Preparations will most likely include travel bans, airport closures and limits on public gatherings, including over Easter
With the number of South Africans infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus climbing at a rapid rate, an emergency Cabinet meeting scheduled for today is expected to come up with measures to curb the spread of the global pandemic in the country.
Information gleaned from a high-level government document seen by City Press, as well as from interviews with senior officials, indicates that South Africa could follow the lead of some of the world’s most badly infected countries by imposing travel bans, instituting temporary closures of some airports and restricting public gatherings.
There are now 154 155 Covid-19 cases in 149 countries around the world. The pandemic has claimed 5 798 lives.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases announced yesterday that the number of infected South Africans had risen to 38, up from 24 three days ago and from zero 10 days ago.
Although the number is still low when compared with countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas, the fear is that the numbers could easily spike as infections can spread exponentially.
For instance, three weeks ago, Italy had only three known infections – by yesterday, the number had grown to more than 10 000. More than 1 000 people there have died from the virus.
SOUTH AFRICA’S BIG RISKS
The document seen by City Press showed that potential hot zones in South Africa were informal settlements, and the risk of infections rose when the large number of people travelling in overcrowded trains and minibus taxis every day was considered.
In the event of a large-scale outbreak, unprecedented pressure would be placed on the country’s ailing public healthcare system.
The document also suggested that, in terms of the global trend in fatalities, those with pre-existing health conditions and the elderly were more prone to succumbing to the virus.
The government report showed that China topped the list of countries that had been declared as high risk, followed by Italy, the UK, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea and Japan.
Between them, the high-risk areas have a total of 18 international airports.
Thermal screening, the preferred mode of testing for the virus in airports across the world, is also used at South Africa’s ports of entry.
Today’s high-level discussions mean that the country’s international airports in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town would have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Another option available was for airlines to cut the number of flights leaving and arriving.
An aviation insider said Emirates had four flights daily out of OR Tambo International Airport, “and they have decided that, for the short term, they will drop one flight per day and now they are running three flights”.
If the risk of the pandemic spreading increased, it was likely that the list of countries declared to be high risk would also rise, said a high-level source.
“We must also bear in mind that, apart from the current high risk, there are other hubs, including Heathrow in the UK and JFK in the US, where many passengers connect to other flights, so these can’t be precluded from any measures.”
THE EASTER CONUNDRUM
The SA Council of Churches (SACC) is today set to hold an urgent meeting with the Limpopo government to discuss upcoming Easter gatherings in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.
The SACC meeting is crucial because Limpopo hosts the biggest Easter gathering at the ZCC’s headquarters in Moria, outside Polokwane, every year.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and Limpopo Premier Stan Mathabatha have already met with the leader of the ZCC, Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane, to discuss the implications of Covid-19 on the annual gathering, which draws an estimated 3 million people to the area every year.
However, it appears the pilgrimage will continue as usual, with Mathabatha saying government would distribute 1 million pamphlets to the church to raise awareness.
Another church that attracts lots of people during the Easter period is the United African Apostolic Church.
Other evangelical churches are also due to host large Easter services in stadiums and indoor arenas across the country.
The SACC said today’s meeting would look at whether major church gatherings should be suspended as Covid-19 spreads.
SACC Limpopo chairperson Reverend Awedzani Nemaukwe said the meeting with provincial Health MEC Phophi Ramathuba and other leaders would give an indication on how to operate amid an outbreak.
“We have called pastors, church leaders and politicians to discuss how churches should deal with and help curb the virus spreading,” said Ramathuba.
RETURN OF THE WUHAN GROUP
Military health personnel, covered in protective medical gear, were ready and waiting when the SAA flight that went to China to rescue South Africans, trapped there as a result of the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus, landed at Polokwane International Airport yesterday morning.
Unlike other flights that landed and came closer to the hangar, this flight was special. It was directed 400 metres away from the main airport building as authorities took no chances in avoiding contact.
After all, the flight was carrying the 122 locals who – while they had tested negative for the virus – would be quarantined for the next 21 days to ensure that any trace of Covid-19 would be eliminated.
The crew who had manned the flight to China will also remain at The Ranch resort, about 20km from Polokwane, for three weeks.
Yesterday, hundreds of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the buses carrying 114 South Africans who had been repatriated from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.
The plane transporting the group from China landed at Polokwane International Airport and were transported in four buses to The Ranch hotel, where they will be quarantined for 21 days.
The seats in the buses were covered with plastic and sealed with tape.
Members of the SA National Defence Force’s medical unit, dressed in protective medical clothing, moved passengers – who were wearing masks – from the aircraft to the buses.
Out of the original group of 122, some decided to stay behind, while others were said to have had high temperatures and therefore did not meet the standard for travel.
Mkhize said each member of the group had tested negative for Covid-19 before boarding the flight from Wuhan, News24 reported yesterday.
Anyone who tested positive for the virus before boarding the chartered plane would have been referred to the Chinese health system, Mkhize said. The group had been under quarantine in Wuhan since late January.
THE WORLD SHUTS DOWN
As infection numbers continue to climb, governments around the world upped the ante in the fight against the virus.
Spain, which has become the latest country to register an alarming increase in cases, declared a state of emergency on Friday.
More than 4 000 people are infected in Spain, up from just a few hundred a few weeks ago.
The number is expected to climb by a another few thousand this week. There have been 120 deaths in that country so far.
The 15-day state of emergency entails the closure of schools and universities, as well as a total lockdown in regions that have been hardest hit.
Governments of various regions, including Madrid and Catalonia, have introduced measures to contain the virus, including closing shopping centres, gyms, restaurants and bars.
New Zealand was also due to introduce a temporary quarantine for all people arriving from overseas.
The US has already banned travel from Europe and the UK. President Donald Trump announced a national state of emergency yesterday.
Global tech giant Apple took an unprecedented step yesterday and closed all its stores outside of China, saying that its products would still be available online.
In the UK, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been criticised for his government’s tepid response to the pandemic, panicked shoppers stormed supermarkets to fill trolleys with food, hand sanitiser and toilet paper.
The country now has nearly 1 150 cases and 21 deaths.