Hunt for holy vectors moves well beyond Bloemfontein

Churchgoers from all over SA met infected five at mass gathering

29 March 2020 - 00:00
By Jeff Wicks
Johannes Mokgele, his wife Molebogeng and their daughter Lebogang, of Bochabela township in Bloemfontein, stock up on groceries before the lockdown came into effect on Friday.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo Johannes Mokgele, his wife Molebogeng and their daughter Lebogang, of Bochabela township in Bloemfontein, stock up on groceries before the lockdown came into effect on Friday.

A desperate effort to trace hundreds of Bloemfontein churchgoers who are possible carriers of Covid-19 has expanded into neighbouring provinces after police and military personnel sealed off the Free State capital.

The outbreak in the province is localised to the city, with 49 confirmed cases, and the

nondescript church building of the Divine Restoration Ministries is central to the crisis.

It was here that the Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast was held, organised by a group of South

African people together with the leaders of the Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast movement

based in Israel.

The gathering took place onMarch 10 and 11, days before President Cyril Ramaphosa

asked that all foreign tourists test for the virus, the church said in a statement.

Free State health spokesperson Mondli Mvambi confirmed that about 480 people attended an evening worship, and of those a group of 225 attended the breakfast.

There was also a dinner prayer session attended by about 160 people.

And while health officials try to stay the local transmission rate, tracing and quarantining

people who came into contact with five infected guests from Israel, the US and France, Bloemfontein is on tenterhooks.

Function attendee Chris Eden said he had been contacted by the health department’s tracing team on his return to Cape Town.

“We had five people in our group, two of whom were from Gauteng. I was also chatting

to people who had come from the Eastern Cape, but I think the bulk of those who came were from Bloemfontein,” he said.

Evangelist Angus Buchan and Afri can Christian Democratic Party leader Kenneth Meshoe attended. Buchan has since tested positive for Covid-19.

Professor Patrick Bouic, an immunologist from Stellenbosch University, said exp o sure

like that in Bloemfontein meant effective contact tracing was a near impossible task.

With HIV and TB being so rife in communities around Bloemfontein and so many people therefore being immune-suppressed, he said, many would not survive to see the end of the pandemic.

“We are in for a major crisis. This thing is going to decimate the working people of South Africa. The co-infections of HIV and TB, along with poor nutrition, are a recipe for disaster,” he said.

A source in the Free State health department said contact tracing had led into the city and also out of the province.

“We had one case of a woman who attended the service and went back to Pretoria, only to test positive,” he said, adding that if the pandemic took hold, hospitals in the city would not cope.

“Those who have tested positive are mostly in the affluent suburbs. If this spreads to the townships, we’re in trouble, said the source.

“With the private and public hospitals  combined there are, at best, 150 operational ICU beds and they will be overwhelmed.”

Fear gripped the city on Thursday, with many rushing from shop to shop for provisions as shelves were stripped bare.

As night fell, a caravan of people, heavily laden with bags and wheelbarrows full of food, snaked its way into the township of Bochabela.

Speaking at the Free State provincial legislature last week, health minister Zweli Mkhize said contact tracing teams had been augmented with National Institute for Communicable Diseases staff from outside the province, as well as 285 volunteers from the South African Red Cross.


Approximate number of ICU beds in Bloemfontein — at public and private hospitals combined

The Sunday Times can also reveal that a team from the US’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC), among them specialist epidemiologists, had been deployed to the city.

The CDC’s South African office and its Atlanta, Georgia, headquarters had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publishing.

The outbreak has its genesis in the church, but domestic worker Sana Ksiane said God would protect her.

“I’m worried about the virus, but I am going to try my best to stay at home. I bought my groceries and I will be fine … my Lord is watching me,” she said, her eyes moving to

an image of Mary the Immaculate that hang s above her doorway.

Outside, Johannes Mokgele steered a rickety wheelbarrow laden with potatoes, cabbages and mealie meal over the uneven township road.

“I spent all my money on food. I just left enough to pay the rent, otherwise they will kick me out,” he told the Sunday Times.

In the suburb of Universitas, Melissa Smit loaded bags of groceries into her bakkie, the

product of a three-stop, R7,000 tour of shops that had sold out.

“I don’t want to leave my house again … I’m not panicking but I just don’t want to go outside,” she said.

“I believe that my family and I won’t get it …we have prayed about it since day one and I have faith.”

In a parking lot nearby, pensioner Lisa van Rensburg steered a trolley full of food and supplies towards her car. “This is a biblical prophecy playing out.

Jesus said that in the last days we would see plagues, pestilence and wars, and that is what we have now,” she said.

Repeated efforts to contact Divine Restoration Ministries leader Elisée Yao were unsuccessful.