MPs question minister on COVID-19 ahead of Parly debate

MPs question minister on COVID-19 ahead of Parly debatePHOTO: DOH
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MPs were caught up in a foxtrot of hypotheticals and assurances over COVID-19 with Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and senior officials in Parliament today.

Mkhize and his department briefed MPs in the Portfolio Committee on Health on COVID-19 ahead of a debate on South Africa’s readiness for an outbreak in the National Assembly tomorrow.

Questions and hypotheticals

EFF MP Naledi Chirwa was one of the MPs who had a couple of hypotheticals ready that gave a taste of things to come when these issues are raised in the debate on Thursday.

Chirwa asked Mkhize what his plan is for regulating domestic transport systems especially in townships and rural areas with lots of poor people. “If people get sick, they cannot just take off from work so the disease can easily spread in taxis, buses and trains. What is your strategy to confront this issue should it happen?”

Mkhize reminded MPs that there is no confirmed case of COVID-19 in South Africa, so until there are signs of open infection across the country, the issue around transport is not a concern for now.

Chirwa was also not convinced that enough is being done to get information on COVID-19 to South Africans, especially the poor. “How are you disseminating information in schools, clinics and parliament? How are you managing it? If someone does not have Twitter, you’re in the darkness. If you don’t have data, you’re in darkness. People have to rely on a 30 second clip on the news every night to know what’s going on. So, what are you doing to strengthen your public information systems?”

Acting Director-General in the Department of Health Dr Anban Pillay conceded that the department may have to think about other ways to disseminate information. “Maybe we will need to reach people differently through different media,” he said.

Pillay, Mkhize and his Deputy Minister of Health Joe Phaahla warned against fake news and disinformation that fuels stigma.

Phaahla told MPs they are “very concerned” about stigma. “Little education can be very dangerous,” he said. Phaahla said there is agreement on more public education. Despite their concerns, however, details were scant and unconvincing on what the public information campaign is and the impact thereof.

‘Upping our game’

According to Mkhize the department has been “upping its game on public information”. He said the department has been issuing notices and updates to keep South Africans informed.

“It’s been ongoing and started more than a month ago and we are increasing it as we go.” Mkhize reminded Spotlight that the virus has only been around for about two months but we get questions as if we are dealing with something that’s been around for the last 35 years. “We are actually upping our game. It will take a while for information to filter down to everybody, but we’ve been doing daily updates and we believe those who have been getting information appreciate it. We will keep increasing this and the absorbtion capacity of the public will be gauged on the basis of what other methods of communication will actually help to close the gaps. The immediate thing is to be there publicly explaining to people on a daily basis through the media. There’s no fault in that approach. It’s a continuous process.”

When pressed on more detail, Mkhize said they will be mounting a much wider programme of distributing leaflets and pamphlets and also use MPs as a primary source of information to the public.

Judged by questions MPs, especially opposition MPs, raised during the briefing they themselves still have their own questions.

Travel bans

During the briefing DA MP Siviwe Gwarube also pressed Mkhize on South Africa’s intentions with possible travel bans. She also commended the government for COVID-19 strategies put in place thus far. “The reality is that this virus has rocked some of the strongest health systems in the world and we will have to have strong measures in place,” Gwarube said. She asked Mkhize if he is considering travel bans, and at what stage and what will trigger that. The USA and Australia are among the countries that have travel bans in place.

According to Mkhize there has been no decision on travel bans. “As South Africa we have not moved in that direction. We will continue monitoring the situation. In many countries they are cancelling big conferences and also restricting interaction of people from various countries. We have to really look at it from the point of view of South Africa. Now we don’t have a case. We are vigorous in our screening. People come from various areas that is considered risky. We are going to monitor our situation, So, at the moment we stay as we are.”

Pillay in turn explained that any decision on travel bans need to be weighed up against other matters. He explained countries like the USA has stopped direct flights from China but in doing so people now resort to alternative flights that would connect them via different routes. “The risk is then everyone becomes a risk. But if you have one flight coming from a particular area you can focus more energy on managing the risk rather than dispersing your risk.” He said South Africa is at present managing the risk on the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to have no travel bans at this stage.

Pillay said travel bans may also affect other sectors like the pharmaceutical sector. “A lot of the active ingredients come from China. So, if there are travel bans it may affect the supply of medicine to countries. So, we have to weigh up the benefits and the risks.”

Ready or not

When Spotlight pressed Mkhize on concerns over the constitutional rights of South Africans during the three phased repatriation plan for citizens in Wuhan, China, the Minister responded with a question. “Why should we be mistrusted?  We are bringing people back based on the guidelines of the WHO, treat them in hospitals and all of these things happen with the government that is guided by the constitutional rights of all the individuals,” Mkhize said. “The idea of sowing mistrust and doubt are not correct. At the moment we actually have to manage the situation fairly tightly.” The minister said he will where necessary engage with the public, private sector and civil society on whatever concerns there are. “But, for now we really don’t want anything that will obstruct the process of quarantine because that is a chain that should not be broken – of public safety and the protection of citizens from cross infection. So, that really needs strict management.”

Both Mkhize and Pillay rubbished concerns that the country may not be ready for a COVID-19 outbreak. “We are capable,” the minister stressed. “Can we do this alone as public sector? Yes, we are capable. Can we involve private (health) sector? Yes, we are engaging with the private sector. So, the issue must never be that we are not ready. People keep saying we are not ready but we have treated Ebola, treated hemorrhagic fevers and in the way that we’ve done that, we will deal with the coronavirus.”