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Is the healthcare sector prepared for the Omicron variant?

‘We haven’t yet started seeing the pressure in the hospitals. Cases in the new wave I think predominantly are being seen in the younger population’: Quinton Zunga – CEO, RH Bophelo.

FIFI PETERS: Just reflecting on the new Covid-19 cases that we are registering, they are climbing, and they’re climbing quite quickly. Yesterday South Africa registered 4 373 new cases; about 70% of them were in Gauteng and the rest spread across the other provinces.

But here to tell us what’s happening in its hospitals is Quinton Zunga, the CEO of RH Bophelo. Quinton, thanks so much for your time. Reflecting on the fast increase in new cases that we have seen in the past few weeks, how many of these are you seeing in your hospitals?

QUINTON ZUNGA: Thanks Fifi and thanks to your listeners. We haven’t yet started seeing the pressure in the hospitals. Cases in the new wave I think predominantly are being seen in the younger population. So the severity hasn’t yet started to impact us, and there’s good capacity within the hospital. We are hoping that this will be a mild variation, but I think there’s still a long way to go and there’s a lot of data to show.

FIFI PETERS: Would you say that it’s too early to say we are in the fourth wave at this stage?

QUINTON ZUNGA: It is definitely the fourth wave. Looking at the number of increases, the question is: have we reached the stage where the system is buckling? And the answer is ‘Not yet’. We are still able to cope and we are hoping that we can proactively manage it so that we don’t get to a point where the system can’t cope – and that’s where a coordinated approach with the government needs to start now in terms of where the pressure is.

FIFI PETERS: On Sunday, in the president’s address at the Family Meeting [President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation], he mentioned that hospital beds that had been prepared for the third wave would also be prepared for the fourth. I don’t know if you caught that part of his statement, and what that means for your business?

QUINTON ZUNGA: Yes, we did catch that part of the statement. Obviously the key thing is we have gone through three waves, so we should be getting better at this. We know the capacity we can take, we know the early warning symptoms or the early warning signs, so we should be able to handle the capacity when it comes. The unknown here is how it’s going to be, and whether we can use any of the learning from prior waves to try and get a better outcome – and that is where we are starting.

Currently I think the jump yesterday [Tuesday] was reasonably big in Gauteng [in particular]. So we need to find a way to curtail that spread before it becomes problematic to the whole nation. Yes, the capacity that was there previously is available as well.

FIFI PETERS: But just in the main, Quinton, from a preparedness point of view, what has changed at RH Bophelo since the new variant was discovered? It was followed with a whole host of travel bans on southern Africa from most parts of the world. What was your response as a hospital in terms of perhaps revving up the gear of your preparedness?

QUINTON ZUNGA: The key things have been around preparedness of the staff, making sure you’ve got enough staff. There was a scramble for staff in the last wave. I think that has now matured.

The second thing is obviously oxygen supplies were in short supply. I think right now everyone has a reasonable supply of oxygen, and we are better prepared for this situation.

The third issue is to prepare, to be able to migrate the resources where the pressure is within the group. Typically you will find pressure in parts of the country and you need to be able to move your resources to manage that pressure, as well as a jump in that area; before it would take you time to make that decision but right now we have to make that decision very early on. So we are prepared for that eventuality.

FIFI PETERS: While the number of new cases is rising fast, it would seem that so is the number of people lining up to get a vaccine in the past 24 hours. It is reported that 175 400 vaccines were administered, and this is up 60% on the previous day. Most of this was happening in Gauteng. Have you seen an increase in requests to get the jab at your hospitals?

QUINTON ZUNGA: We have. It’s kind of like the bad way to learn how to vaccinate, if you ask me. [Chuckling] So, yes, we have seen an increase in demand. There has been a lot of concern around what this new wave means. So in a sense we can make the best of a bad situation. I think this variant has caught everybody flat-footed. We’re not too impressed with the communication channels on matters like this; there shouldn’t be international news before the local parties have figured it out. But it is what it is, and we really think right now we should make the best of it – and vaccination is definitely the key.

FIFI PETERS: Just talk to us about what’s happening in other parts of the world where you operate, notably Rwanda. What’s different on the ground there compared to what you’re seeing here in South Africa?

QUINTON ZUNGA: I think in Rwanda the difference is probably the way they manage the news. I think it’s a lot more centralised, so you do have an ability for stability. I think it is not entirely wise to surprise everyone, especially when you’re starting at the low end. We need to be more proactive with all the parties. I think in Rwanda really right now there is calm.

I think there are pluses and minuses on both sides, but I do think [there is] the management of how the information is portrayed, plus the implication, plus actually the scientific data. So it probably feels a little bit awkward that with 10 000-odd active cases of the new variant we’re kind of in this situation, and probably wouldn’t be so if there was a lot more engagement going on, and on how to deal with it.

FIFI PETERS: Since our Family Meeting on Sunday, has there been any engagement between yourselves as the private sector and government over how best to manage Omicron, should it spiral out of control?

QUINTON ZUNGA: Unfortunately not much. I do think everybody’s still kind of trying to find a way out, hoping that it won’t be as severe. We haven’t yet pushed as aggressively in terms of a joint mitigation project of this variant, but I do think that is necessary for both the public and private sectors.

There are a few things not working properly, and I just think increasingly in terms of the private and public sector is this forum, and actually taking leadership here, because we do know the government is taking leadership but the private sector is also trying to do stuff – and the joint positioning is not on the same page

FIFI PETERS: Very worrying, very worrying. Nonetheless, just one last question, Quinton. It is World Aids Day; how are we doing in that fight, given that so much attention has been placed on the Covid-19 battle in the past two years?

QUINTON ZUNGA: Oh gosh, we have probably fallen a little bit back. I guess the focus, the resources that have all gone into Covid-19 and the Aids pandemic – which is still a pandemic, by the way – have received less attention. We really need to be thinking of Aids in the same way – the attention, the focus, the involvement. And maybe one hopes that in dealing with this virus, one can infer the active participation of the other virus. I do think the country has come a long way, but still more needs to be done and we shouldn’t lose focus, given what we are channelling resources to currently.

FIFI PETERS: I agree with you. And of course we have seen that when placed under pressure the pharmaceutical companies can come up with a vaccine in lightning speed. Therefore the question arises as to whether the same cannot be done in the fight against HIV/Aids.

Quinton, we’ll leave it there for now, sir. Thanks much for your time. Quinton Zunga is the CEO of RH Bophelo.

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