‘COVID-19 preventive efforts exploited’

As new Command Centre chief calls for resolute battle

 

MATHATISI SEBUSI

MASERU – Newly appointed COVID-19 National Emergency Command Centre (NECC), Thabo Khasipe, has said the fight against the global pandemic can only be won if citizens stopped pursuing personal enrichment at the expense of core preventive steps. These self-defeating habits, Khasipe said, have turned into a gold rush in which people exploit precautionary efforts for monetary gain, to secure jobs and tenders for the supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and medication.

Khasipe, who is also the Commissioner General of the Lesotho Revenue Authority, warned the nation against petty political squabbles that he said “diverts our focus from this critical battle that calls for our unadulterated attention at this particular time.” Lesotho recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 case on May 13, only a week after the country lifted its national lockdown that had been in place beginning March 29, and made Lesotho the last of the 54 African states to confirm and report an infection.

This week the country announced six new confirmed infections, bringing the total of recorded national infections to 35, with health minister Motlatsi Maqelepo revealing the new infections were reported from the capital Maseru, Botha-Bothe and Leribe districts, each of which recorded two infections. From the total 35 confirmed cases 25 patients had travel history from foreign countries, while 10 are domestic infections without a travel history. In his remarks while accepting his new mandate as NECC boss, Khasipe noted that for the country to be able to contain and control the spread of the novel Coronavirus Basotho “should try by all means to avoid misinformation and disinformation where COVID-19 is concerned as that creates confusion on the citizenry and leads them to risk infection.

Khasipe leads the new-look NECC which is mandated to lead the country’s prevention efforts for the next six months. He implored the nation to increase support and faith on the country’s front-liners in the fight against the virus and desist from giving negative criticism that has become widespread since the onset of the outbreak. Khasipe further dispelled common myths of traditional doctors with powers to protect people from infection. “If Basotho can stop finding fault with everything that is their own, we will have a better chance of controlling the spread of COVID-19. This I say because they do not believe anything about COVID-19 as long as it comes from the health officials in the country, they would rather believe information from other countries.

“In the past months when the Ministry of Health reported that Lesotho has not yet recorded any positive case, Basotho did not believe the reports and kept on throwing assumptions that the nation was already infected – being only a matter of time before such cases were discovered. This was not true,” he continued. Khasipe said when the country finally recorded the first confirmed case, instead of being satisfied that their doubts had been proved they launched a new crusade that there was no positive case in the country. He revealed he had already presented a new working structure which has been submitted to government for approval.

The structure compromises some former NECC team members and new appointees from different government ministries with different expertise expected to benefit the Command Centre. Presenting his strategies going forward, Khasipe said he will be focusing more on diagnosing problems at hand, guiding policies as well as formulating a coherent plan of action. He said his team has discovered that for their fight against the virus to succeed, they have to prioritise strengthening weak links that include ensuring people adhere to safety precautions to avoid being infected by the virus.

He said if citizens followed set safety measures as articulated by the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation, the virus can be contained “giving the country a chance to strengthen the capacity of its health services.” Failure by the public to observe health precautions, he added, can result in the country being overwhelmed by the rapid spread of the virus and ultimately needless deaths. Khasipe noted due to lack of capacity in the country’s health services, if the virus spreads at an uncontrollable level, more people could die than recover. He observed with concern that during their recent study, they established that the country had only 30 normal oxygen beds and 10 critical care beds.

“Imagine registering more than 10 positive cases of COVID-19 each day with critical patients that need to be put under critical care beds? Where will the rest be kept when beds are full? They will be send back home and probably die with possibility of leaving more infected,” he said. The new NECC chief said they targeted a 10 percent infection rate and will enact a guiding policy that will help them flatten the curve of infection and raise the line of resources, “that is ensure that no infections are being recorded or less are recorded while they strengthen the health system capacity.” “While the infection rate is still controllable, we will be able to buy more oxygen machines, buy PPE and train temporary nurses and doctors that will help in case the virus reaches its peak point.

“While we are targeting a 10% infection rate, we also target infection rate (R0) to be at 1; the R0 is the number of people a COVID-19 positive person can infect before he recovers or die. That is if the R0 is at 1 as we aim it to be at the maximum, only one person will stand to be infected by one COVID-19 positive person,” he said. He noted the high R0 meant that more people stand to be infected and the lower means fewer people stand to be infected. Khasipe said to avoid the country enforcing another lockdown that fails to achieve the country‘s objective, it could use the R0s that will decide the safety or riskiness of going out.

He said the strategy is similar to the levels used in neighbouring South Africa, and that when enforcing its lockdown Lesotho can do its own in a more creative way that will instill willingness for people to adhere to safety precautions. He said R0s will be the ones detecting the levels of the lockdown. “The higher the R0s the higher the risk and that will mean total lockdown. The lower the R0s, the safer it is for people to go to public places. With this strategy people will work towards ensuring that the country does not record high R0s so that their movements are not restricted.

What is even interesting with this strategy is that it can be conducted at district level therefore making it easier for other districts that are recording low R0s to proceed with business while those that record high R0s are on lockdown,” he noted. The new NECC, he said, will focus on ensuring co-ordinated action by agencies, perennial administrative deficiencies, better execution, improving financial and human resources and drawing a clear plan on effective private sector involvement. At the same event, Prime Minister Dr Moeketsi Majoro noted it came to the government’s attention that the previous NECC in Maseru and at district levels were not well structured as public opinion was excluded when they were formed “therefore, the government launched a study to collect the public’s opinion that will be taken into consideration.”

Majoro said the government has worked together with the NECC to fight the spread of COVID-19, but their efforts were restricted by lack of resources and failure to address challenges faced by front- liners in the fight against the virus. He said the other obstacle was that the NECC structure had not been clear and its team members were unable to individually pass their mandate or make informed decisions, adding “and it was also hard to gazette, hence the formation of the new NECC whose structure will be guided by Disaster Management Authority (DMA) Act.

Majoro noted that together with his cabinet advisory committee and government Principal Secretaries from different ministries they will be working together with the NECC to fight the pandemic. He also announced that Lesotho had started conducting its own tests in the country at the Botšabelo Lepereng, in Maseru, where 250 specimens are tested daily. The country is in the process of buying more testing machines, however, he expressed concern on the alarming increase of COVID-19 confirmed cases. There are currently 11 recoveries and 0 deaths.

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