Peter Bruce Editor-at-large & columnist
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the nation on government’s response on additional extraordinary measures to contain and combat the spread of the coronavirus. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the nation on government’s response on additional extraordinary measures to contain and combat the spread of the coronavirus. Picture: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS

A three-week lockdown with around 600 (by Friday) Covid-19 infections from the coronavirus and no deaths under our belt is probably not a bad start. The announcement last night by President Cyril Ramaphosa of further and severe measures to contain the epidemic in our country will make history.

It is Ramaphosa’s second, but already his last, shot at saving the country. I think three weeks is way too ambitious. The government is going to need more than a month and if this doesn’t work then a few million of us are going to die.

From midnight on Thursday we are required to stay at home, allowed to leave only under extreme circumstances. There’s a bit of a muddle between that and the fact that we seem to be able to leave home to buy food but presumably we get stopped on the way to the shops by police and soldiers asking us what we are doing? I can’t work out what life is going to be like. My first thought listening to the president was how annoyed my two Ridgebacks are going to be when I can’t take them for a lonely walk on a nearby farm as we do every morning.

But there’s no point complaining. The fact is very simple. If we don’t contain this virus it will consume us. Nothing else matters, not me and my dogs and not you and your special needs either. Not your shopping, not your business, not your pension, not the rand, not the job you start on Monday. Stay. At. Home. The virus doesn’t spread itself. You spread the virus.

And thank the lord you’re not a foreign tourist in SA. If you are, and you arrived here after March 9, you’re confined to your hotel room. A friend of mine owns a lodge in KwaZulu-Natal and was told early on Monday by the department of tourism not to allow his guests to leave. A German group insisted on leaving. My friend, quite a large guy, said they weren’t. By last night they had reconciled themselves to three weeks in comfort away from the blistering winter back home.

Ramaphosa looks better by the day. He’s taken bold and early action and it just might work, despite the near-impossible living and working conditions of most of our people. He seems confident he can ramp up testing (they are even going to ease up on the hoops you have to jump through to get a test) and what he needs to do is map out where the virus is most active or growing and pour testers into it. Find the infected and sick and isolate them and help them.

Three weeks may not be enough. He may need another week, but with enough support from friends and allies we can get the testing we need and hopefully avoid the clogged hospitals of Italy and Spain.

It will be close. The financial aspects of the plan he presented yesterday do little more than ease the pain for now, for small businesses, bigger ones and individuals. There’s no US or German $1-trillion stimulus package in the works. We’re poor. What we got was an intricate manipulation of financing and assistance to help avoid the agony of unemployment or (temporary, one hopes) closure.

Even if we survive it will be to come home to a shattered economy screaming out for reform and change. Hopefully, Ramaphosa will have done well enough in addressing this disaster to impose himself on the recovery of the economy as well. But that’s a year or more away.

I have to say, though, that I loved the fact that the Oppenheimer and Rupert families have each pledged R1bn to help struggling small business through this crisis. Good for them. They didn’t have to do it and they take an enormous amount of abuse from the spoiled brats of the revolution for being rich. The thing is that the Oppenheimers and the Ruperts are not SA’s problem. Our problem is poverty, not wealth. Or, better put, our problem is not being able to appreciate that simple fact. I wonder who will manage the funds?

But beyond all the talk the fact is that, from Friday onwards baby, you’re on your own and, trust me, you’re still better off here than in Europe for the moment. If we can nip this in the bud before winter life will become a lot calmer, even if we are now all worth basically nothing.

And don’t give up. While we wait for miracle vaccines or cures the medical and scientific community around the world seems to be at war with itself. Fights break out on Twitter over whether one voice is defending a special interest or from fervent believers in a particular drug who pounce on cautious people who advocate more testing and then lengthy peer review of possible treatments.

Some of it started with a paper I used in this column last week. It purported to have been put together under the aegis of Stanford University of the US and proposed using Hydroxychloroquine and an antiretroviral in combination as a viable treatment, arguing that it was one of the strategies used successfully by doctors in Wuhan. Chloroquine is a very old antimalaria medication and it is available here.

The chloroquine story quickly grew legs. The UK government banned all exports of the compound and then US President Donald Trump, much to the embarrassment of Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Disease, standing next to him, punted it at a press conference. Sadly, Trump’s stewardship of the Covid-19 epidemic in his own country has been so poor, his support for the use of chloroquine did it little good.

This scathing piece taking out the authors of the original paper appeared on Huffpost.

Obviously, people should not take chloroquine, or any other drug, without proper medical supervision, as has been borne out by reports of the death of a Phoenix-area man who died after self-medicating with chloroquine.

But all is not lost for chloroquine. This piece reported that a wide range of existing drugs might help as the medical community struggles to get past tut-tutting once you’re infected and putting you on a ventilator if it gets really bad. It suggests even the South Koreans, who have probably done better than most to contain Covid-19, think chloroquine might be useful. 

In one of the angry Twitter responses to some poor scientist just asking people to give science time to test treatments, I found this. It’s pretty interesting.  And if you’ve still got your nose in the air and think the chloroquine thing is just rubbish, how about the grandaddy of the Anglo-Saxon medical establishment, the British medical journal The Lancet, as a source of some comfort. I mean for heaven’s sake, is there any work at all going on in SA on this damned drug. There must be tons of it here

And the thoughtful scientist just asking for a little space? He is Jason Pogue and yesterday he co-authored this paper, which still gives chloroquine a shot. Once you open it scroll down to the PDF and open it. It’s really interesting. There’s no doubt in my mind, scientist or not, that we should be making chloroquine here now at a rate of knots. 

And finally there was this seriously interesting piece on TimesLive from the always excellent Tanya Farber. It is already widely known that Chinese doctors who had to deal with the first big outbreak of Covid-19 were highly complimentary of a Japanese treatment, Avigan, made by Fujifilm.

Two or possibly three men trying to market this drug through the world have found themselves trapped in SA by travel restrictions and are now holed up in the Karoo. Perhaps now that the government has taken its best shot, it might call Farber and ask her where the men are and fly them to Pretoria. There’d be no end of willing people to trial Avigan.

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