Editorial: Coronavirus – These are unusual times

It feels like a long, long time since the department of health began assuring the public that it had begun preparations for coronavirus infections. At the time, it was only China that appeared to be acutely affected by the disease. Preparations in South Africa, were comforting but seemed to be “a just in case” measure. Reports of widespread infection outside China were sparse. Some even called it the Wuhan Corona disease. This week the World Health Organisation (WHO) called it a pandemic.

After an extraordinary effort, China appears to have the disease under control. Now it is in Europe where the rate of infections appears to be spiralling out of control. And in the United States, the commodification of public healthcare has exposed a major failing of the world’s wealthiest country. Whatever you want to call it, the disease ripping through the world right now is an emergency.

South Africa had kept Covid-19 from entering the country for a long time. But in recent days, the number of confirmed cases has increased. At the current rate of testing, there is almost certain to be a large increase in the number of infections within the next week.

We now must focus on slowing that spread. Staying at home and keeping to yourself is not just an affirmation of that old truism — hell is other people — it may be the most effective measure against further transmissions. But not all of us can afford to do that. So the WHO has also called for “non-pharmaceutical methods” to be used to fight a pathogen moving at “astonishing speed”.

Shutting down society completely, as Italy did this week, might be the fastest way to end the pandemic, but it’s likely to create its own public health crisis — and then there’s the small matter of keeping the economy moving.

So we are urged to try “social distancing” — an effort to slow transmission by reducing human contact and limiting opportunities for the virus to spread without going into a full-scale quarantine.

Health officials say that social distancing measures such as working from home not only cut down on any individual’s chance of getting sick, but also protect the entire community by providing fewer chances for transmission.

Bloomberg reported that, in China, about 280-million students have been at home for weeks watching their teachers live-stream classes, interacting online and submitting homework via apps. Elsewhere, nightclubs have begun to live-stream DJ sets for at-home dancers. Ireland even cancelled St Patrick’s Day parades.

Some people will roll their eyes, and say this is needless panic. To which we must reply: we certainly hope so. Surely the ideal outcome is that we do our best to contain a deadly disease and succeed.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

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