Overreaction to Covid-19 in early stage of infections will save SA in the long run

24 March 2020 - 08:02
By AND Nompumelelo Runji
SA has a large burden of non-communicable diseases which already comes at a high cost to the country for treatment and stretches the health system. /Gallo Images
SA has a large burden of non-communicable diseases which already comes at a high cost to the country for treatment and stretches the health system. /Gallo Images

While drawing from international best practice in addressing Covid-19, SA needs to have a tailored approach to the country's unique challenges.

SA is characterised by high levels of social, income and wealth inequality as well as spatial inequality. While the privileged few can afford private quality healthcare services, the majority of South Africans rely on the public healthcare system.

SA has a high burden of non-communicable diseases, including diabetes, renal diseases, blood disorders, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and also has a large burden of HIV/Aids and TB. Treating these comes at a very high cost, stretching health system resources considerably.

This is all the more reason why the country needs to contain the spread of the coronavirus which places overwhelming demands on the healthcare system if transmissions are left untamed, as is the situation in Italy. In the case of SA this could result in the collapse of the public healthcare system, to the detriment of the poor.

According to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases yesterday, out of 12,815 tests conducted, SA had registered 402 positive cases by yesterday. Given that all of SA's nine provinces have been touched by the virus, it is logical that we don't only need a national but a provincial and localised response to deal with the spread.

With schools and universities closed, and the Easter weekend coming up, it is likely there will be a mass exodus out of Gauteng, the country's economic hub and most populous province, with migrants numbering in the millions from other parts of the country and continent. KZN and WC are tourist hubs and also account for substantial economic activity.

This year it's not only road crash fatalities emergency services and hospitals will have to contend with. We cannot rule out a spike in positive cases of Covid-19. This is borne out in the experience of the Asian region during the Lunar New Year.

So, given the concentration of the coronavirus in GP, KZN and WC, any intervention will have to possibly restrict movement from these epicentres to prevent an uncontrolled spread of the virus.

The focus needs to be on restricting its geographic footprint and focus on detecting, quarantining and preventing further transmissions. Such measures have proven effective in Asia.

This of course would come at a huge economic cost, especially in the short term, but it could mean the difference between a couple of hundred cases and hundreds of thousands.

Pulling this off would require a social compact between government, business, labour, civil society and residents.

Government should consider measures to support local businesses, including waiving utility bills over a certain period, as is the case in France. Businesses could use the savings to absorb the cost of allowing employees to go on extended paid leave and/or provide resources for them to work remotely.

Telecommunication giants could provide discounted prices on data and fibre and banks could consider making concessions on the servicing of loans and interest.

Residents should take voluntary steps to limit their movements to the essential and avoid even small groups.

Defeating the Covid-19 pandemic calls for solidarity, collective initiative and an effective response. It is better to overreact than underreact, we only need to look at the US and EU to see that.