Zweli Mkhize wants SA to be ready for next pandemic

28 February 2021 - 00:03 By nivashni nair
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize.
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize.
Image: Supplied

This time last year, a family meeting was confined to mom, dad and the kids, and lockdown meant imprisonment at home.

If you’d mentioned contact tracing, PPE, social distancing or 501Y.V2, few would have understood what you were on about.

It’s been almost a year since the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in SA on March 5, and life has changed dramatically.

Hard lessons have been learnt in the fight against the pandemic that has killed more than 2.5-million people globally — almost 50,000 of them in SA.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize says one of the biggest lessons was that SA needed complete biotechnological independence.

Reflecting on when he learnt of the first Covid-19 case in SA, Mkhize said that while the country had begun communicating its preparedness, images of overwhelmed health-care systems in leading economies had caused much anxiety. He then knew it would be a hard road ahead.

“We knew it was coming but when the reality hits … the weight of the responsibility becomes quite palpable,” he told the Sunday Times this week.

Nelson Mandela Bridge in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, a route normally choked with traffic but eerily empty at the beginning of the lockdown last year. It would remain so until SA slowly came back to life in a new normal in the age of the pandemic.
Nelson Mandela Bridge in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, a route normally choked with traffic but eerily empty at the beginning of the lockdown last year. It would remain so until SA slowly came back to life in a new normal in the age of the pandemic.
Image: Alon Skuy

Mkhize has no regrets about the decisions he has taken since SA’s first identified case, a 38-year-old father who tested positive in KwaZulu-Natal following a ski trip to Italy. The man has declined to be named or comment publicly.

“We did what we could with what we had — and we had excellent resources,” Mhkize said.

He singled out the expertise of the members of the ministerial advisory committees, the willingness to innovate and to invest in the fight against Covid-19, and the support of the global community.

“I do not believe I would take different decisions to the ones I took at the time.” The first case came just days after a group of 10 South Africans arrived back in SA from Italy a year ago tomorrow.

Mkhize learnt the art of listening, understood the anguish of isolation and appreciated the resilience of South Africans. An important lesson is the need for SA to be independent in biotechnology.

People learnt to live with a new type of death as funerals were restricted in terms of attendance and livestreamed.
People learnt to live with a new type of death as funerals were restricted in terms of attendance and livestreamed.
Image: Supplied

“Covid-19 sorely exposed the lack of capacity in SA, and the continent at large, to produce biotechnology for its own unique needs. We have all the expertise to do this and fortunately government has an appetite for scientific investment and this has paid off hugely in our fight against Covid-19.

“We are at the precipice of a departure from our history of dependence on other nations for our biotech needs and we are already seeing the green shoots of SA intellectual property,” he said.

The head of the Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee, professor Salim Abdool Karim, said SA should have been more involved in producing vaccines.

“One of the things I wish I had done differently was that we should have become more involved in making vaccines. As a country we do have the capability to do it. I think I was just too busy. I didn’t have the bandwidth. It ended up that no-one made vaccines. Everyone just went and tested other people’s vaccines.

“I think because our country has the capability to make vaccines, I have felt we should have played a more important role in making vaccines. I don’t think it would have played a role in Covid-19 because it takes too long. By the time we would have started, we would still be doing construction work for the facility, so it wouldn’t be ready for this pandemic.

“But this is the pandemic that is telling us there is more to come. We should make that investment now so we can make vaccines when the next virus comes along. I am pleased that a vaccine development facility has been announced,” he said.

People learnt to live with a new type of death as funerals were restricted in terms of attendance and livestreamed.
People learnt to live with a new type of death as funerals were restricted in terms of attendance and livestreamed.
Image: Supplied

Much has changed in a year for Megan Smith, one of the first 50 cases in SA and a pioneer in going public with her diagnosis.

“It’s definitely the most changes I’ve experienced in a one-year period, and I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of people. It feels like three years of change has fitted into the past year. I’m living in a different part of Cape Town, my business is in a completely different mode — it’s gone from thriving to just getting by. I met the man of my dreams during lockdown, can you believe it? And I’ve gained an entirely new perspective and appreciation for life, my relationships and what it means to help and support others though the experience.”

For many it’s not just about wearing masks and social distancing. Many are living without loved ones who died, and without jobs. Others are adapting, even if it means finding work in grim places created by the pandemic.


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