Tension, fear as South Africa steps up coronavirus fight

Johannesburg, South Africa. Gatherings of more than 100 people were prohibited while the population was advised to minimise contact with others and do the "elbow greeting" rather than shaking hands. Schools, nurseries and universities were also ordered to remain shut from Wednesday onwards.

"Never before in the history of our democracy has our country been confronted with such a severe situation," Ramaphosa said in a dramatic speech, which he opened by declaring a national state of disaster.

"Suddenly, South Africans jolted into action," said Professor Mosa Moshabela, from the School of Nursing and Public Health of the University of Kwazulu Natal. "And that is good," added Moshabela, who is convinced that the country's fighting chance against the new coronavirus is social distancing and precautious behaviour.

Now declared a pandemic, the outbreak of the new coronavirus that was first detected in China late last year has infected nearly 200,000 people in more than 150 countries.

COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by the virus, has so far killed almost 8,000 people, while more than 81,000 others have recovered. Across Africa, the number of registered infections has risen to 418 in 30 countries, while South Africa's government has been one of several in the continent to impose travel restrictions on European countries and the United States.

In the days before Ramaphosa's speech, South Africans had been aware of "corona" but did not seem too concerned about it as the country of some 59 million people had only registered just a few dozen cases, all of which involved international travellers.

But over the past 48 hours, a sense of insecurity has largely swept through South Africa as it is getting ready for the shutdown. Measures other countries had taken gradually over weeks, such as closing schools, imposing severe domestic and international travel restrictions and shutting entry points, South Africa took all at once. Thirty-five of 53 land entry points have been closed, as have two out of eight seaports.

In South Africa, about 9 percent of the population is 60 years or older, while the situation is complicated by the country's dual burden of HIV and tuberculosis.

"We cannot contain COVID-19 with our health system alone," Moshabela said. "If we look at how Italy [Europe's coronavirus hotspot] is coping with the virus - we can't do it. We will be similar to that with the difference is that we don't have a big old population but a high number of people who have TB and HIV. Those who are going to be affected the most are going to be between 20 and 60.

Health professionals agree that only a drastic public health response can prevent the virus from spreading at a fast pace, warning that societal factors such as lack of access to information and lack of sense of empowerment - people often do not know where to seek help or what they can do to protect themselves - complicates the fight to contain COVID-19.

Meanwhile, in the streets of Johannesburg, the mood has shifted from cracking "corona" jokes to general tension and confusion.

"We don't have the basics," he said, referring to the need for people to understand why shaking hands, giving hugs or going to gatherings is not acceptable any more.

But even when information is accessible, there is denial.

"There is tension with religion, there is tension with economy. But on the other hand, if we carry on as if it was nothing, some of us won't have a life at all."


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