TACOMA, Washington — The COVID-19 pandemic has completely shaken the world. Countries globally have taken measures to flatten the curve but it seems as if some countries have had more success than others. Wisdom and lessons taken from prior epidemics are helping some successfully handle COVID-19. One such country is South Africa. The Spanish flu and the HIV/AIDS epidemic have helped South Africa become better equipped to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.
South Africa’s History of Epidemics
The first epidemic that struck South Africa in the 20th century was the Spanish flu. Returning South African troops carried the virus from Europe. Those exposed were authorized to leave quarantine after two days of showing no symptoms. With inadequate preventive measures taken and only three people working for the central government’s public health department, the flu rapidly spread. South Africa lost an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 lives, leaving it with the fourth-highest mortality rate globally.
Then, between the years of 1997 and 2010, 2.8 million South Africans died from AIDS-related illnesses as the region became the HIV/AIDS epicenter of the world. Many attribute the massive loss of lives to the former president, Thabo Mbeki, who refused to quickly distribute the antiretroviral drugs needed to help those infected.
However, the mistakes of the past have built a better future as prior epidemics make countries more knowledgeable. During the flu pandemic of 1918, care and treatment became the responsibility of local jurisdictions. Subsequently, legislation established South Africa’s first national public health structure. Moreover, past failure to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic appropriately and in a timely manner may have fueled a quicker response to COVID.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in South Africa was on March 5, 2020, a traveler returning from Italy. More than 400 cases followed in just 18 days and the government implemented a lockdown four days later. During the 35 days of national lockdown, people could only leave their homes for essential services. This slowed the viral doubling time to 15 days.
The country’s eight-stage plan reduced the threat of COVID-19. The first and second stages established testing centers and declared a national state of disaster when 51 cases were documented. The national lockdown followed. Although lockdown measures have since been eased, in November 2020, the state of disaster was extended to December 15, 2020.
The restrictions implemented at a time when South Africa only had minimal cases may have prevented the disaster that some other countries faced. COVID-19 in South Africa has seen success as a result of swift and serious action taken. Stage four included the deployment of 28,000 community health workers for house-to-house contact tracing. This community-based response led to the screening of almost 20% of the population. A COVID-19 mobile phone application was also developed to provide protective health guidelines, a symptom checker and referrals for COVID-19 care. The remaining stages have focused on prevention measures, creating field hospitals, preparing for deaths and remaining alert.
South Africa’s Success
With the country’s reputation of being overly crowded and poverty-stricken, experts were initially worried that the COVID-19 death toll in South Africa would be extremely high. But, with 20,314 deaths out of 752,269 cases as of mid-November 2020, the death toll is not as extreme as anticipated. South Africa’s successful COVID-19 management could mean that perhaps the country’s tragic past has led it to a hopeful future. South Africa has drawn wisdom from its prior epidemics with prompt preventive COVID-19 measures likely saving thousands of lives.
– Victoria Mangelli