Adriaan Basson: Many of us will get the coronavirus and some will die

Nurses in the isolation unit at Tygerberg Hospital in the Western Cape on 11 March 2020.
Nurses in the isolation unit at Tygerberg Hospital in the Western Cape on 11 March 2020.
Gallo Images, Misha Jordaan

It is no longer the Chinese virus or the foreign virus. It is our virus. It is not "just another flu". It is much more potent than the "normal" flu although its symptoms are similar, writes Adriaan Basson.


On 22 February, shortly after Italy had announced the first infections of coronavirus in that country, two Italians died from the virus.  

On Sunday evening, 23 days later, Italy recorded 368 deaths in one day, bringing the total amount of fatalities in that country alone because of coronavirus to over 1 800 people. In less than a month. 

There is no starker example than the case of Italy to illustrate why South Africans shouldn’t believe we are exceptional and will escape from the pandemic unscathed.

We will not. 

After listening to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation and reading extensively about the outbreak and how it was contained (or not) by other countries, I am afraid our immediate future looks bleak.  

Some South Africans will die from the coronavirus.

Depending on how well or how bad we react (and by "we" I mean every one of us plus the government, business and organised groups) to Ramaphosa's dire warning, the death toll could be contained or go the way of Italy.  

By Sunday evening we had 61 infections declared by the Department of Health.

We know many more cases have not yet been processed by the government and we haven't even started with proactive testing of vulnerable clusters of people. 

We could still go the way of Italy.

Yes, they have many old people but so do we.

Sure, they are culturally intimate and kiss and hug a lot, but we have millions of South Africans who live with HIV and tuberculosis (TB) and have compromised immune systems.  

Probably the most significant announcement by the president was that the virus has now been transmitted internally between South African citizens.

This means we have moved past the point where you were only at risk when you shared a space with someone who had travelled abroad.  

The virus is here and lives between us.

It is no longer the Chinese virus or the foreign virus.

It is our virus.  

It is not "just another flu".

It is much more potent than the "normal" flu although its symptoms are similar.  

I've had to make two major mind-shifts after reading up on the coronavirus (pardon me for being a bit slow) and speaking to people who know much more than I do about health care.

The first was learning and accepting that many of us will be infected with the coronavirus in our lifetime.  

The second was that recent experience had shown aggressive social distancing, opposed to administered isolation, is the most effective way of bringing down the infection rate in countries.  

In an excellent article published by The Atlantic, the Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch predicted that between 40% and 70% of people around the world would be infected with the coronavirus in the next year.

"But, he clarifies emphatically, this does not mean that all will have severe illnesses. 'It's likely that many will have mild disease or may be asymptomatic'." 

There is a real chance that Covid-19 will become part of the flu and cold season.  

While the world's scientists are scrambling to find a vaccine (which will be tested for months), the key will be to make sure you are not infected, particularly if you have pre-existing lung disease and are over 70-years old.  

Many younger people or children will contract the virus without ever knowing they had it.  

For now, we have a pandemic to deal with and no available vaccine. What do we do?  

The Washington Post did incredible research on the best (and worst) strategies used by China, Italy, Iran and South Korea to curb the spreading of the coronavirus over the past few weeks.   

Accepting that doing nothing is not an option, forced quarantine or isolation have proven not to be the most effective approach.

"As health experts would expect, it proved impossible to completely seal off the sick population from the healthy," The Washington Post reported.  

Much more successful was aggressive social distancing - cancelling any gatherings, events, sports matches, closing restaurants and bars and working from home.

Ramaphosa was no doubt aware of these findings when he announced that all gatherings of more than 100 people are now banned in South Africa.  

All schools will close on Wednesday until after Easter weekend (12 April); universities have closed in the wake of Ramaphosa’s speech and he discouraged South Africans from undertaking non-essential domestic travelling via taxis, buses, planes and trains.  

This is a noble thought, but millions of South Africans are dependent on public transport for their jobs.

This is where the private sector will have to step up and consider mechanisms like working from home. 

A financial package is being put together to safeguard the economy, Ramaphosa said.

He ended off his most difficult but best address so far by asking South Africans not to be fearful or ignorant.  

This is a great rallying call if we want to slay this beast.  

- Basson is editor-in-chief of News24

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