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Infectious Diseases

Updated 26 May 2020

Coronavirus morning update: Minister 'understands' concerns over schools, but legal action threatened

Your latest coronavirus news: Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga says she understands the anxieties, concerns and fears around Covid-19 ahead of the phased reopening of schools on 1 June; but there is uncertainty over whether schools will be Covid-19 ready for next Monday's reopening, with one union already threatening court action.

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN SA

Cases update: 

The latest number of confirmed cases is 23 615.

According to the latest update, 481 deaths have been recorded in the country - 52 more deaths were reported.

There have been 11 917 recoveries.

So far, 596 777 tests have been conducted, with 12 992 new tests.

READ MORE | All the confirmed cases of coronavirus in SA

Latest news:

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga says she understands the anxieties, concerns and fears around Covid-19 ahead of the phased reopening of schools on 1 June.

"It's understandable, I am a mother as well. I know that, as parents, children are everything to us – I understand the anxieties, the concerns and the fears around Covid-19 because are dealing with something that we just do not know," she said on a television show - The Big Debate - on Monday.

This comes as pupils are expected to return to school on 1 June under Level 3 of the lockdown.

News24 earlier reported that schools would be reopened first for Grades 7 and 12, followed by other grades at later stages. The plan was approved by the National Coronavirus Command Council and the Cabinet.

READ MORE | Reopening of schools: I understand the concerns, I am also a mother, says Motshekga

There is uncertainty over whether schools will be Covid-19 ready for next Monday's reopening, with one union already threatening court action.

"It's not safe for them," said Scelo Bhengu, the president of the Educators Union of SA (Eusa).

Bhengu's comments came after information that there was insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) in schools, and no confirmation on whether all teachers would be tested for Covid-19 before school starts.

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga announced a phased return to school when the country shifts to lockdown Level 3 on Monday.

READ MORE | Teachers' union threatens legal action: 'Covid-19 exposes hidden horrors in schooling system'

Department of Health acting director-general Dr Anban Pillay "abused the power" of his office when he wrote to the chairperson of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) to recommend an investigation be launched into its president, Professor Glenda Gray, the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) said on Monday afternoon.

In a statement signed by Professors Jonathan Jansen, Barney Pityana and Brenda Wingfield, ASSAf said it found Pillay's actions "extremely alarming" and said it represents a violation of the constitutional right to academic freedom, which includes the right to freedom of academic research.

The SAMRC on Monday morning apologised for Gray's comments, in which she criticised the state's lockdown policy, and said it would institute a fact-finding investigation into the "damage" the comments might have caused.

It also banned any of its staff from speaking to the media until the matter of Gray's comments was resolved.

READ MORE | Glenda Gray row: Academic body accuses health dept DG of 'abuse of power', actions are 'alarming'

To prevent corruption and theft in the R500 billion Covid-19 rescue package, the DA has proposed that Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni create a special inspector-general.

DA MP Geordin Hill-Lewis said previous localised disasters, as well as regular expenditure, had been lost through illegitimate procurement practices, undue cost escalation and direct theft, which made this a necessity.

Briefing the media on Monday, the party said regular processes are suspended when funding is dispersed under disaster relief and emergency provisions of law, which has, in the past, resulted in massive wasteful expenditure, with no results.

"This inspector-general would differ from the auditor-general (AG), in that the AG only considers spending after it has happened at the end of a financial year, and cannot take any pre-emptive action to prevent corruption. Legal provision for this special inspector-general can be made in the forthcoming Special Appropriations Bill to be tabled to Parliament in June, to give effect to the R500 billion stimulus package announced by the president and finance minister."

READ MORE | DA calls for a special inspector-general to monitor govt's Covid-19 relief fund

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN THE REST OF THE WORLD 

Cases update:

For the latest global data, follow this interactive map from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine.

Late on Monday night, positive cases worldwide were more than 5.46 million, while deaths were more than 344 500.

The United States had the most cases in the world - more than 1.65 million, as well as the most deaths - close to 98 000.

READ MORE | All the confirmed cases worldwide

Latest news:

Sweden, which has gained international attention for its softer approach to the coronavirus than many of its European neighbours, said on Monday its number of deaths passed the 4 000 mark.

The Public Health Agency said it had recorded 4 029 deaths and 33 843 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the country of some 10.3 million inhabitants, with 90 percent of the deceased over the age of 70.

Sweden's death toll has far surpassed the tolls in neighbouring Nordic countries, which have all imposed more restrictive containment measures.

According to AFP's own database, Sweden's virus death rate of 399 per million inhabitants is far higher than Norway's 43 per million, Denmark's 97, or Finland's 55.

Critics have accused Swedish authorities of gambling with citizens' lives by not imposing strict stay-at-home measures. But the Public Health Agency has insisted its approach is sustainable in the long-term and has rejected drastic short-term measures as too ineffective to justify their impact on society.

The Scandinavian country has kept schools open for children under the age of 16, along with cafes, bars, restaurants and businesses, while urging people to respect social distancing and hygiene guidelines.

READ MORE | Covid-19 deaths top 4 000 in under-fire Sweden

The World Health Organization said on Monday that it had "temporarily" suspended clinical trials of hydroxychloriquine as a potential treatment for Covid-19 being carried out across a range of countries as a precautionary measure.

The decision came after the publication last week of a study in the Lancet indicating that the using the drug on Covid-19 patients could increase their likelihood of dying, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual press conference, adding that the WHO-backed trials had been "suspended while the safety is reviewed."

READ MORE | WHO suspends trial of hydroxychloroquine as Covid-19 treatment over safety concerns

LATEST RESEARCH

Covid-19, just like influenza, largely infects the respiratory tract. Whether the symptoms of Covid-19 are mild or severe, laboured breathing is a common symptom.

While the lungs are affected similarly by the novel coronavirus and influenza, researchers found some characteristics that are unique to Covid-19, according to a news release.

A new study in this regard was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), led by Dr Steven J Mentzer, a thoracic surgeon at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital.

Dr Mentzer and a team of international researchers examined lung specimens from the autopsy of seven deceased Covid-19 patients and compared them with seven specimens from patients who died from influenza-related pneumonia.

READ MORE | What the lungs of Covid-19 patients can tell us about the virus

Although we are still learning a lot about SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that’s causing havoc around the globe, we know that viruses all have a similar purpose – to live inside a host and to replicate by hijacking human cells, leading to illness.

Viruses have a way to circumvent the body’s natural immune system, enabling them to replicate inside their hosts. While people mostly recover from common viral infections such as seasonal influenza without any lasting ill effects, Covid-19 is more virulent and there is as yet no cure or vaccine available.

However, a research partnership between Aarhus University, The University of Oxford and the University of Gothenburg – under the leadership of Professor and virologist Søren Riis Paludan from the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University, Denmark – might be bringing us closer to understanding the way viruses attack humans.

The new study was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine. For this research, the team investigated how the herpes simplex virus circumvents the human immune system and causes a rare infection of the brain.

READ MORE | Could researchers have found the Achilles heel of viruses?

HEALTH TIPS (as recommended by the NICD and WHO)

• Maintain physical distancing – stay at least one metre away from somebody who is coughing or sneezing

• Practise frequent hand-washing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as your hands touch many surfaces and could potentially transfer the virus

• Practise respiratory hygiene – cover your mouth with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Remember to dispose the tissue immediately after use.

READ MORE: Coronavirus 101 

Image credit: Getty Images