SA shows up the US in its handling of Covid-19 crisis

Volunteers wear masks at the start of a Covid-19 awareness drive in a densely populated part of Diepsloot in Johannesburg. Health authorities are reconsidering the use of face masks by ordinary citizens during the global pandemic.
Volunteers wear masks at the start of a Covid-19 awareness drive in a densely populated part of Diepsloot in Johannesburg. Health authorities are reconsidering the use of face masks by ordinary citizens during the global pandemic.
Image: MARCO LONGARI / AFP

As the coronavirus continues its global rout, the US has become the epicentre of the pandemic, with the death toll in the northern hemisphere power climbing to more than 45,000 this week. In New York, a city and state particularly hard hit by the respiratory virus outbreak, authorities have taken to disposing of bodies in mass graves, lest the corpses pile up. 

Doctors there have told of their own hell – a seemingly endless cycle of putting their patients on ventilators only to have them die. 

On a chart which maps the rise in cases in each country, the US and SA are the opposite of one another. 

The trajectory of the infection rate in the US continues to barrel upward beyond 775,000, while in South Africa the effects of a wide-scale screening and testing campaign, along with a national lockdown, appear to be flattening the curve.  

The first-world public health-care system, which most consider second to none, has been ravaged. This uncomfortable status quo is the direct sum of a lackadaisical response effort when the pathogen was nascent.   

A key misstep in the US response to the pandemic was made nearly two months ago, when the virus began to spread from vector to vector, gaining a foothold in American cities. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention lost critical weeks that could have been used to track its possible spread in the US because it insisted upon devising its own test.

The test would turn out to be defective, an error that resulted in little more than 100 tests conducted per day while the fault was corrected. 

Conversely, the South African response has been hailed as a vital victory, buying time to buttress the health-care system before the inevitable upswing in cases.  SA had recorded 3,465 confirmed cases, with 58 deaths at the time of publishing.

The department of health, alongside the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), has deployed contact tracking and tracing teams in an effort to hem in person-to-person transmissions.

A number of missteps led to a surge in US infection rates.
A number of missteps led to a surge in US infection rates.
Image: Nolo Moima

President Cyril Ramaphosa took the unprecedented step to impose far-reaching restrictions on travel and public gatherings. A 21-day lockdown was announced on March 27, which was later extended to April 30.

These bracing measures came as South African bonds were downgraded to junk status by ratings agencies, the unavoidable casualty of the global economic meltdown. 

Ten thousand health workers were deployed to go door-to-door in virus hotspots, and emergency measures to use cellphone technology to trace contacts was put in place. SA’s response has been called “ruthlessly efficient” by the BBC.

“Heading the fight here against Covid-19, President Cyril Ramaphosa has emerged as a formidable leader - composed, compassionate, but seized by the urgency of the moment and wasting no time in imposing tough restrictive steps and galvanising crucial support from the private sector.

“And one rung below the president, health minister Zweli Mkhize has likewise garnered near universal praise for his no-nonsense, energetic performance, and his sober, deeply knowledgeable, daily briefings,” the BBC opined.

The measures have given purchase to efforts to flatten the curve, according to Prof Salim Abdool Karim, chair of  the health minister’s advisory committee on Covid-19.

Abdool Karim said the country’s Covid-19 trajectory was unique because of what happened when the virus was in its infancy on South African soil. Unlike other global case studies, South Africa did not see an exponential increase in cases after its first 100.

He said that stringent control measures, from a screening campaign to the nationwide stayaway, had helped prevent an unabated spread. 

According to his report, the pandemic had been rooted in three separate groups: the travellers who imported the virus from abroad; their contacts before they were isolated; and then local transmissions. 

Because of comprehensive tracing measures, the pandemic had petered out in the first two groups by the time the lockdown was announced and has, so far, remained stable in the third.

 “We cannot escape, not unless SA has a special protective factor not present anywhere else in the world. Our population will be at high risk again after the lockdown because all of us are vulnerable,” he said.

He added that if the caseload could be controlled, an easing of lockdown restrictions may follow. 

In addressing the nation, Ramaphosa said SA was engaged in a war against an invisible enemy, one which would test each and every citizen. 

“We dare not fail,” he said.

Makupula is the CEO of Diaz Reus Africa and leads the African growth strategy. Diaz Reus is an international law firm in more than 30 countries.


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