the public intensified hygienic controls. Some started wearing face masks.


At the entrance of a local supermarket, two ladies sprayed everyone's hands in an attempt to limit germs; all employees wore blue single-use gloves; and the managers covered their mouths with masks.

"It's serious," the security guard at the entrance said, laughing timidly.

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Having believed a rumour that Covid-19 comes from eating meat, some people think they have to change their diets. On his way out of a local corner shop, a man proudly held up his plastic bag and announced that he is now buying fish. "Nyama [meat] gives you corona," he said.

False information shared in WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms perpetuate the confusion. "A Palestinian scientist has found the vaccine against corona" is one message circulating in the community groups. Another one reads: "Corona can be cured by boiling eight tablespoons of garlic and six cups of water."

Information was an important factor to contain the virus, said Professor Mosa Moshabela from the School of Nursing and Public Health at the University of Kwazulu Natal.

The university will remain shut as of Wednesday. On this last day, Moshabela called a meeting in the boardroom to inform the people about the reasons behind the measures that have been taken.

"We don't have the basics," he said, referring to the need for people to understand why shaking hands, giving hugs or going to gatherings is not acceptable any more.

But even when information is accessible, there is denial.

"There is tension with religion, there is tension with economy. But on the other hand, if we carry on as if it was nothing, some of us won't have a life at all."

Read more on:    coronavirus  |  health

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