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Tuesday, 10 March 2020

We should continue the health education of promoting safer behaviours - hand washing, disinfection, masks, ventilation, and avoidance of risky contact and measures to strengthen our immune system, writes Anna Mokgokong 

As the coronavirus causes pandemonium, fear, mass quarantines and people switch to surgical masks in the hopes of avoiding infection, should we be concerned about the pandemic's impact on economies as billions are lost in Gross Domestic Product?

What can we do to prevent a full-blown recession on our shores and across the world? 

Should we be concerned about the situation which threatens to reach pandemic proportions? Will this virus wipe us all out?   

There are no easy answers. But if history is anything to go by, this virus will pass too. 

So why do I invoke history? 

As Peter Carey wrote: "History is like a bloodstain that keeps on showing on the wall no matter how many new owners take possession, no matter how many times we paint over it."

History is the best teacher. 

History books remind us that individual viruses have evolved.

Entire countries have been changed geographically, economically, and religiously as a result of sweeping virus infections that were impervious to known cures. 

Influenza pandemics have occurred roughly two to three times per century.

 Research has identified three essential prerequisites: the emergence of a novel viral sub-type in animals, typically swine or poultry, viral replication that causes disease in humans, and efficient human-to-human transmission. 

For example, smallpox alone, in the twentieth century, has killed an estimated 300 million individuals. 

Polio epidemics were not recorded until the 19th century, followed by an increasing incidence in the 20th century.

No one would have guessed then that polio would now be under control or that its eradication from this planet would be a goal of the World Health Organisation (WHO).  

Similarly, because of vaccination, the yellow fever virus no longer spreads the havoc and fear it once did.  

New plagues of fearful proportions have now appeared.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is currently reported to infect people daily.

There is no satisfactory treatment to permanently arrest the disease.

There is no vaccine to prevent it.

There are no known spontaneous cures. 

In 2003, the worldwide outbreak of SARS - Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - saw hundreds of deaths and thousands of cases. 

Other plagues have emerged recently. 

For example, the Ebola and other viruses provoke the fear today that yellow fever, poliomyelitis, and smallpox did in previous times. 

From smallpox, polio and even HIV, the triumphs of medicine reflect the achievements that are possible when medical scientists and government agencies together devote their resources to solving health problems. 

Of course, while blame is being apportioned to China for its predictable obfuscation, the reality is that like most epidemics, the coronavirus is spreading and has a future that is almost impossible to predict. 

So, what can we all to do to combat the scourge of the coronavirus? The issue now is to have a realistic strategy to deal with the problem of emerging infections. 

The WHO, a specialised agency of the United Nations, will as a matter of course, deal with the affected countries.

Fortunately, sensing the very visible danger, laboratories and health agencies in most affected countries, including our own Rainbow Nation, have collaborated actively to identify the virus, sequence its genes and engage in health education, diagnosis and quarantine.

And, the travel warnings are being heeded.  

Indeed viruses and diseases have no respect for borders. A global surveillance network is essential to every country.

While the word surveillance usually evokes the fear experienced in repressive regimes, when public health surveillance is done properly, it is in fact the most important preventative tool against epidemics. 

While we hope scientists will soon crack the genetic code of the coronavirus, to beat the coronavirus will all require a sea of changes in attitudes, reward structures, and management concepts for surveillance and epidemiological investigations to really work in most countries.  

Let’s thank also the philanthropists who sponsor research to find the vaccines.

Let us commend our Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, for the way he has handled the crisis and communicated our country state of readiness.

  For our health, experts recommend various surveillance activities, many of which have been used before.

They include testing and screening; health questionnaires, notices and declarations; fever monitoring; and reporting and monitoring trends.

The WHO's International Health Regulations (IHR) facilitate surveillance through country notifications, reports from unofficial sources, and real-time event management.  Community hygiene also plays a part. 

It is one of the most valuable means of infection control and also the least intrusive.

We should continue the health education of promoting safer behaviours - hand washing, disinfection, masks, ventilation, and avoidance of risky contact and measures to strengthen our immune system.   

We also need stricter travel and border controls as one of the first instincts in the face of infectious disease threats. 

Of course, border controls can be politically charged.

But the WHO’s IHR directs "provision of security against the international spread of disease while avoiding unnecessary interference with international traffic". 

The coronavirus has disrupted supply chains, caused airlines to suspend flights, precipitating a slump in tourism.

Investors are understandably concerned about what impact coronavirus is having on their portfolios, but as always, it is important not to panic and make knee-jerk decisions that could simply lock in losses. 

So, what can we do to continue doing business? 

The coronavirus calls on us to find new ways of doing business here at home and abroad as scientists and researchers work around the clock to find a cure.

We know that people, goods and capital now travel widely with few barriers.

Supply chains are often long and complex.

For now, the coronavirus has become a boon for e-commerce as shoppers go online. 

The internet has revolutionised the way we shop.

Because of the numerous advantages and benefits, more and more people these days prefer buying things online over the conventional method of going into stores.  

According to Statista’s latest e-commerce research, there are currently 18.43 million e-commerce users in South Africa, with an additional 6.36 million users expected to be shopping online by 2021.

Millions of products are sold worldwide through the e-commerce model. 

For modern and innovative businesses to grow and globalise, meetings can be substituted by hosting digital-only events. 

We need to develop new ways of meeting, including teleconferencing, videoconferencing and the use of virtual offices.  

Video conferencing is a major part of doing business in the 21st century.

To build and maintain quality relationships with partners, suppliers, internal teams, investors and customers, I recently reverted video conferencing when I could not travel to Europe for a board meeting.  

New viruses will continue to emerge, as they always have in history, but if we are well prepared through a nimble approach, they will have to beat a hasty retreat. 

- Dr Anna Mokgokong is chairperson of the AfroCentric Group, South Africa’s largest health administration and medical risk management solutions provider, which owns health companies such as Medscheme. 

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