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Digital platforms launch as SA prepares for coronavirus battle

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 16 Mar 2020

The South African National Department of Health has introduced a new Web site and WhatsApp support platform, to provide the public with accurate information about the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as the local infection rate doubles every two days.

SA joins a list of governments across the globe that have introduced digital platforms to inform their citizens about the outbreak, including Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Italy and the UK.

Google has also announced it is working with the US government on the creation of a national Web site containing information about coronavirus symptoms.

Last week, the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a pandemic, as the disease continues to spread at alarming levels across the globe.

The launch of the local digital platforms comes as president Cyril Ramaphosa yesterday declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national disaster, following a specialCabinet meeting held to look at government’s measures to combat the pandemic.

Since the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, almost 170 000 coronavirus cases have been reported, with over 77 000 recoveries and 6 520 deaths.

SA currently has 61 confirmed cases of people infected with the virus, while more are currently under observation.

In his address, Ramaphosa pointed out that never before in the history of its democracy, has SA been confronted with such a “severe situation”, noting the South African government has taken urgent and drastic measures to manage the disease, and reduce the impact of the virus on society and the economy.

“We are imposing a travel ban on foreign nationals from high-risk countries such as Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the US, the UK and China as from 18 March 2020. We have cancelled visas to visitors from those countries from today and previously granted visas are hereby revoked,” said Ramaphosa.

South African citizens have also been advised to refrain from all forms of travel and gatherings of more than 100 people will be prohibited.

Schools will be closed from Wednesday, and will remain closed until after the Easter weekend. The government will strengthen surveillance, screening and testing measures at OR Tambo, Cape Town and King Shaka International Airports, noted Ramaphosa.

Addressing the media this morning, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize noted that while there are 61 confirmed cases, this number is expected to rise in the coming days, and SA must “prepare for battle”.

“The virus will be attacking SA at all levels. In 10 days, we’ve had 51 confirmed cases. This means the infection rate has been doubling every second day. We think this is not just exponential growth, but it’s an explosive rise in positive cases. Government is strengthening its surveillance and testing systems, and is in the process of identifying isolation and quarantine sites in each district and metro.”

Only around 15% of infected patients will be admitted to hospital, while others with be treated at home, he added.

Minister of health, Dr Zweli Mkhize.
Minister of health, Dr Zweli Mkhize.

Going digital

With the rise in cancellation of sport, festivals and conferences, and universities and schools suspending lectures, the Internet has become a crucial tool, as the remote working trend experiences a major boost. Companies across the globe are banking on virtual meetings, while in some parts of China, schools are rolling out online classes.

Health ministry spokesperson Dr Lwazi Manzi told ITWeb the introduction of the Web site and WhatsApp platforms this weekend was influenced by a clear need for a simplified fuss-free approach to quickly disseminate information.

“The president has announced a mass communication campaign on coronavirus – this means all platforms will be used: linear, digital and on the ground. The digital population in SA is much higher than perceived: in January 2020, SA had 36.54 million Internet users, of which 34.93 million were mobile Internet users.

“The new digital platforms provide a convenient way in which information could be accessed by South Africans and all media-related content could be uploaded for easy access,” according to Manzi.

The communication campaign, already under way, will also distribute 15 million pamphlets to local communities, while local structures have been set up to engage physically with community members, although mass gatherings won’t be held, due to the crowd control measures, notes Manzi.

“Vodacom has come on board with SMS vouchers, to distribute public health messaging to be rolled out over the next week. With almost all South Africans having cellphones, just about everyone can receive a free SMS with a health message on it. Churches, labour and civil society are also playing their role in their communications efforts and community awareness. These are just some of the initiatives we have made.”

This morning, Telkom announced it has zero-rated all official coronavirus information sites on its network. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases and SA government Web sites are now all accessible to Telkom subscribers free of charge.

“We believe that the pandemic can be overcome if we work together and ensure that South Africans are empowered with access to accurate information about the virus,” says Mooketsi Mocumi, Telkom spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Gift of the Givers has launched a crowdfunding campaign on the BackaBuddy Web site, to support medical staff across SA who will be treating those affected by the coronavirus.

“The aim of the campaign is to support high-risk medical professionals in the front line dealing with infected patients and the patients themselves both through protective equipment, ventilators and other essential supplies in the quest to preserve life,” says Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of Gift of the Givers.