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Coronavirus spreading fast in Lesotho

  • as health minister warns virus “could wipe us out”
  • while govt mulls reinstating inter-district travel bans

Limpho Sello/Ntsebeng Motsoeli

HEALTH Minister Motlatsi Maqelepo says Coronavirus (Covid-19) is now spreading fast in Lesotho and the country could become its new African epicenter unless citizens respect protocols to combat its spread.

Mr Maqelepo’s warning follows revelations by Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro on Friday that the number of infections has exponentially shot up from just four to 24 in less than a week. And that could all be the proverbial tip of the iceberg as the country did not have testing capacity, and was reliant on South Africa for tests, until last week.  Other African countries, with higher levels of infections, have been testing their citizens aggressively.

Dr Majoro said some of the new cases had originated locally from patients who had not travelled outside the country, signaling there could be more undetected cases within Lesotho. The first four cases were those of Lesotho nationals who had contracted the virus in South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

Minister Maqelepo warned yesterday the situation was now precarious after the detection of the first local transmissions.

He said the disease could easily wipe out a large chunk of the nation’s 2, 1 million people if citizens did not strictly adhere to public health regulations to stop its spread. He warned the government could soon be forced to reinstate inter-district travel bans enforced during the nationwide lockdown from 30 March to 5 May 2020.

Until Sunday 21 June 2020, there were only four confirmed cases, two of which were said to be of patients who had since recovered.

But a further eight cases were announced by Minister Maqelepo on Sunday. On Tuesday the ministry issued a statement announcing another five new cases as the numbers increased exponentially to a total of 17 since the first case was announced on 12 May 2020.

Another seven new cases were announced by Dr Majoro on Friday in a clear indication that the virus had well and truly landed in the country and would soon wreak havoc.

The increase in the cases comes after Lesotho began testing locally last week.

Addressing the nation on state television, Dr Majoro said eight of the 24 cases were from Maseru which had also recorded some infections of local origin.

Twenty of the cases are active while four patients are said to have recovered.

Dr Majoro said although Lesotho remained one of the few African countries with less than 100 confirmed cases, the local transmissions were a clear indication that “a dark cloud was hanging over Lesotho”.

He pleaded with the nation to take all the necessary precautions and adhere to all public health regulations including washing hands with sanitisers, wearing face masks in public and maintaining social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

“I want to ask for your cooperation to ensure that we curb and control the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Dr Majoro said.

“We are dealing with a deadly virus here. The virus is merciless and kills people including parents. Children are orphaned. Among other consequences, Covid-19 promotes poverty as it has affected the world’s economy causing large numbers of people to lose their jobs.

“However, we should not surrender to this disease. We need to be brave enough and fight in union because if we do not do that, soon or later Covid-19 will be bigger than all of us.

“For this reason, the government is continuing to implement powerful strategies to ensure that we win the fight against this virus,” Dr Majoro said.

He said the government was implementing the Covid -19 response in conjunction with international partners and private entities.

He said the plan was to spread awareness in the villages through the chiefs and community councilors. Village health workers will assist in referring infected people to health facilities. Contact tracing would also be done to ensure that all those who had come into contact with infected people were quarantined and tested.

Mr Maqelepo yesterday picked up from where the prime minister had left off. Speaking on local radio, the minister painted an even gloomier picture of the situation, saying the country had reached crisis levels due to the upsurge in Covid-19 infections.

He said government did not have the financial and material resources to quarantine all Covid-19 patients and suspected cases. His admissions confirm last month’s revelations by the National Emergency Command Centre (NECC) that the country’s health facilities were not equipped to take in Covid-19 patients and suspected cases.

Under WHO guidelines all locals returning from Covid-19 affected countries must undergo a 14-day quarantine period at an isolation facility.  But by the command centre’s own admissions, the isolation centres in the country can only accommodate 148 people. This is nowhere near good enough given that many Lesotho nationals illegally cross into the country from neighbouring South Africa where many of them work.

During the lockdown, the command centre estimated that as many as 13 000 Basotho crossed into the country from South Africa. Then Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and then Health minister Nkaku Kabi made all the right noises about tightening border patrols to prevent people from illegally crossing into the country. But given that most of the Covid-19 cases are of people who illegally entered the country, it appears very little was ever done in that regard.

Mr Maqelepo said unless Basotho abandoned their negative habits of disregarding health regulations, Covid-19 would surely “wipe us out”.

“Our people have a bad habit of not abiding by the laws. If we do not change that habit this disease will wipe us out. The government alone cannot get this disease under control. People need to take care of themselves and adhere to the regulations,” Mr Maqelepo said.

The minister warned of drastic measures including the reinstatement of inter-district travel bans which were enforced during the nationwide lockdown.

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