STRAIGHT TALK: Key to managing Coronavirus is to slow its spread

Coronavirus has become a pandemic. Although it is still developing rapidly, there is already a lot South Africa can learn from other country experience – China, Italy, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and others – to reduce its impact here in South Africa.

It is now clear that countries that anticipate the virus and act swiftly have both a lower infection rate (infections per 1000 people) and a lower fatality rate (deaths per infections).

The coronavirus (Covid-19 virus) hits a country gradually and then suddenly because it grows exponentially unless checked. The number of actual cases of infection will be much higher than the number of officially reported cases because of the lag in time it takes for symptoms to appear.

The key to limiting damage is to slow the spread of the disease as much as possible. Even if the same number of people are ultimately infected, it is vastly preferable for the virus to spread slower. This reduces pressure on our healthcare system, enabling it to handle cases much better, which in turn drives down the fatality rate.

The more we postpone cases, the better healthcare those infected will get, the lower the mortality rate, and the higher the share of the population that will be vaccinated before it gets infected.

The most simple and effective measure we can take now is social distancing: keeping people home as much as possible for as long as possible until the virus recedes. The less social interaction there is, the slower the virus will spread.

This virus can be spread within two metres if someone coughs. It survives for hours or days on surfaces, so frequently touched things such as doorknobs can spread the infection to our hands, which then gets into our systems when we touch our nose, eyes or mouth.

The only two options for South Africa are containment and mitigation. Containment is making sure all cases are identified, controlled and isolated. Singapore and Taiwan have done this very well. They quickly limited people coming in, identified the sick and isolated them.

Once there are hundreds or thousands of cases, containment isn’t enough, and the next level is mitigation requiring heavy social distancing. Italy left it too late and now the entire country is in lockdown. The country has moved to close all non-crucial commercial activity, with only transportation, pharmacies and groceries to remain open.

At first glance there appears to be a trade-off to acting now, while there are so few confirmed cases in SA. People will be asking themselves if the socio-economic cost of social distancing now (working from home, cancelling large events) is worth the reduced health risks.

But both the health and socio-economic costs of waiting until the infection has spread more widely will be far higher, as supply chains are disrupted and vulnerable businesses are pushed closer to bankruptcy during a major lockdown.

So, the time to take social distancing and other preventative measures (covering your mouth when you cough, staying at home if you have a fever, washing hands frequently, avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands) is now, even as government does what it can to contain the spread of the virus.

Those countries which have acted early and swiftly to contain and mitigate have reduced the number of deaths by ten times.

In SA, there is a fairness issue to consider. Coronavirus will hit wealthier people first, as they’re the ones who can travel to places like Italy, UK, China and bring it back here. But it will hit poorer people hardest, as they have less access to quality healthcare, and less financial buffer if this virus results in job losses, which is highly likely.

The urban poor will find it harder to slow the spread, living in densely populated townships and using public transport. So, there is a moral obligation on wealthier people to take precautions, particularly social distancing, now to slow the spread of the virus.

In addition, our healthcare system needs manpower and money, so that it is best able to treat those who do become infected.

This virus highlights the importance of building a capable state. A capable state is a resilient state, with the ability to manage disasters and recover quickly. South Africa is vulnerable now, because of our largely dysfunctional public healthcare system and our growing debt problem. Living prudently and saving for a rainy day applies as much to a country as it does to a family.

The DA is committed to building a capable state. Our universal healthcare plan, Sizani, would be faster and more effective than NHI at extending healthcare to all in SA. This week, our Fiscal Responsibility Bill was published in the Government Gazette for public comment. It will be tabled next week. If passed, it will help reduce our national debt and the associated debt service costs.

As a country, we need to be sure that we have enough money ongoing to spend on essential services such as health. And we need to build buffer into our system, so that we can cope with unexpected challenges. More than anything, building a capable state means employing people who are qualified to get the job done. As with tackling Coronavirus, the sooner, the better.