The glaring shortcomings in SA’s efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19

In this photo taken Friday (April 3 2020) medical workers prepare to test a person for Covid-19 in a mobile testing unit in Yeoville, Johannesburg. Picture: Shiraaz Mohamed/AP
In this photo taken Friday (April 3 2020) medical workers prepare to test a person for Covid-19 in a mobile testing unit in Yeoville, Johannesburg. Picture: Shiraaz Mohamed/AP

While President Cyril Ramaphosa’s handling of the deadly Covid-19 coronavirus has been hailed as competent and dynamic, as we approach two weeks of the 21-day lockdown, there is a growing discomfort that something is not right.

Before pointing out all the areas of concern in Ramaphosa and his team’s strategy, it is well worth noting that the fight against the virus is not led by an individual, but by the Covid-19 national command council.

The council is constituted by a team of ministers and experts in various fields including virology, epidemiology and pathogens.

The logical conclusion, at least at face value, is that the Covid-19 national command council knows what it is doing and should be given space to do its job.

This is important as quite often South Africans, especially on social media, don’t understand why the government doesn’t take seriously their pedestrian and ill-considered remarks.

Calling for South Africans to give the coronavirus team space to do its job should not amount to reneging on citizens’ collective responsibility to hold the government responsible.

Mr President, when are we going to start testing 30 000 people, as per your own promise?

It is with this spirit and attitude that I point out glaring shortcomings in Ramaphosa’s efforts to stop the spread of the virus which has terminated the lives of 13 people and infected 1749 others.

Exactly a week ago Ramaphosa announced that Pretoria will ramp up testing to 30 000 a day.

But the latest figures show that just over 58 000 tests have been conducted since the first person tested positive on March 5.

That’s right, we have only managed 58 000 tests in one month.

For obvious reasons, it should be clear to everyone that this is neither sufficient nor sustainable.

Start testing now, it is the only way to get a proper grip of the status of the coronavirus.

Germany is conducting up 50 000 tests on a daily basis.

Granted, it is a first world country with resources. But testing less than 2000 people, which is what we are currently at, is unacceptable and wholly insufficient.

Mr President, when are we going to start testing 30 000 people, as per your own promise?

I asked the Department of Health’s Popo Maja this question on Tuesday and he didn’t respond.

Even if the national command council is given the benefit of the doubt that it was still mobilising resources, there is no evidence to suggest that testing has increased significantly since Ramaphosa made his announcement a week ago.

How is the country going to weather the storm if we are not testing?

Mr President, you also announced that 60 new mobile testing units will be dispatched across the country.

Have all these units been dispatched? If not all, how many have been dispatched and what is the hold up?

Maja did not respond to any of these critical questions, but I, together with many South Africans want to know.

Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has been quite diligent in communicating developments around Covid-19 and South Africans need an urgent update on these particular issues.

It was reassuring to hear Ramaphosa announce that alongside the 60 mobile testing units, an army of 10 000 health workers will crisscross the country, conducting tests.

Are all these health workers already out there?

If not, what is the hold up and when can South Africans expect all 10 000 health workers to be dispatched? Mkhize has repeatedly said that there is a storm.

How is the country going to weather the storm if we are not testing?

The country’s infection rate is way out of kilter with international norms.

And as Alex Rudi pointed out on a Twitter conversation on Tuesday, our infection rates do not correspond with international standards because of one of three reasons.

Most South Africans are immune to the virus, authorities are not testing enough or because of some unknown reason, the virus is just not transmitting fast enough here.

Which is it? Knowing which it is will help deploy the best fightback strategies.

Much has been done over the last month to lay the ground for the real work, which is testing.

Mkhize has already pointed out that the national command council’s plan is a hybrid of the different strategies employed by other nations including China, Germany and South Korea.

But it is vital not to overlook what other countries on the continent are doing.

In an effort to limit the spread of the virus in high risk areas, Rwanda and Nigeria have been distributing free food parcels throughout the duration of their lockdown.

Long queues outside food retailers have become a permanent feature of South Africa’s 21-day lockdown. Understandably so, people need food.

It should go without saying that the risk of transmitting the virus in such queues is increased exponentially.

The coming week will determine if this country will be able to arrest the coronavirus or if it will go the route of Italy, the US and Spain.

As such, the government should consider a total shutdown of townships such as Alexandra, Soweto, Mamelodi, Umlazi, Kwamashu, Mdantsane, Motherwell and KwaZakhele.

The government could implement a total lockdown of such areas and conduct mass testing, while distributing free food parcels to deserving or qualifying households and families.

Because of the obvious complex social problems associated with a lockdown of informal and low-income settlements, officials could target finishing everything in 10 days.

Due to apartheid’s spatial planning, many South African townships don’t have more than five main entrances and exits, which would make it easier for officials to police a total shutdown.

A few days ago outgoing Wits’ vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib suggested that Pretoria reconfigure some of the country’s universities’ laboratories to conduct tests there.

This, he said, could increase the country’s testing capacity by about 5 000.

Ramaphosa and his crew are probably seized with the question of whether or not to extend the lockdown.

This fragile economy will not be able to shoulder a lockdown that will last more than a month.

The coming week will determine if this country will be able to arrest the coronavirus or if it will go the route of Italy, the US and Spain.

Ramaphosa must make bold decisions. There is nothing to lose. There is no room for slip ups.

The window period before things get out of control is getting smaller and smaller.

Stay at home. Stay safe.


Sipho Masondo
Journalist
City Press
p:+27 11 713 9001
w:www.citypress.co.za  e: sipho.masondo@citypress.co.za
      
 
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