Ubuntu will save SA from Covid-19, says Salim Abdool Karim

Epidemiologist and director of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research, Prof Salim Abdool Karim, chairs the government’s Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee.
Epidemiologist and director of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research, Prof Salim Abdool Karim, chairs the government’s Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

Ubuntu is SA's best chance of defeating Covid-19, says the government's leading adviser on the pandemic.

Speaking to Nature, Prof Salim Abdool Karim — chair of the health minister's advisory committee — said SA was built on ubuntu and it was the principle that could save it.

“This virus exposes the fault lines in our society. But I think when we get to a point where sufficient numbers of people have a relative, or family member, or someone in their neighbourhood who has been sick or died from the virus, individuals are moved to collective action so that they can stand united again,” said Karim.

“When the problem didn’t seem so serious, when the lockdown slowed transmission, people questioned the restrictions as those of a nanny state.

“But I think we are going to realise pretty soon that the best protection we have from this virus is ubuntu — a South African word that means ‘I am because you are’. I am safe because you are safe.

“I saw that in HIV, when people saw the deaths of those close to them, it pushed a change in behaviour. We as a country are built on the principle of ubuntu. We have to rediscover that, or we won’t defeat this virus.”

Karim told Nature he still expected the number of Covid-19 cases in SA, which stood at 421,996 on Friday, to rise substantially, “possibly exceeding a million”.

And he revealed the stress he had experienced by being the scientist who had to tell South Africans about the severity of the pandemic.

“We hoped SA would end up having some ‘mojo’ that would protect it better than other countries. But the reality of SA dictates otherwise,” he said.

“Large parts of our country do not have the ability to institute social distancing and for people to wash their hands regularly. So, we had to plan that we would not be able to contain it, while hoping that we would.

“But when I presented the likely scenario to politicians and later to the public around Easter, I explained that we had to face a difficult truth — that we were not likely to be able to contain the virus, and that the spread would probably rise exponentially as we eased lockdown restrictions. It was really difficult to say that to the entire nation.”

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