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Ramaphosa's firm hand on the tiller is reassuring, but we must gird for worse

22 March 2020 - 00:05 By Sunday Times
The national restrictions in place due to coronavirus are much milder compared to other nations.
The national restrictions in place due to coronavirus are much milder compared to other nations.
Image: 123RF/lightwise

The week since President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a Covid-19 national disaster has shown that South Africans are ready to unite in this life-and-death struggle.

Even political rivalries and traditional enmity between the public and private sectors have been set aside under the leadership of a president who has abruptly emerged from the shadows of the ANC's internecine wars and taken charge.

Ramaphosa's popularity appears to have soared even as he has announced curbs on personal freedom that in any other circumstances would be unthinkable.

Indeed, as Human Rights Day came and went virtually unremarked yesterday, our freedom has been curtailed across the board.

Overseas travel has swiftly become all but impracticable.

We can't buy liquor after 6pm. Mosques were locked up on Friday and churches will be no-go zones today.

We can be arrested for refusing to submit to a health test.

Freedom of association is on hold. Visitors have been banned at old-age homes and prisons.

Hundreds of public amenities, from schools and universities to libraries and swimming pools, have closed their doors.

These restrictions are mild, however, compared with those imposed elsewhere. On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered all restaurants, pubs and similar establishments to close, and residents of California were effectively put under house arrest. In imposing the stay-at-home, the US state is emulating China, which reported no new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday and Friday this week. It is winning the war.

Ours is a touchy-feely society, with its ritualised handshakes, hugs and emphasis on communal living and celebration.

Social distancing, in which we are encouraged to separate ourselves from others to minimise the spread of the coronavirus, will not come as naturally to South Africans as it might to people who live in more standoffish cultures.

We should be in no doubt of its importance, however, particularly at this early stage of the disease. Worldwide, it took 14 weeks to reach 125,000 cases and just nine days for the next 125,000 people to be infected.

The warning was sounded loudly in a short letter to the South African Medical Journal this week from virologists at Stellenbosch University, who said that unless we chalk up quick wins, Covid-19 infections may peak in May, coinciding with the annual flu season and putting the health care system under overwhelming pressure.

“Taking into account SA's large size and very variable access to quality health care, early implementation of social-distancing measures would have a huge impact in reducing the rate of epidemic spread and the burden of Covid-19 cases in SA,” they said.

We report today that projections about the spread of the virus in SA remain horrifying. Just as worryingly, many South Africans appear to be ignorant about the threat it poses, let alone the steps they need to take to avoid contracting or spreading it.

This is going to be tough in ways we haven't yet been able to imagine

In addition to a massive public health campaign, even stricter containment measures than those already imposed are likely to be required, and they will have to be accompanied by a costly plan to stave off economic disaster.

We can take some comfort from the fact that our health care professionals have years of experience in combating HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, which will stand them in good stead.

This is going to be tough in ways we haven't yet been able to imagine. The suffering will be great, and in many cases it will go on long after the initial crisis is over.

What we have learnt in the past week, however, is that life in our laagers need not mean isolation or alienation. Indeed, it can lead to reconnection and even new connections as we use relatively new tools such as WhatsApp groups and social media to pull together across our yawning divides.

It's no exaggeration to say the success of this unprecedented national effort will be measured in lives, and we've made a good start.


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