Lessons learnt and the gains made: SA’s COVID-19 journey so far

With South Africa having reached the grim milestone of one million confirmed infections, many of the lessons learnt will come in handy for government’s response plan into 2021.

FILE: A member of the SAPS enforces social distancing while shoppers queue outside a supermarket in Yeoville, Johannesburg, on 28 March 2020. Picture: AFP

JOHANNESBURG - There may have been some trial and error in dealing with COVID-19, but in the last few months scientists have made remarkable progress, enabling nations to deal with obstacles such as second waves of infections.

With South Africa having reached the grim milestone of one million confirmed infections, many of the lessons learnt will come in handy for government’s response plan.

Deserted highways, snaking queues to stock up on groceries, limited contact as well as confusion and uncertainty over things like wearing of masks.

The fear was palpable.

"We are preparing over 1.5 million grave sites - and it’s an uncomfortable discussion, but it’s reality."

Former Gauteng Health MEC Bandile Masuku's words had cut like a knife and the impact of the pandemic hit home for many.

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In the early days - when not much was known about the coronavirus, the world only caught glimpses of it through media reports from China - then the epicentre.

And before we knew it, the virus has made its way to South Africa. On 27 March, the country went into a hard lockdown - initially set for 21 days.

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While the government relied on science to craft its response plan to COVID-19 and South Africans largely rallied behind President Cyril Ramaphosa, teething problems and mixed messages were hard to ignore.

“I think for the general public who are trying to protect themselves from coronavirus, there is no recommendation for masks. The reason is that there is no evidence that wearing a standard surgical mask actually reduces your risk of catching a respiratory infection.”

This was the word from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD)'s Professor Cheryl Cohen who - like many others - relied on the information from leading experts and the World Health Organization.

Communication around testing was also still somewhat sketchy.

This is was Professor Salim Abdool Karim - one of the country’s infectious diseases specialists and epidemiologist - said back in April 2020.

“So you cannot be tested unless you have an acute respiratory tract infection. And we require that you have at least one in four symptoms that are common in patients who have COVID.”

Some lessons were tough and brought much consternation, but serious gains were also made.

South Africa was credited by many for leading by example after deciding on an early lockdown - affording the officials some time to prepare health structures, among others.

The battle is far from over, and with the country now in the midst of a second wave, it’s hoped that government is better placed to deal with it and to prepare resources for the rollout of a possible vaccine in the months to come.

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