Coronavirus: We should prepare for the worst – Siviwe Gwarube

DA MP says it is not unreasonable to be skeptical about our abilities in absence of concrete plans

Government should take the nation into its confidence and table plans to deal with Coronavirus

5 March 2020

Note to Editors: The following speech was delivered in Parliament today during the Debate of National Importance on Coronavirus.


Panic has set across the world as the COVID-19 virus continues to wreak havoc in countries with some of the strongest health systems.

The Coronavirus has led to the near-collapse of global markets which have suffered losses akin to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

It is clear that the world is gripped with fear as 81 countries have confirmed cases of those infected by the epidemic.

To date, over 3000 deaths have been reported worldwide out of over 95 000 infections.

As of this afternoon, the national institute for communicable diseases (NICD) confirmed the first case of coronavirus in South Africa.

Countries have gone into crisis – mode, imposed travel bans and enforced quarantine measures as they try to valiantly contain this virus.

The disease indiscriminately attacks countries across the globe; therefore, we must understand the inherent weaknesses of the South African health system.

We should never unjustifiably spread fear; however, we should prepare for the worst.

We know the state of our healthcare outside an epidemic outbreak.

It is therefore not unreasonable to be sceptical about our abilities in the absence of concrete plans to deal with a potential public health crisis.

This is why the DA called for this debate of national importance.

Speaker, Parliament needs to assert itself as the main legislative arm of the state.

We need to understand the role bestowed to us by the Constitution and take it seriously.

In the midst of an epidemic that has been declared a global public health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO), plans to deal with this matter should be tabled in this House for scrutiny, discussion and adoption.

It is important when the President convenes an inter-ministerial task team that decides to repatriate over 150 South Africans from Wuhan, China, the decision is tabled, scrutinized and adopted by Parliament.

It does not bode well for the function of this House - which is enshrined in the Constitution – that issues of national significance are discussed in the press before the oversight arm of the state has had an opportunity to engage these plans.

The fact that the President notified Parliament of this government’s intention after the story was published and this House was only notified of something this significant this morning, undermines accountability and oversight.

This is not the time for Executive arrogance.

It is also not the time for decisions which are bound to affect 57 million people to be made under the veil of secrecy.

It is, however, time for decisive and united leadership.

If we get this wrong, there will be preventable loss of lives.

Speaker, there comes a time in any country where politics have to be set aside for the benefit of all its citizens.

That moment is now.

The Coronavirus is a public health emergency that has the potential infect and kill thousands should the correct measures to screen, prevent, isolate and treat be inadequate.

That is why the South African government should use this opportunity to take the nation into its confidence and table the plans that will deal with any eventuality.

As a priority, the Minister of Health, Dr Mkhize, needs to appraise this House on the measures that his department is taking to screen, test and possibly isolate and treat cases, particularly at every airport, harbour or border post.

We no longer can afford to target certain strategic areas.

As the disease spreads rapidly across the globe, people at risk are no longer just those coming from China.

There are now 8 confirmed cases on the African continent which emanate from other parts of the world.

We need assurance that sufficient resources are being allocated to conduct this mammoth task.

We also need to ensure that our healthcare workers are supported during this strenuous time.

We extend our deepest gratitude to all healthcare workers for the work they continue to do at points of entry.

A country is only as resilient as its workforce.

The DA will certainly be undertaking numerous oversight visits across the country to ensure that the protocols which have been developed and tabled here today are being implemented.

Minister Mkhize – much to your frustration – the members of this House, across all party lines, have a role to play.

We have a responsibility to the people of South Africa.

Secondly, the healthcare facilities which have been identified as centres of treatment for this epidemic should be revised as the risk has increased exponentially.

An example is Tembisa Hospital which saw the death of 10 babies due to a hospital-acquired infection.

Overcrowding remains one of the key factors why 10 families are still grieving an unimaginable loss of life.

Speaker, there is no room for errors.

An epidemic of this magnitude requires planning and precise execution. That is why the DA is calling for a revision of the facilities which have been selected for this purpose based on the capacity of the health facility.

Thirdly, dealing with the Coronavirus transcends the department of health.

it requires a whole society approach. That is why we are calling on the public and private sector to collaborate on efforts to curtail the spread of this epidemic.

There will come a time where extra capacity is needed – whether it is laboratories; isolation and treatment facilities or long-term resilience strategies – every player in this field must report for duty.

The entire South African government needs to construct plans on how they would deal with knock-on effects of an outbreak of this kind.

Local transport routes, major events and the ability to attain certain medical supplies in parts of the world that have shut down are just some of the elements which require urgent attention and planning.

This past week, it was announced that President Ramaphosa made the decision to repatriate over 150 South Africans in the coming days.

A mission of this magnitude and a decision with such far-reaching consequences should have been tabled in this House by the inter-ministerial task team.

Had that been done we would all be clear about when this mission is being undertaken; what arrangements have been made for those who will be landing in the country; how will the quarantine element be carried out by SANDF; the readiness of each department that will lead elements of the plan; and suitability of the facility to house people while respecting their basic human rights.

We can ill-afford mass-panic and the rise of fake news that only fuels the fire of distrust.

The only way to close that gap is to find allies in other public representatives and consistently provide accurate and updated information.

There are indicators which suggest that this epidemic will eventually be endemic to our society.

That is why Minister Mkhize and his team urgently need to provide this House and by extension, the people of South Africa, long term resilience strategies on how we will shift the gear from merely responding to a medical crisis but to living with a pandemic.

Our assurance to the people of South Africa is that the DA stands ready to support the efforts of this government to deal with this epidemic.

We would do so for the people who have elected us to serve them.

However, our support is conditional.

We will never abdicate on our obligation to hold this government to account.

Every possible precaution must be taken to prevent the spread of Coronavirus in the country.

When the time comes, as we have heard this afternoon that there may be South Africans who have contracted the illness, swift and meticulous action must be taken.

I have watched with great disappointment leaders in other parts of the globe weaponize and politicize this issue.

We dare not let our citizens down by doing the same.

Issued by SiviweGwarube,DA Shadow Minister of Health, 5 March 2020