Members of the South African public’s jokes about Corona quickly became a reality when the first patient tested positively for the Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Thursday 5 March. On Thursday, the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, confirmed that a 38-year-old male who recently visited Italy and returned from Italy on 1 March had tested positively for the Coronavirus. The man, his wife and two children were part of a group of 10 who returned from a trip to Italy. Both the man and the doctor who treated him have been placed in self-isolation in KwaZulu-Natal. A tracer team with epidemiologists and clinicians from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has been set out to identify all potential persons who both the patient and his doctor may have been in contact with.
On Saturday 7 March the NICD confirmed that subsequent to the tracer team following up on the group of 10 who returned from Italy, a second positive case of COVID-19 was discovered. According to a tweet by the NICD, the patient is a female from Gauteng who travelled to Italy along with the index case as part of the group of 10. The patient had been self-isolated at home and has now been admitted to the isolation facility. She did not have symptoms related to COVID-19 when she arrived back in South Africa through OR Tambo Airport. The fact that individuals were allowed to board and disembark a flight from Italy, a country with the third largest number of COVID-19 patients, and were able to go undetected while having contracted the virus really begs the question: Are the current testing measures in place effective?
On Sunday 8 March 2020, a third patient tested positive for COVID-19. The patient is the wife of the first patient who was part of the group who travelled to Italy earlier this year. In a statement by the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize stated: “We expect the results of the other six group members who had travelled to Italy within the next 48 hours. It is important to advise the public that the couple’s children were tested and their results have come out negative. However, as part of taking extra precautions, these children will remain in self-quarantine until their parents have tested negative. At that point, they will also be tested to ensure that they remain negative. Until then they will be regarded as potentially infected. This means they will continue not attending school. This is an effort to curb the risk of spread to other children and teachers.”
The first case of the Coronavirus was reported in Wuhan, China in November 2019. As a result of rapid spreading and the high mortality rate, the World Health Organization (WHO) consequently declared the outbreak of the virus a public health emergency of international concern. Members of the public have expressed their lack of faith in South Africa’s public health system. Hospitals in each of nine provinces have been identified as centres of isolation and treatment for people infected with the Coronavirus:
- Western Cape: Tygerberg Hospital
- Gauteng: Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, Steve Biko Hospital, Tembisa Hospital
- KwaZulu-Natal: Grace Hospital
- Eastern Cape: Livingstone Hospital
- Limpopo: Polokwane Hospital
- Mpumalanga: Rob Ferreira Hospital
- North West: Klerksdorp Hospital
- Northern Cape: Kimberely Hospital
- Free State: Pelonomi Hospital
Generally, most travel insurance policies exclude coverage for pandemics and epidemics like the Coronavirus. To meet the market’s needs, insurance companies such as Hollard have begun offering insurance specifically covering COVID-19. According to Hollard, policyholders who contract the virus while on a trip “will be covered up to the limit of liability under your policy’s overseas medical expenses benefit (subject to the excess amount)”. Furthermore, the insurance company stated in a press release: “If you are not ill but you do not want to risk travelling to another country, you can also claim – but you must both have purchased your policy within 24 hours of paying your trip deposit, and you must cancel your trip more than 48 hours before departure.”
President Ramaphosa has urged South Africans not to panic, and to seek urgent medical attention should they display symptoms of COVID-19. Ramaphosa also expressed his concern about the impact that the Coronavirus may have on South Africa in his statement: “It will have a huge impact on a number of things; travel, our economy. It is already showing signs of a negative impact on tourism.” It is no secret that our economy is currently in a recession. With the uncertainty around the National Health Insurance as well as the unstable power supply, there is much doubt regarding whether South Africa’s hospitals and economy will be able to handle the Coronavirus.
In the same breath, it should be noted that on 27 February, the Department of Health issued a statement informing the public that the president has directed the repatriation of South African citizens from Wuhan in the Hubei province in China. According to the statement, none of the affected individuals has been diagnosed with the virus, nor have they exhibited any symptoms thereof. Upon arrival in South Africa, they are set to be placed in quarantine for 21 days as an additional precautionary measure. The NICD has a toll-free number for the public that deals with COVID-19 questions: 0800 029 999. According to Minister Mkhize, the line is operational 24/7.
While some are distraught by the news of COVID-19 being present in South Africa, others have expressed their awe in the public health system for detecting the country’s first COVID-19 patient. In a tweet by the NICD, the organization stated: “We confirm that a suspected case of #COVID19 has tested positive. This is not as a failure but as a success of our health systems to be able to detect and rapidly identify cases.”
