SIMON MUNTEMBA writes
HE is sneezing, coughing and his body temperature is high. This could be the infamous coronavirus, a mother of a 10-year-old boy couldn’t help but worry as she, in panic, wondered about her son seated outside the doctor’s examination room at Lusaka’s Matero Level One Hospital.
Too many questions are hammering through her mind. She remembers hearing about black people being immune to COVID-19, and that children don’t get sick. So why should her son be the proof to bust the myths around the deadly disease?
From her panicky voice, it seems she was gripped with fear at the possibility of her son testing positive to COVID-19. Her facial expressions could confirm she had a stressful day looking for symptoms in her child who had fallen sick while at a local school.
However, after medical examinations, the boy was found to be suffering from flu caused by the common cold virus and not coronavirus.
As the deadly coronavirus (Covid-19) rapidly spreads across continents, people are gripped by fear at the potential of the virus invading their localities. Hospitals are overwhelmed by people who fear they are coming down with it but are in fact not, and this has put healthcare services under more pressure than usual, diverting vital care away from others in need.
Covid-19 outbreak declared pandemic
In recent weeks, news has been dominated by stories about COVID-19 which has permeated nearly every aspect of people’s lives, from the work they do to the food they buy, to the simple things they have tended to take for granted like leaving their homes and socialising.
The virus, now called COVID-19, first sickened people in Wuhan City, Hubei province, China, in late 2019. Since then, thousands of people around the globe have fallen ill while several thousands have died.
On December 31, 2019, Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organisation (WHO) of pneumonia cases in Wuhan city with an unknown cause. What started as a mysterious disease was first referred to as 2019-nCoV and then named COVID-19.
In January, WHO declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” the highest category of warning for an infectious disease outbreak.
After initially delaying the decision, on March 11, WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. The agency cited the rapid growth of cases outside China and its global spread as reasons behind the designation.
Several cases of a new infectious disease were being confirmed across the world, including Africa. Despite measures by African governments to hold it back, the virus which was first confirmed on the continent on February 14 in Egypt, spread across the region, and as of mid-March the number of affected countries were swelling.
Hits Zambia, send shivers
As Zambians were flirting with notions of escapism hoping against hope that COVID-19 would not reach a Christian nation, they were staggered by the confirmation of the first two cases.
These cases, which had previously only been reported in the neighbouring countries, were recorded in Lusaka on Wednesday, March 18, stoking fears among citizens that it could infect them anytime.
The first two confirmed cases of the COVID-19 involving a Zambian couple who had returned from France was announced by Minister of Health Chitalu Chilufya at a press briefing in Lusaka.
Dr Chilufya said the couple who had travelled to France with their two children for a 10-day vacation tested positive for the virus upon arrival at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport (KKIA) when they were subjected to screening by health personnel. They had since been quarantined.
Four days later, on March 22, Dr Chilufya announced a third case involving a 59-year-old Lusaka-based man who had travelled to Pakistan on March 9 and came back to Zambia on March 18.
As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases spiked to 12 from the initial three on March 25, President Edgar Lungu announced more restrictions to deal with the spread.
In a televised address to the nation, President Lungu said exactly nine days after the first two cases were announced, 10 more cases had been identified bringing the number to 12.
He ordered the immediate closure of all bars, gyms and casinos, and directed that restaurants must only operate takeaway services to stem the spread of the disease. President Lungu also announced the suspension of operations at three international airports (Livingstone, Ndola and Mfuwe) until further notice.
The announcement of the confirmed 12 cases within a short period could have sent shivers down the spines of the public as the dreaded COVID-19 was now living among them.
In the blink of an eye, Zambia entered a new phase of the pandemic.
From Wuhan seafood markets
Defined as an infectious large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases by the WHO, the COVID-19 is believed to have originated from a Wuhan seafood market where wild animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes are traded illegally.
According to public health pundits, COVID-19 which is spread from person to person mainly through the droplets produced when an infected person speaks, coughs or sneezes, may survive on surfaces for several hours, but simple disinfectants can easily kill it.
The virus may be spread if a person touches a surface with the virus on it and then touches his or her mouth, nose or eyes.
It can be prevented by washing hands regularly for 20 seconds, with soap and water, alcohol-based hand rub or hand sanitiser, as well as avoiding close contact with anyone showing signs and symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and/or sneezing.
The virus is known to jump from animals to humans, therefore it is assumed that the first people infected with the pandemic were a horde primarily made up of stallholders from the seafood market who contracted it from contact with animals.
The Wuhan market was subsequently shut down for inspection and cleaning on January 1, but by then it appears that COVID-19 was already starting to spread beyond the market itself.
Is the panic justified?
As former minister of Health Brian Chituwo observed, there is no need to fear or panic because healthcare providers can treat symptoms of viruses.
“No need to panic as the experts are all doing the best they can under the circumstances to treat patients. Citizens have to be patient because the government has so far managed the pandemic well. What is cardinal for citizens is to be hygiene conscious all the time,” Dr Chituwo said.
WHO says about 80 percent of people with COVID-19 recover without needing any specialist treatment. Only about one person in six becomes seriously ill “and develops difficulty in breathing.
Scientific research is working to develop a coronavirus vaccine. In recent days, China has announced the first animal tests, and researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia have also announced that after completing the three-week in vitro study, they are moving on to animal testing.
Furthermore, in the US, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has announced that a phase 1 trial has begun for a novel coronavirus immunisation in Washington State.
Commenting on those diagnosed with the virus in Zambia, Dr Chilufya said the patients have even recovered and were just on observation and continued treatment.
The minister called for calm saying the disease is treatable and only has a two percent mortality rate. He says while hundreds of thousands of cases of COVID-19 have occurred, only a few thousand people have died.
Call for concerted efforts
As cases surge past 10, time has come for unity of purpose. Traditional, religious and political leaders regardless of political affiliation must join hands in sensitising members of the public about the pandemic.
Everyone seems to be going into a state of panic as a result of the coronavirus outbreak in Zambia. And as a fallout, people are believing just about anything and everything they are coming across on the internet.
This is compounded by the speed with which information spreads, the quantity of misinformation that exists, and the presence of disruptors, who intentionally spread disinformation to further their own goals.
One of the several pieces of misinformation is that which is asking people to drink strong alcohol to stay safe and kill the deadly virus. Another is that black people are immune to it. But the WHO has dismissed both as untrue.
Busting myths, misconceptions and misinformation about the deadly coronavirus, the WHO said: “Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body.”
For these reasons, it is important one checks where the information they are getting came from, who provided it, when it was shared, and what the motives of the person, or persons, sharing it may be.
The bottom line being that; only rely on health authorities for information regarding Covid-19 to stay safe.
SIMON MUNTEMBA writes