Dear Fellow South African,
Most people will have noticed that the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in South Africa has been rising fast. More than a half of all cases since the start of the outbreak were recorded in the last two weeks.
During the course of this coming week, we can expect that the total number of cases will pass the 50,000 mark. Sadly, we are also likely to record the 1,000th death from this devastating disease.
Like many South Africans, I too have been worried as I watch these figures keep rising. While these numbers are broadly in line with what the various models had projected, there is a big difference between looking at a graph on a piece of paper and seeing real people becoming infected, some getting ill and some dying.
We can draw some comfort from the knowledge that the nation-wide lockdown in achieving the objective we had of delaying the spread of the virus and that it gave us time to prepare our health facilities and interventions for the expected spike in infections.
The lockdown was not only necessary but it has also given us all time to adjust to living with the virus. Various surveys show that South Africans have come to know a lot about the virus and are taking the necessary precautions to prevent its spread. I have been pleased to realise that a high percentage of South Africans wash their hands regularly, avoid contact with other people and wear face masks whenever they go out in public. I should, however, say that social distancing in public places is still a major challenge for us. We need to focus our attention on ensuring that we adhere to social distancing practices because it is through close contact between people that the virus will be spread.
It is pleasing to realise that businesses, government departments, schools and other institutions have used this time to get themselves ready for a gradual return to more-or-less normal activity. They have been putting stringent health protocols in place, thoroughly cleaning and sanitising their premises and are ensuring that people are regularly screened for COVID-19 symptoms. This is all necessary to ensure that we save lives and protect livelihoods.
Last Friday, I spent the day in Cape Town to get a better sense of the work that is being done to manage the disease there. The Western Cape is the epicentre of coronavirus infections in South Africa, with around two-thirds of all confirmed cases.
I was impressed by the preparations the Western Cape is making to contain infections and to ensure that there are enough beds, staff and medical supplies to accommodate the rapidly increasing number of people needing hospitalisation. They are increasing the number of beds by setting up field hospitals, including at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.
Yet, even with the preparations they have made, they will need more bed capacity as the disease reaches its peak. They need help from outside the province, including additional funding and health personnel.
This provides the clearest evidence yet that we are correct to treat coronavirus as a national disaster. We must mobilise and deploy all the necessary resources we have in the country. We need an integrated strategy that brings together the national, provincial and local spheres of government.
After the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape is the province with the fastest-growing proportion of people infected. And we know that some of the infections in the province were the result of people travelling from the Western Cape. What this tells us is that no part of the country is an island and that all South Africans, no matter where they live, need to remain vigilant and prepared. It is for this reason also that people are not permitted to travel between provinces while the country is at alert level 3, except under specific circumstances and with the necessary permits.
As we watch the number of infections rise further – probably far faster than most of us imagined – we should be concerned, but not alarmed. That is because we have the ability, as individuals, communities and as a country, to limit the impact of the disease on our people.
As we have shown, we can slow the spread of the disease, and we should continue to take all measures possible to continue to flatten the infection curve. Most importantly, we must be prepared to reduce the number of deaths by implementing the necessary health measures.
Working with our social partners, we in government are working hard to prepare for the increase of infections. We have been buying personal protection equipment from across the world and supporting local companies to produce them here. We have been improving the infrastructure in hospitals and setting up temporary hospitals and finding more beds for COVID-19 patients. We have deployed tens of thousands of community health workers to detect cases in areas where people live. We are intensifying the programme of screening, testing, contact tracing and, where necessary, isolation.
Although we have made progress, we still need to do much more in the coming weeks to meet the expected demand.
You can also do much to prepare as individuals and families. Already many have made the effort to learn as much as they can about the disease, how to identify the symptoms and how to avoid getting infected or infecting others. Many people have thought about how they can go to school or work safely, and how they can change their shopping behaviour or how they worship to minimise the risk of infection.
Each household should look at how they can protect elderly people and those with underlying conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, cancer, TB or HIV. Do plan for the possibility that someone in the family may become infected and whether you will be able to isolate them from family members until they are better. If not, find out where the closest government quarantine site is. You should also plan ahead for what to do if someone gets sick.
Over the coming weeks, as we watch the coronavirus infections continue to rise, we must remember that we are not helpless.
And we should remember one simple, but a fundamental, message: Don’t be alarmed. Be prepared.
With best wishes,