ONE YEAR OF COVID-19 | ‘Mistakes were made, lessons were learnt’: Zweli Mkhize
Health minister Zweli Mkhize said the Covid-19 crisis has been a rough year-long journey for SA in which mistakes were made, lessons were learnt and achievements were made.
He was speaking at Greys Hospital in Pietermaritzburg on Friday morning when the provincial government and health department hosted an event to mark a year since the coronavirus hit the country.
Mkhize paid tribute to the more than 50,000 people who have lost their lives to Covid-19, including political analyst Karima Brown, who died of Covid-related complications on Thursday.
“We are here to look back at the year and thank all South Africans for the fearless manner in which they approached the fight against Covid-19.
“Exactly a year ago, I had the unenviable position of briefing the president that we had our first case of Covid-19. It’s been a long journey since then. I want to convey my deepest condolences to all those who lost their loved ones.
“I look back on the day filled with anxiety and trepidation. I had to call the president and say, ‘Mr President, this is the call I wish I never had to make’.”
Mkhize recalled how plans were put into motion to tackle the coronavirus after the first cases were detected in KwaZulu-Natal.
He said what was most heartening for him was when nurses at Greys Hospital, during his visit there a year ago, started singing that they did not fear Covid-19 and were ready to tackle the coronavirus.
“That was the beginning of the hope we all shared.
“The real crunch time came when we saw every day that the numbers were doubling. I recall several meetings with experts and professors to discuss this issue. It became clear the numbers and the way they were rising they would overwhelm the health system. Then came the expression of ‘flattening the curve’.”
In a meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa and the cabinet he explained many people would be infected.
“Many months later the president told me he didn’t like that statement because he thought it was kind of mean, but later he realised this infection could affect anyone.”
Speaking about the hard lockdown imposed on March 26 last year, Mkhize said: “We realised we had to stop the virus moving by stopping people moving.
“It was a most uncomfortable and painful decision but it had to be done because we had to save and protect our people.
“We want to say thank you to all South Africans. The lockdown meant no taxis and buses. Everyone co-operated. We had gone around speaking to religious leaders. I never thought we would to get to a point in the history the country where they would cancel Easter celebrations.
“We want to say thank you to religious leaders. Had they not done so they would have been party to super-spreader events. They saved our nation.”
Touching on the Cuban health brigade who arrived in the country last year, he said they did not displace any SA doctors. Mkhize praised the assistance they provided to the strained health-care system.
“They came to help South African doctors and not displace them. They have done a brilliant job.”
He said one of the most painful aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic is the fear and anxiety around contracting the virus. He said South Africans had to get used to wearing masks and social distancing and not visiting their loved ones.
SA is on course. We don’t have the same fear we had a year ago.Zweli Mkhize
“We had to do things we are not used to doing.”
Mkhize said there was tension between government and unions over the initial shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). “And we had to deal with corruption around PPE.”
He said the government had been taken by surprise by the second wave of infections and the new variant. “This variant has changed the whole approach to dealing with Covid-19. The high level of expertise of scientists helped us identify the variant.”
He said the vaccination of health workers was well under way. “We have done 92,000 vaccinations. In another day or so we would have passed the 100,000 mark among health workers.”
He appealed to South Africans to be “patient” regarding the vaccines. “The vaccination will come for all South Africans who need it. We will open the next phase in April for teachers, traditional healers, people with co-morbidities and taxi drivers.”
More vaccination sites will be rolled out, Mkhize said. He said Pfizer vaccines would most likely be administered in urban areas where the “supply of electricity and storage is much better”.
“We will use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in smaller towns and areas. It won’t be rigid like that, but just to make sure storage is not a problem.”
He said a interministerial team appointed by the president will deal with issues of storage and power supply.
The minister thanked health workers “for all the work they have done looking after those who suffered from Covid-19” and said they had “done a magnificent job”.
“I have spoken to doctors, nurses and physicians. I am amazed by their courage to face Covid-19.
“It has been a very rough journey but in that process we have learnt a lot. We have made many mistakes and we have also achieved a lot. SA is on course. We don’t have the same fear we had a year ago.”
Mkhize said the fight was far from over and a joint effort was required so the next wave of infections does not take the country by surprise.