Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects the coronavirus prevention and control work at Anhuali Community in Beijing, China, on February 10 2020. Picture: XINHUA VIA REUTERS
Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects the coronavirus prevention and control work at Anhuali Community in Beijing, China, on February 10 2020. Picture: XINHUA VIA REUTERS

If we have learnt one thing in the past week it is how quickly things can change. Last week, we were getting a trickle of cases in SA, and the crisis was essentially a foreign one with eyes on China, Iran, Italy and a few other countries.

Even the UK and the US were not on the radar in terms of places to be worried about, a factor that was not helped by communication by their governments.

In the US, President Donald Trump vacillated between dismissing the outbreak as a hoax and calling on the Federal Reserve to respond by cutting interest rates more aggressively. Over the weekend, the BBC reported that more than 200 scientists wrote a joint letter attacking the UK government’s casual approach and lack of restrictions, such as those seen in places in Italy, despite the death toll rising to more than 20.

As the Italian case has shown, the jump can reach uncontrollable levels in a short space of time and there can be no room for complacency. By Sunday, the total number of cases in Italy was reported at almost 25,000, with deaths approaching 2,000. Globally, the death toll exceeded 6,500, with total cases nearing 170,000. We are in the middle of a global pandemic.

We support President Cyril Ramaphosa’s proactive steps to try to contain the effect of the virus, though they are likely to impose economic and other costs to the nation at least in the short term.

Bans on travel across the world are pushing airlines stronger than SAA to their knees, and it’s hard to believe our national airliner, already in business rescue, can survive this latest crisis.  

“In the last few weeks we have seen a dramatic decline in economic activity in our trading partners, a sudden drop in tourism and severe instability across global markets,” the president said in an address broadcast on national television, as he announced a raft of measures including the closure of schools.

Ramaphosa also announced that SA would impose a ban on foreign nationals travelling from high-risk countries, including Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the UK, US and China, and that visas issued to potential visitors from these countries have been revoked.

Countries that are usually not subjected to visa regulations for short travel, such as the UK, will have that change.

Locally, health minister Zweli Mkhize warned on Monday that if the spread is not contained, the country could impose a state of emergency and consider quarantining people away from their homes.

The big unknown is how SA will respond to the virus spreading to poorer parts of the country, where communication and medical infrastructure is not up to scratch. Millions of the working poor simply cannot afford to take time off work.

These people are less likely to self-isolate just because they have developed cold-like symptoms, and by the time they are reached by the health system they might have spread it to countless others. As constrained as SA’s fiscal space is, we need to come up with measures to encourage people to voluntarily stay away without fearing financial ruin.

And those in middle-class suburbs also need to be encouraged to behave responsibly. There are reports of widespread hoarding and empty supermarket shelves in the UK as people stock up on sanitisers, toilet paper and baby-milk formula in preparation for a potentially long lockdown.

While from an individual perspective this might make sense, societally it can cause much damage. Excessive amounts of soap locked up in your garage makes it more likely that people who need these products won’t have access. Perhaps it will be time for retailers, should they see evidence of a spike in hoarding, to restrict sales of key products.

There’s no doubt we are in the midst of a crisis both on a local and global level. The government has to be commended on its communication efforts so far. We all need to play our role to keep ourselves and our communities safe, and the best way to do that is to follow the scientific advice and act responsibly.

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