/Daniel Silke: Five reasons why South Africa better placed to escape worst of the coronavirus

Daniel Silke: Five reasons why South Africa better placed to escape worst of the coronavirus

2020-03-10 16:26

The macro-political and economic environment therefore heaps pressure on Minister Mkhize and the broader ANC to perform at levels well beyond their recent abilities, writes Daniel Silke

There are no guarantees in life. Particularly when a virtual pandemic without any human antibodies nor any vaccine exists. The effects of which have set off a news-cycle that changes by the minute.

Despite all of this – and at the time of writing – a country at the Southern tip of Africa might just be better positioned to weather the pending storm.

There are, perhaps, five broad reasons to be a little more hopeful about South Africa’s management of life with the coronavirus (Covid19).

Firstly, there is something to be said for distance from the epicentre of the outbreak.

Although trade and tourism links with China have mushroomed in recent years, Pretoria and Beijing are a long way from each other.

Similarly, the situation in Italy is of much greater concern to its immediate neighbours like Switzerland, Austria of France than to residents of Durban.

This despite the existence of at least seven confirmed cases all related to travellers returning from the heavily infected northern Italian regions.

Europe is hugely integrated across road and rail networks with few border controls allowing for maximum mobility.

The spread there is of huge continental concern – a feature not present in the South African context.

Of course, Covid-19 knows no borders, but substantial physical remoteness will at the very least, retard the immediate spread – and that’s critical.

Secondly, a warmer climate may indeed be a factor in slowing the spread of the virus.

Initial research from the University of Maryland identifies an increasing propensity for “community spread” (those that spread the virus without direct links to travel or an infected person) to occur in colder climates.

There may be a convergence of both Latitude and temperature (5-11C and 47-79% humidity) where such “community transfer” is more dangerous.

More tropical or temperate climates, like the South African summer (and autumn) may indeed play a part in preventing the virus from spreading.

Although, winter temperatures do drop significantly, it may well be that the current warmer days will be crucial at this stage of the outbreak.

Thirdly, one of the most crucial ways to manage this crisis is to buy as much time as possible by following World Health organisation (WHO) protocols as assiduously as possible.

Given that China, South Korea and now Italy have borne the brunt of the rapid spread of the disease, the body of medical and scientific evidence now accumulated is extensive.

This affords South Africa the chance to implement available best practice guidelines (enhanced

testing, border controls, social distancing) and puts the country in a relative position of strength despite its somewhat deficient public health facilities.

Fourthly, one should never discount the politics and optics of any crisis management. The country desperately needs to show that its besieged state sector can perform under pressure.

Notorious for its inefficiencies and often dereliction of duty (particularly in the health-care sector), there is a matter of restoring pride to be considered.

If the State can somehow manage this and set an example among nations, it’s not only a propaganda coup for the long-suffering public sector, but it will advance calls to provide nationalised health care to all as part of the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme.

Thus far, the leadership role from Health Minister Zweli Mhize has been exemplary and the team seconded to provide back-up support have been most professional in their communications and assessments.

Finally, COVID-19 is not only a health threat, it can portend economic collapse.

South Africa is already in a recession without the complicating factors of the virus.

Given the market turmoil this week, a global recession now adds a double-blow to a punch-drink country.

Nothing applies the mind more than absolute necessity.

The domestic economy is almost on its knees.

Allowing the coronavirus to decimate an already fragile state – through mismanagement – could undermine social cohesion and even place substantial political risk on the governing ANC.

The macro-political and economic environment therefore heaps pressure on Minister Mkhize and the broader ANC to perform at levels well beyond their recent abilities.

The challenge for South Africa will be whether the country can harness the much-vaunted ‘social compact’ to allow for an integrated approach to combating and delaying the onset the virus.

It would certainly be naive to suggest the country will not be affected or to minimise the impact.

Yet, at least for moment, a combination of location, climate and necessity might well buy us enough time to see the global contagion reduced.

That would retard the worst outcome for us and allow for enhanced global protocols and even a vaccine to bring relief.

– Daniel Silke is a political analyst, author and keynote speaker

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