New Era journalist Kuzeeko Tjitemisa (KT) this week caught up with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) country director Dr Eric Dziuban to discuss some of the pertinent issues and challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
KT: The impact of the global Covid-19 outbreak has caused havoc in many countries, with economies wrecked in the process. Do you think the introduction of lockdowns helped curb the spread across the world?
ED: The purpose of lockdowns is not to prevent the virus from ever happening – that would be almost impossible – but rather to give the government and the health system time to prepare. The Covid-19 response must address both health and economics. We cannot consider one in isolation to the other. The lockdown protocols that the health ministry put in place allowed us to prepare for the arrival of the pandemic here in Namibia, as they did in many countries around the world. We have saved lives in Namibia through the lockdown measures that have been applied.
KT: Do you think many countries, including Namibia, followed science-based evidence when they eased restrictions?
ED: Yes, Namibia, and other countries have used models to consider the impact of different measures such as strict lockdowns versus no restrictions. On top of this, researchers have collected and analysed data to better understand the virus and patterns of transmission. This has been important for getting people back in action, whether it is allowing children to return to school or adults to the workplace. This is because governments have many different factors to consider when easing lockdown restrictions. We need to take into consideration things such as education and the economy, and to ensure that people continue to access regular healthcare services such as cancer screenings, vaccinations, and collecting medication for chronic conditions. We know that children being out of school for long periods of time is detrimental to their development.
KT: Many praised Namibia when we went 45 days without reporting any new positive cases. Do you think this was a true reflection of the situation on the ground, considering we have now recorded hundreds of new cases in the last two months?
ED: The fact that Namibia went 45 days without a new case of Covid-19 was very unusual. This was almost unheard of anywhere else in the world. In the early stages of the pandemic in Namibia, testing was very targeted to persons that might have been infected, so we would have detected cases if they had been there. We also did not see anything unusual about cases reported to the hospitals, or in reported deaths. The 45-day period without cases illustrates how well Namibia did in slowing down the rate of transmission in order to have time to prepare for when the cases did start to be reported. However, Namibia is part of the global economy and we’re not able to remain isolated forever. With as much travel and interconnectivity as takes place in the world, it was inevitable that the pandemic arrived here. We have seen a rapid rise in cases because once the virus is able to pass between people, it spreads rapidly.
KT: The National Institute of Pathology has admitted to a huge backlog of Covid-19 tests. What challenge does this pose in the management of the virus?
ED: One of the key strategies for controlling the outbreak is test and trace, meaning that countries want to find out who is positive and have them and their contacts isolated as soon as possible. When test results are delayed this is a problem. Ideally we would like there to not be a backlog of samples. A backlog does delay test results and we know that means some people are spending extra time in quarantine. It also delays contact tracing, which means some people may have been exposed without knowing it and therefore may spread it to others. The ministry and NIP are working hard every day to increase testing capacities and CDC is proud to be supporting the country in this. Alongside the ministry, we are training technicians and bringing new equipment to be able to keep up with demand.
KT: Do you think Namibia has tested enough samples thus far to establish a curve?
ED: The health ministry launched a Covid-19 Situation Dashboard with the assistance of the Namibia Statistics Agency (NSA), CDC and other development partners. This dashboard allows us to monitor the rise in cases and understand what our curve looks like. It will change based on which communities become affected by community transmission. We are far from reaching the peak, but we can be proud of how slow the rise in cases has been up until now.
KT: Some people have attributed the new wave of Covid-19 infections in the country to the winter season. Do you think there is somewhat a correlation between cold weather and coronavirus?
ED: It is not yet known whether weather and temperature affect the spread of Covid-19. Some other viruses, like those that cause the common cold and flu, spread more during cold weather months, but that does not mean it is impossible to become sick with these viruses during other months. However, there is no evidence that weather has a major effect on the spread of this disease. It is summer time in the United States and much of the country is experiencing very hot temperatures, but the virus is spreading rapidly there and cases are on the rise.
KT: When will see a peak of Covid-19 cases in the country?
ED: We cannot predict this yet. We can expect to see more and more cases in the next couple of months, particularly as we start to see cases being reported in towns throughout Namibia. In order to keep Namibia’s peak as low as possible, we need individuals to do their part: practise good hygiene measures, wear a mask, and keep distancing. We also need to limit gatherings of people even if the regulations allow us to be together in larger groups.
KT: Given documented challenges being experienced at the coronavirus epicentre of Walvis Bay, do you think Namibia has what it takes to bring the situation under control?
ED: The early restrictions gave us time to develop procedures around isolation, quarantine, and case management so that healthcare workers know exactly what to do if they encounter a patient with suspected Covid-19. We’ve also been able to develop procedures for contact tracing and data modelling so we can track those who may be at risk. We’ve greatly increased the testing capabilities of labs. And we’ve been able to bring in more personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. Namibia is much more prepared to deal with Covid-19 now than we were a few months ago. We have enough beds, oxygen, ventilators to meet current demand. One challenge is making sure that our healthcare providers do not get infected and so unable to serve as healthcare providers. The ministry’s Emergency Operations Centre is working hard to develop guidelines around infection protocol to ensure that our healthcare workers are safe. We are extremely fortunate not to see our hospitals overwhelmed – the majority of our cases have been asymptomatic or mild so far. However, as we see an increase in cases we can also expect to see an increase in severe cases, and, sadly, deaths. Keeping up with the pace of the virus and adapting our strategy rapidly will be key in limiting the numbers of these deaths.
KT: There has been a debate here and abroad on whether Covid-19 dead bodies can spread the virus. What is the available advice regarding the burying of Covid-19 victims?
ED: Covid-19 is a new disease and we’re still learning how it works, but there is no evidence that people can become infected with the coronavirus from being around dead bodies, unless touching them. People need to be careful when attending funerals, because large gatherings increase the risk of spreading Covid-19. When attending funerals, numbers should be kept to a minimum and people should do their best to practise social distancing, wear masks, and avoid contact. Anyone who is sick should stay home. When mourning our loved ones, the last thing we want to do is increase the risks of more tragic deaths in our