South Africa and COVID-19
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New York-based Guyanese journalist Hugh Hamilton on the ferry to Robben Island last February, just before the COVID-19 struck.
New York-based Guyanese journalist Hugh Hamilton on the ferry to Robben Island last February, just before the COVID-19 struck.

By Francis Quamina Farrier

Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its spread all around the world, I have written articles which have focused on the way some countries have been dealing with the challenges brought on by the pandemic. In previous articles, I reported on the situation in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. In this article, we take a look at the COVID-19 situation in South Africa, and how the authorities in that former country of apartheid are assisting the population to stay safe and keep hope alive.

South Africa has the highest number of cases and deaths of the Coronavirus on the continent of Africa. While all African countries have relatively low cases compared with other highly populated and developed countries such as the USA, India, China and Brazil, South Africa is the epicentre of the pandemic on the African continent. With a population of 58 million, there are 34,500 cases and 1,700 deaths. The Western Cape at the southernmost area of the country is the hardest hit and responsible for 60 percent of the cases and deaths in the country. A South African friend of mine, Chris Spies, who worked in Guyana for some years, is based in that area of South Africa. I have not heard from him since the break of the pandemic and am uncertain about his personal situation.

Farrier at right, with South African Chris Spies, who lives in the Cape area and worked in Guyana for some years.

Many African countries with populations in the millions have less than 100 deaths. The reason is that those countries took immediate action and put things in place to stop the spread of the disease at an early stage; they closed their borders and international airports and went into national lockdown very early. Testing was also immediate and quarantine was put in place wherever and whenever it was necessary.

Juxtaposed with the United States with a population of 330.151 million and 130,200 deaths, South Africa is still not doing too badly. Guyana’s neighbour Brazil, with a population of 208 million has already chalked up 45,000 deaths and rapidly counting.

In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa is seen frequently wearing what are obviously custom-made face masks which are even embroidered with the South African flag and look really classy.  “Studies show that wearing a cloth mask or similar piece of clothing that covers both your nose and mouth at all times when one is in public, is one of those measures that reduce the rate of transmitting the virus,” said the president in a television broadcast. “Millions of South Africans including children, are now wearing cloth masks whenever they leave home,” he said. Meanwhile, the country’s economy is taking a severe beating due to the lockdown. “Difficult days lie ahead in terms of the country’s budget,” President Ramaphosa informed the people in one of his frequent radio and television broadcasts regards the coronavirus.

The lockdown in South Africa which commenced on March 26, is now partially lifted, sending some eight million workers back to work, worship, exercise and shopping. Mines and factories have also been permitted to operate at full capacity to revive the economy. This is being done, “Subject to strict health protocols. Through our behaviour as individuals, we can reduce the likelihood that we will get infected or infect others,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa, who recently allowed restaurants, take-aways, and food establishments to re-open for home delivery service during certain hours. “More and more of us now know someone who is infected, whether at work or school or in our church, mosque, temple or synagogue.”

“A study by the University of Oxford in Britain found that the drug dexamethasone – which is also manufactured here in South Africa by one of our pharmaceutical companies, and of which there is an ample supply – reduced deaths among patients on ventilation,” President Ramaphosa added.

Meanwhile, the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) has implemented a technology-based solution for food assistance through vouchers and cash transfers to ensure that help reaches those who need it faster and more efficiently. Some 250,000 food parcels have been delivered so far. Millions have already been paid out in assistance to 37,000 companies and 600,000 workers. Small businesses have also received financial assistance from the government.

So how is the pandemic affecting the functioning of the Guyana High Commission in South Africa? “We, like all other Diplomatic Missions, follow the guidelines as set out by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), concerning lockdown procedures that enhance the safety and wellbeing of staff and the public during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” stated Guyana’s High Commissioner to South Africa, Dr. Kenrick Hunte. “Our office is open two times per week – Monday and Thursday – while for other days, we communicate virtually with the public and other Diplomatic Missions from home. In order to maintain social distancing, all office visits by the public, when required, are by appointments only.”  Because Guyana’s international airports are not totally re-opened, the High Commission has temporarily suspended the issuing of visas. “We provide all other services using the internet and the courier services provided by DHL and FedEx,” Dr. Kenrick Hunte stated.

Giving the South African people reason to keep hope alive, President Cyril Ramaphosa communicates regularly on radio and television, giving the rallying cry: “We shall recover. We shall overcome. We shall prosper. May God bless South Africa and protect her people.” South Africa battled for decades against the evil system of apartheid – and won. This is a new war which they and the rest of the world are now fighting.

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