In a statement made by the Department of Health on 23 January, they assured South Africans that measures are in place to detect, manage and contain any cases of the Coronavirus in the event that it came to South Africa. According to Sibongile Walaza of the NICD, viruses in respiratory droplets do not last for long in hot weather. A member of the Department of Health’s Coronavirus response team, Kerrigan McCarthy, stated that it is still unknown how well the Coronavirus survives in the heat. With autumn and winter fast approaching, many are hoping that the virus will be under control before the seasons change as respiratory illnesses spread more easily in winter due to the fact that people stay inside with closed windows and doors.
Due to the fact that the Coronavirus has only been recently identified, there is limited information regarding the mode(s) of transmission, clinical features, and severity of disease at this stage. The main clinical signs and symptoms are fever and cough with a few patients presenting with difficulty in breathing and bilateral infiltrates on chest X-rays. Contraction of the virus can result in infection leading to pneumonia, multi-organ failure, acute respiratory syndrome and, in some cases, death. Currently no vaccine is available for virus. The elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions and weak immune systems are particularly susceptible to the virus and have accounted for majority of the deaths from COVID-19.
Contrary to popular belief, wearing a mask may not help prevent contraction of the virus and is rather a means for patients who already have the virus to be prevented from spreading the virus. Despite this, the very same day that the first Corona patient was discovered in South Africa, popular retailers were left with empty shelves as consumers flocked to purchase masks, hand sanitiser and disinfecting wipes. Medical practitioners have pleaded with members of society not to purchase masks if they are not ill as this causes a shortage of masks for those who are actually ill. According to the WHO and the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the increased demand for these masks from people that might not need them only serves to put strain on a supply system with a current six-month backlog in mask production globally.
The US Surgeon General took to Twitter to urge members of the public not to buy masks, stating: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” South African Department of Health spokesperson, Popo Maja, has confirmed that South Africa is currently experiencing delays on shipments of respirator masks. Maja further warned that South Africa's few local producers of speciality masks cannot immediately meet the increased demand for masks. There are also delays as a result of major mask-producing countries such as India and China banning exports of the protective gear to ensure they are secure in terms of their own national supply needs.
The WHO has recommended that individuals exercise good hygiene practices, such as regularly washing your hands, coughing or sneezing into a tissue or the bend of your elbow, and cleaning keyboards with disinfectant. The most effective way to protect yourself against the Coronavirus is by frequently cleaning your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or washing them with soap and water.
The WHO compiled a list of myth busters to clear the air regarding uncertainties around the virus. The information for the public is as follows:
- Cold weather and snow CANNOT kill the Coronavirus.
- Taking a hot bath does not prevent the Coronavirus disease.
- The Coronavirus CANNOT be transmitted through mosquito bites.
- Hand dryers are not effective in killing the 2019-nCoV.
- Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body.
- At present, there is no evidence that companion animals/pets such as dogs or cats can be infected with the Coronavirus. However, it is always a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water after contact with pets. This protects you against various common bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella that can pass between pets and humans.
- While there some limited evidence that regularly rinsing the nose with saline can help people recover more quickly from the common cold, there is no evidence that regularly rinsing the nose with saline has protected people from infection with the new Coronavirus.
- Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties. However, there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the Coronavirus.
- Antibiotics are not effective in preventing and treating the Coronavirus as antibiotics do not work against viruses, only bacteria.
- Vaccines against pneumonia, such as pneumococcal vaccine and Haemophilus influenza type B vaccine, do not provide protection against the Coronavirus. Nonetheless, vaccination against respiratory illnesses is highly recommended to protect your health.
- The Coronavirus cannot be transmitted through goods manufactured in China or any country reporting COVID-19 cases.
Amongst the mass hysteria, many continue to spread misinformation, fake cures and malicious hoaxes. Contrary to popular belief, the alcoholic beverage Corona Extra beer is in no way related to the virus. False information and general fear of members of the public has resulted in a great decline in the sales of this Constellation Brands beverage, while some continue to crack open a beer and make a joke or too. Members of the public are urged to do their research before sharing information. Feelings of fear and concern are quite understandable, especially in a country with high tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS statistics, but spreading false information will only create more uncertainty and incite fear. It should be noted that the Coronavirus originated in a seafood market, and should not be used as an opportunity to express any form of xenophobia and racism towards persons of Asian descent. In times of adversity, it is important to hold on to our humanity – it’s what unites us.