Learn from other countries, minimise risks of economic crisis

Members of the Military Emergency Unit (UME) install a tent hospital in the underground parking lot of the Hospital Universitario Central de Asturias to help combat the spread of Covid-19, in Oviedo, Spain, in March. The writer says SA should adopt some of the measures taken by countries such as Spain, Italy and China in the Covid-19 fight, such as building ad-hoc facilities to treat Covid-19 patients.
Members of the Military Emergency Unit (UME) install a tent hospital in the underground parking lot of the Hospital Universitario Central de Asturias to help combat the spread of Covid-19, in Oviedo, Spain, in March. The writer says SA should adopt some of the measures taken by countries such as Spain, Italy and China in the Covid-19 fight, such as building ad-hoc facilities to treat Covid-19 patients.
Image: REUTERS/Eloy Alonso

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads to SA, there are some important lessons that can be learnt from other countries, including China and Italy, which have so far been the global epicentres.

Researchers tell us that Covid-19 has a fatality rate hovering around 1%, which means that of every 100 people infected, one of them dies.

Possibly, by the end of the pandemic, when data will be more complete, we may discover that the rate is actually lower, perhaps 0.5%.

We also know that the majority of infected people do not show the symptoms and are therefore unaware of having been infected: this is a problem because they can infect others unknowingly, but it's also a strength because it means most people simply are not affected by the disease.

Covid-19 exerts the most severe impacts on the elderly population (65 years and older) and on patients with previous chronic conditions.

SA should learn from other countries (including their mistakes) to tackle the pandemic and minimise the risks of a devastating social and economic crisis, which may result in more damage than the disease itself.

First, restrictions should be as targeted as possible. Elderly people should be kept separate from the rest of the population. Infected people should be treated in separate healthcare facilities, because ordinary hospitals, which house a large variety of patients with previous conditions, can indeed become areas of further contagion to the vulnerable population, thus increasing fatalities. In Italy and China, ad hoc facilities were built to treat Covid-19 patients.

Second, remember that panic can kill more than the coronavirus. This is why targeted measures informed by scientific evidence can be more successful than blanket restrictions, which exasperate the population and are difficult to implement.

Moreover, the social and economic consequences can be more devastating than the disease, especially in poorer communities, where you cannot keep people at home without an income for too much time.

Providing financial safety nets to the poor is paramount, but it is also important to send a forward-looking message to the population, with indications as to how economic activities may gradually resume.

One way in which research is helping in other countries is through the rollout of blood tests for coronavirus antibodies. As indicated above, the number of people that have encountered the virus and may have already developed antibodies is much higher than official statistics indicate.

Governments are now trying to identify these people and gauge the extent to which they may have become immune to the infection so that they can gradually resume work.

Third, we need to learn the lesson for the future. The countries that are dealing most successfully with Covid-19 are those with the strongest public healthcare systems, which can endure external shocks and avoid the economic consequences of a prolonged lockdown.

Investing in better health for all is the best economic policy a country can develop.

*Fioramonti is professor at the University of Pretoria and Italy's former minister of education, university and research

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