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Media cheerleaders desert bumbling Boris over pandemic


Lord Peter Hain is a former British Cabinet Minister and anti-apartheid campaigner whose memoir, ‘A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, is published by Jonathan Ball.

In care homes across the UK, staff are worried stiff: Nobody wants to see scenes like the ones in Spain, where care homes have been discovered abandoned with all their elderly residents dead.

The proverbial has hit the fan for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson over his utterly complacent handling of the coronavirus pandemic, his usual right-wing newspaper editors turning on his government.

“Having misjudged the greatest peacetime crisis in a century, the government will need to demonstrate a coherent strategy and show that it understands the scale of the task,” The Times thundered.

Just over a month ago, exhorting us all to wash our hands for 20 seconds, Johnson’s message was not to worry, we could get through this.

Never mind the fearsome Chinese lockdown, their industrial-like expanding of hospitals, prodigious acquisition of ventilators and personal protection equipment, or the World Health Organisation’s forceful urge to “test, test, test”, still less the lessons from Korea and Singapore.

Johnson’s stance almost mirrored that of Donald Trump’s initial rhetoric about it being “a flu” and “getting America back to work” within days. In 2017 Trump had actually disbanded the US National Security Council pandemic unit that experts had praised.

Now both leaders are under siege and resorting to warlike rhetoric. Their slide from complacency into crisis has lessons for South Africa – though President Cyril Ramaphosa’s firm and early leadership has been a model to contrast with the ineptitude of Johnson and Trump.

Latest British figures showed a paltry 2,000 of half a million health service staff had been tested for Covid-19 – and that excludes 1.5 million care staff looking after vulnerable and elderly citizens without either testing or personal protective equipment.

In care homes across the country, staff are worried stiff: nobody wants to see scenes like the ones in Spain, where care homes have been discovered abandoned with all their elderly residents dead.   

There were no plans for proper testing, especially for frontline National Health Service (NHS)  and care workers, or procurement of sufficient personal protection equipment (PPE) for doctors, nurses and carers. Yet, it’s not as if we weren’t warned. I recall being alerted as a Cabinet minister 17 years ago during the Sars outbreak of the risks of a pandemic.

In 2016 the independent Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future warned that a flu pandemic could kill millions, cost trillions and derail the entire global economy, and recommended the US alone spent $4.5-billion annually on prevention, detection and preparation.

Just last September, experts on the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board warned that “The threat of a pandemic spreading around the globe is a real one — a quick-moving pathogen has the potential to kill tens of millions of people, disrupt economies, and destabilise national security.” Its co-chair Gro Harlem Brundtland castigated world leaders for “a cycle of panic and neglect”.

Within months, the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in China, and governments embarked upon a frantic path of catch-up. And although this is a global pandemic, there has been no real coordinated global effort of the sort advocated by the Wellcome Trust.

It urged spending $8-billion immediately to combat the pandemic, to develop, manufacture and deliver a vaccine, develop treatments, stockpile vaccines and protection equipment, and help health services in poor countries where the virus had still to run rampant. Instead, in a world led by strong-men right-wing populists, rich countries have looked after themselves.

Where, alongside the British finance minister’s admirable £350-billion economic rescue package and Trump’s $2.2 trillion package, were even a few billions in coronavirus aid to poor countries? After Johnson’s U-turn which belatedly put Britain into lockdown two weeks ago – schools shut, shops closed and millions told to work from home – there is still no clear strategy.

As Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, argued in the Guardian on 1 April, “We appear to have forgotten that lockdown itself is not the solution to coronavirus. It is simply a means of slowing its spread and buying time – while we race to catch up.”*

With other experts, she advocates targeted, data-driven mass-testing of 75,000 to 100,000 people per day of those with symptoms, plus tracing all their contacts to test them too. All those tested positive for Covid-19 would be quarantined in their homes for two weeks, tracked and fined for breaches.

This, Sridhar argues, would enable exactly where the virus is to be identified, “to break further chains of transmission and to keep case numbers low. It would also allow most of society, and the economy, to continue on a somewhat more ‘normal’ basis.”

She adds: “We need to place the highest political priority on acquiring the testing kits, while drawing on apps and big data to support contact tracing. Through this path we can start quarantining only those carrying the virus, and not the entire population. The economy, society and health all win in this plan, and it seems the best way out of our current situation.”

Beyond that, the only exit from Covid-19 seems to be a vaccine with the necessary capacity to deliver it, drugs to treat the patients, facilities good enough to withstand a surge, and protective equipment for health workers and other essential staff which Britain is now desperately scrambling to acquire.

Although Ramaphosa has been rightly praised for his policy of lockdown, enforced much earlier than Britain’s or the US’s, ominously it is only the very beginning of a fight. And one made immeasurably more difficult by the apartheid legacy of skeleton public services, poverty and intense township housing congestion – compounded by the Zuma legacy of dysfunctional public administration.

But at least South Africa has been handed the opportunity to learn the correct lessons from abroad. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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