How long have you been preparing?

Immediately after it was announced in March, we started putting together teams. For example, we put together a multi-sectoral outbreak response team nationally, which will have officials from the army, health, home affairs et cetera. 

What about nurses and doctors?

At the 11 hospitals that have been selected, they are highly trained. On top of that we rejuvenated the national Department of Health operations centre, Nathoc.

What exactly will its role be?

They keep in touch with the situation in the provinces. If you want to travel to West Africa now, you inform Nathoc and they tell you what you have to do if you go there. When travellers arrive in South Africa, especially from those countries, they fill in a health questionnaire and they get screened at the airport.  

Do members of the public know what to do in an emergency?

We are sure that anybody who feels anything, the nearest place they will go to is a clinic or hospital, and we’ve distributed guidelines to all our health institutions, port health authorities, environmental health officials, every general practitioner in the country, and we’ve got a hotline to Nathoc where they can ask questions — so members of the public are guided at that level.

Does it concern you that even an extensively trained nurse at a top hospital in the US United States screwed up?

Just because something happens to Americans, we believe it will happen to everybody else. America is not God, they’re human beings like us.

Would you agree that our track record doesn’t inspire much confidence?

That’s your impression. In 1996 we got one patient with Ebola. South Africa was able to deal with that. Eighteen years ago we were able to deal with it, it never spread to any other person. The problem is that there is Afro-pessimism. We are being undermined simply because of costly lessons in America.

Who is undermining us?

Those who believe that if it happened in America, it must happen to us. We are the first country that sent experts to Sierra Leone with a mobile laboratory. Eight thousand tests have been done there, 2 000 by one country, South Africa. And none of our people got infected.

If one of them does get infected will he/she be brought back to SA?

Yes, because they’re South Africans. But that team was there for seven weeks. They tested 2 000 very dangerous samples because half of those were found to be positive, and none of them got infected. Because they were very careful, and they were trained.

We have screening facilities at two airports. What about the other points of entry?

OR [Tambo airport] has got walk-in scanners. For other points of entry, we’ve just ordered hand-held scanners.

What about our porous Limpopo border? Who’s going to scan the people who just walk across?  

That indeed is a problem. I would be very worried if there were Ebola in SADC [the Southern African Development Community]. It is not found in any of the SADC countries. Our calculation is, how easy is it for a person who is an illegal immigrant to leave West Africa, walk or hike or take a taxi or a truck or whatever, and arrive at Beitbridge? By that time they will be so sick, that it won’t be easy for them to do what they are doing.

Do we have people at Beitbridge who are trained to recognise Ebola? 

We have had port health authorities there checking for other haemorrhagic fevers which we’ve been watching for.

Are there ambulances on stand-by, equipped to ensure the immediate isolation of patients?

If we need a special ambulance with isolation facilities, those ones the army has got. Remember, they are part of our response team.

They couldn’t even get Nelson Mandela to hospital in one of their ambulances...

That was one unfortunate incident.

So they have ambulances on stand-by, ready to be rushed wherever?

Absolutely.

And they’re not going to break down on the highway or run out of petrol with an Ebola patient inside?    

I don’t think so. That’s the reason why we’ve got a multi-sectoral response team. So the chance of that happening is very slim.

Our hospitals run out of bed linen. How can you be sure they won’t run out of protective clothing?

Because it’s supplied by us at a national level, not by the individual hospitals or provinces.

Do you share the concern of the public about the training of our nurses? They were trained to wash their hands but they didn’t and babies died.

All I can say is that the National Institute for of Communicable Diseases, which is part of the response team, has been declared a centre of excellence by the World Health Organisation. They have got the best staff. That’s all I can do.

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