Virus spreads quickly, and so do fake facts about the outbreak

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Virus spreads quickly, and so do fake facts about the outbreak

As people return from China, we separate fact from fiction and find out how prepared SA is for an outbreak

Journalist
Passengers arrive at Cape Town International Airport from Hong Kong on Wednesday after being screened by health officials following the outbreak of the coronavirus in China.
NEW ARRIVALS Passengers arrive at Cape Town International Airport from Hong Kong on Wednesday after being screened by health officials following the outbreak of the coronavirus in China.
Image: Esa Alexander

What happens when an outbreak of a deadly new virus begins to spread and travel around the world? News of that virus spreads just as quickly thanks to the instantaneous nature of social media and the technology of our brave new world.

But just as quickly as the facts of the matter spread, so do falsehoods that can begin with one Twitter account as people hit the “retweet” button without thinking.

The antivaxxer movement, based on false research that spread through social media, is a case in point, and now with the novel coronavirus spreading at breakneck speed, mainstream media outlets are trying to keep up – separating fact from fiction before more damage is done to an already serious situation.

One such falsehood doing the rounds is the notion that one can be immunised against coronavirus by swirling a saltwater solution in one’s mouth.

This is not true, according to the World Health Organisation, which says there is no evidence whatsoever that a saline solution can protect one from infection.

According to AFP, “multiple posts on Weibo, Twitter and Facebook shared in January claimed top Chinese respiratory expert Zhong Nanshan had told people to rinse their mouths with saltwater solution to prevent infection from a new virus outbreak. But the claim is bogus; the expert’s team said saline would not ‘kill’ the new virus and urged people not to believe or share medically inaccurate online rumours”.

Another rumour doing the rounds on social media originated in Sri Lanka and was then shared thousands of times: it claimed epidemiologists had already predicted that all 11 million inhabitants of Wuhan city, where the virus first broke out, would die of the disease.

Passengers arrive in Cape Town from Hong Kong on Wednesday.
Passengers arrive in Cape Town from Hong Kong on Wednesday.
Image: Esa Alexander

According to a fact-check report from AFP, “this is false … Chinese authorities have made no such projection”.

What is true, however, is that the figure of cases in the novel coronavirus has already superseded that of the SARS virus of 2003. Within just a few days, novel coronavirus has seen more than 6,000 cases, yet the SARS outbreak peaked at 5,327. 

Then again, CNN reports SARS saw 349 deaths out of that number of cases, whereas novel coronavirus has seen 132 out of its 6,000, “making the novel coronavirus far more contagious, but also less deadly than SARS”.

For South Africans returning home from China on Wednesday morning, the stats are far more tangible than for those of us watching from afar.

At Cape Town International Airport on Wednesday, dozens of travellers were reunited with loved ones just as they unmasked themselves after overnight flights from China and surrounding areas.

Many said it was a “relief” to be home after being in China – parts of which are under major lockdown – and that the seriousness of the outbreak pervaded every conversation on Chinese soil.

“We have been watching and monitoring the outbreak every day,” said passenger Dicky Julius, who arrived in Cape Town on Wednesday. “China is on high alert. We can attest to that – they are not taking it as a joke. Every time we go out or come back, our temperature is taken. But on the international flights, you see people aren’t taking it seriously enough. That is my concern.”

Travelling with him with was Elrick Julius, who had also just returned to Cape Town from Beijing.

Still wearing his mask, he told Times Select: “I am just back from Beijing. That virus – dis woes, mense. It is deadly, not a word of a lie, people are dying like flies. If you go there, protect yourself and keep an eye on the facts and figures.”

Kaylie Smuts, a young English teacher from Cape Town who has a contract in Shanghai, said: “I feel relieved to be home, honestly. I thought we would take our masks off to eat on the plane, but people didn’t. Everyone just wants to get out of there. I am so glad to be back home. You get screened if you go to any public place. It is not fun.” 

She said Shanghai’s lockdown wasn’t as extensive as other areas, but even so, they felt as if they were being monitored wherever they went.

Passengers arrive at Cape Town International Airport from Hong Kong.
RELIEF Passengers arrive at Cape Town International Airport from Hong Kong.
Image: Esa Alexander

SA’s readiness

Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on Wednesday assured South Africans the country was adequately prepared to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Even though SA did not have any reported cases of coronavirus, the department of health, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and SA airports were not taking any chances.

“I wish to assure the public that SA is adequately prepared for active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of coronavirus infection, and to share full data with the World Health Organisation,” said Mkhize.

NICD’s Prof Cheryl Cohen said a number of precautionary measures had been put in place.

“Temperature screening is conducted at 12 ports of entry using noninvasive thermal screening devices. If a traveller is found to have an elevated temperature, they are assessed by a nurse, and if determined to be a suspect case they are transported to a health facility for further management,” Cohen said.

“As the busiest airport in Africa, special measures have been introduced in OR Tambo International Airport, where travellers on direct aircraft from China in the past 14 days are required to complete a questionnaire for possible contact tracing,” she added.

Eleven hospitals around the country have been designated to deal with the coronavirus:

  • Polokwane Hospital in Limpopo
  • Rob Ferreira Hospital in Mpumalanga
  • Charlotte Maxeke, Steve Biko and Tembisa hospitals in Gauteng
  • Greys Hospital in KZN
  • Klerksdorp Hospital in North West
  • Pelomoni Hospital in Free State
  • Kimberley Hospital in Northern Cape
  • Livingston Hospital in Eastern Cape and 
  • Tygerberg Hospital in Western Cape. 

– Additional reporting by Mpumzi Zuzile

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