Covid-19

An inside look at how politicians are uniting to fight Covid-19

21 March 2020 - 22:00 By Quaanitah Hunter
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has been praised by politicians of all stripes for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has been praised by politicians of all stripes for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Image: Alet Pretorius/Gallo Images

Mr President, I am very sorry, I am sure you wish you had never received this call.” This is how health minister Zweli Mkhize broke the news of SA’s first Covid-19 case during a phone call to President Cyril Ramaphosa two weeks ago.

Ramaphosa immediately summoned Mkhize, who was in Johannesburg, to Cape Town to discuss the spread of the coronavirus in SA.

“For sure, I never wanted to receive this call,” Ramaphosa replied to Mkhize. “But what do we do? Let’s talk about it.”

Since then, the number of those infected has surpassed 200, with numbers doubling every second day. Mkhize has been praised for the manner in which he has handled the outbreak and how he has kept the public updated almost daily.

Mkhize, a medical doctor, has spoken with authority on the subject, giving hope that the government is in control of the situation.

On advice from the cabinet, Ramaphosa last Sunday declared a state of national disaster and took charge of the National Command Council, which has been meeting every other day to co-ordinate the government’s response to the outbreak.

In between this work, Mkhize personally informs the president of any unexpected or shocking change in the situation — on Thursday, Mkhize had to tell him that the numbers had reached 150 confirmed cases.

“When the numbers change I must update the president. When there is an increase he must not be surprised, because he is at the forefront. At any one time, he must be the first one to know,” Mkhize said.

“My job and duty is to make sure the president is well briefed and well informed.”

But if he is the president’s source of information, where does Mkhize himself get his information from? The answer is that every evening, 8pm is the cut-off time for information from laboratories to be verified and registered.

Mkhize then gets a reading of the day’s confirmed cases from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). He relies on information from the institute ’s head, Dr Natalie Mayet, and is in constant contact with the head of the NICD’s centre for respiratory diseases and meningitis, Professor Cheryl Cohen, and the NICD ’s division of public health surveillance and response, Dr Kerrigan McCarthy.

"To get that information out, you have to look at it and debate certain things that may not be clear, and clarify and get answers. I will say: ‘Look, we need more information’,” Mkhize said.

He personally scrutinised the numbers and information given to him by the NICD before he made it public, he said.

“We must be able to put the numbers in context … so people know what we are talking about.”

Mkhize will not sleep until he has meticulously touched base with those on the frontline to get an update.

In between, he is the go-to person for his cabinet colleagues on everything related toCovid- 19.

“Hey bro, let me know when you can take a call …we must deal with regulation,” reads a message from trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel. He wanted Mkhize’s input before regulations on restricting stockpiling and unfair profit increases were gazetted.“

The level of collegial spirit [among cabinet ministers] in this thing is unbelievable,”Mkhize said.

He cites a conversation with tourism minister Mmamaloko Kubayi-Ngubane as an example of how government ministers are doing the unprecedented —working together in the true interests of the country.

The fact that you got the political parties agreeing to support [the government] is because when they look at it, they see their own interest represented in the campaign

“The level of commitment to fighting this thing is unbelievable. It is just a lot of hard work.”

Mkhize said that the foremost factor for him in dealing with the spread of the outbreak is to make the issue bigger than personal differences.

“The fact that you got the political parties agreeing to support [the government] is because when they look at it, they see their own interest represented in the campaign. They can see that their interest is not undermined.”

He said this unity of purpose would take the country far.

For the government’s interventions to have an impact, people needed to understand that “we will all probably get the virus”, and get treated. However, he said, the virus could not be allowed to overwhelm the public health system .

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