Let’s be clear: Our people have no reserves left for another disaster. HIV, tuberculosis, Life Esidimeni, more and more people dying of cancer; diseases that have eaten up our reserves and capacity to respond to a catastrophe. Unemployment has sapped our morale. Hunger is endemic. Our public health systems are all overstretched.
So we have no choice but to stop Covid-19 – no luxury to be armchair critics. Covid-19 is not a soapie or a Netflix distraction. It’s a real and present danger. If Covid-19 escapes into our general population and infects tens of thousands of people, we may have a catastrophe on our hands.
That is why we have to mobilise now to ensure 5 March 2020 marks the day when people in South Africa started to act with unity and common purpose again.
First, let’s say this: Since that day, the government has truly shown leadership.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), a state-owned enterprise by the way, has moved swiftly but calmly to train health professionals, identify index patients, trace their contacts and provide medically sound advice. They have been a shining beacon amid the rubble of our SOEs.
The Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, has led from the front, talking to communities and health workers, justifiably castigating parts of the media for the “virus of fake news”. He is rising to the occasion and has been calm, but earnest and firm. One cannot help but wonder what a difference such leadership would have made in the early days of the HIV epidemic.
Government has avoided rash and panic-induced steps, like closing schools or sports events before it is warranted. The national Health Department has worked 24/7 to provide information to the media. In fact, so far, South Africa has behaved better than most other governments in the world.
However, good will not be enough.
The sense we get is that civil society, including many faith-based organisations, business and labour are adopting a wait and see attitude. We can’t afford to “wait and see”. The “and see” part will be too late. Press statements are not enough. We need mobilisation, messaging, communication of accurate information and discussion to forestall panic.
Preventing Covid-19 is everybody’s business.
In this regard, the South African Council of Churches’ (SACC) decision to “convene an emergency consultation of leaders of churches on 31 March 2020, to consider how best to use the wall-to-wall church infrastructure we have, for public education and liaison with the health system”, is welcome, but needs to happen sooner.
Because the next few days and weeks will be critical in deciding the trajectory. Society has to help health workers in preventing Covid-19 from moving beyond the initial cases and taking root in communities and health facilities where, because of overcrowding, it will be nigh impossible to prevent a generalised epidemic. If that happens, we will be in a very difficult space, that will also demand all our efforts.
What does that require of us?
At an individual level, it requires that we are all involved in communicating accurate information about Covid-19, what it is and what it’s not, and how to take measures that can prevent infection.
As organisations, we need to reassure our constituencies and congregations, counsel against panic buying of masks or sterilising agents – so that the people at most risk, like health workers, the elderly or people with pre-existing conditions can’t get them.
It means advocating for solidarity, sharing and respecting all of our rights.
But in addition to what we can do as individuals, those with power have a particularly important role.
In the midst of fierce debates about NHI and health inequality, Covid-19 presents an opportunity to build trust in the private health sector and show that it’s not just about profits: private health specialists, hospitals and medical aid schemes can offer their services to the public health system, so that we respond as one. Private hospitals should be prepared to provide health services to the uninsured. Pathology labs should not charge excessive fees for diagnostic tests.
Big business, through Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) and Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA), need to urgently discuss what value and capacity business can add to the government’s response as well as how they can support small businesses and the self-employed who might be affected. As has happened in the USA, platform companies, like Uber, need to make special leave provision for their contractors/employees.
Finally, the media has a critical public education role to play that goes beyond just reporting Covid-19 as a big news story. This is an issue that should be discussed by the SA National Editors Forum and all genuine media organisations, and journalists. SANEF and editors need to ensure the industry reports responsibly. We cannot have headlines equating suspected Covid-19 patients to “wanted suspects”.
The Covid-19 outbreak is a Thuma Mina moment for all of us. Like HIV and TB, it could run riot down the pathways of inequality, greed and selfishness. Already there are reports of elites whose sickness lies in their selfishness, using their wealth to do all they can to protect themselves. But South Africa cannot afford to let it become another “us and them” moment. In the words of Bernie Sanders’ campaign slogan, our response should be “Not me. Us.” If we do that, paradoxically, this virus might put us on a path to healing. DM
Every Miss America since 1960 is still alive.