With reference to the listeriosis outbreak, two comments should greatly concern citizens who rely on the government to protect them from health threats.

First is the comment by a laboratory scientist who apparently said that "a shortage of the solution used for testing for the listeriosis bacterium meant the results of the tests of the Polokwane factory were delayed by two weeks".

What shortage? For two weeks? A modern surveillance system relies on a national laboratory system that must be in a perpetual state of readiness to test for and report on disease outbreaks. Shortages of necessary testing chemicals are simply intolerable.

Second is the remark by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi that, by March 2, the "total of laboratory-confirmed cases [had] risen to 948, still counting from January 2017". A modern surveillance system would pick up unusual deaths almost immediately, enabling an immediate response.

SA is among the few remaining middle-income countries lacking active surveillance, reporting and response systems. But prevention is better than cure, and it is the responsibility of municipalities, whose constitutional mandate is food safety, to actively and regularly send inspectors unannounced to visit places where food is being prepared and manufactured — and for Motsoaledi’s department to audit and support municipal health services in metros and districts. Is that happening? Is it rigorous? I do not think so.

All political parties that run governments are solutions to this multilayered problem and they must work together to fix it, especially in drought-afflicted areas where infection-control measures are being compromised.

Dr Wilmot James
Special adviser on global health security and diplomacy, Columbia University, New York