The Minister of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) Naledi Pandor went into self-isolation after a Covid-19 scare hit her office following a trip to the Republic of Congo two weeks ago.
As South Africans grappled with the reality of the virus, surgical masks have become a precious commodity and stockpiling essentials and non-perishables a familiar passtime. Fake news has spread even faster than the pandemic, permeating social media channels like Whatsapp sowing panic and confusion.
And as the country begins a 21-day lockdown to curb the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak, it has now emerged that Pandor went into self-isolation but tested negative after an official in her department had tested positive for Covid-19.
The official, who works closely with Pandor, is said to have tested positive shortly after returning from a trip to Oyo in the Republic of Congo. The official had accompanied Pandor, who was travelling in a chartered flight with her Cabinet colleagues, Ayanda Dlodlo (state security), Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula (defence) and other government officials.
Pandor’s spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, said he was not in a position to discuss any aspect of the official’s health, but added that the Dirco staffer, as well as the minister, were in self-isolation.
The Mail & Guardian asked Pandor’s office detailed questions about when the official had tested positive and what measures were taken. There were initial claims that the official had tested positive shortly after returning from the Republic of Congo trip. The details about this trip were not clarified or answered directly by Ngqengelele.
The minister’s spokesperson now says he has clarified that Pandor was alerted about the official’s test results while attending the presidential inauguration in Namibia last week.
“The official only tested positive on Saturday, 21 March and we immediately alerted the Minister. All staff members then went on self isolation,” said Ngqengelele.
State Security spokesperson Mava Scott said Dlodlo was also tested.
“Yes we can confirm that Minister Dlodlo travelled to Oyo in the last two weeks and upon learning of the case of one of the employees who also travelled with them, testing positive for corona virus – she also took the decision to self isolate and test for the virus. She has also ordered that her office take extra measures to sanitise the whole environment…Minister has tested negative,” said Scott
The M&G also posed questions to the presidency, because President Cyril Ramaphosa, as well as the Cabinet, could potentially also have been exposed to the virus. One day after we sent our questions, the presidency announced that Ramaphosa had taken a test for Covid-19, which came back negative.
The ministers all participated in a meeting of the African Union contact group on Libya, which took place on March 11 and 12 in Oyo town. According to reports, the Republic of Congo, which is home to the African headquarters of the World Health Organisation (WHO), recorded its first Covid-19 case on March 15.
The AU contact group meeting was also attended by Ramaphosa, AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, and Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who is chair of the AU’s high-level committee on Libya. The aim of the meeting was to find solutions to Libya’s continued conflict and crisis.
“Following a false rumour concerning the minister, the minister underwent a test and has received results indicating she is negative [for] Covid-19. The staff member … is in self-isolation and has no symptoms suggesting a need for quarantine.
“The current requirements are self-isolation by contacts and test[ing] in event of symptoms. All persons in office who have [had] contact with the staff member have been in self-isolation, including the minister. The minister was informed of the staff member’s test after the inauguration in Namibia,” said Ngqengelele.
He said that the department has ensured the offices of the ministry have been sanitised, as per regulations. Pandor attended the March 21 inauguration of Namibian President Hage Geingob for his second term.
But, according to some government officials, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, despite panic and concern among staff members at the department of international relations and co-operation, the issue of sanitising the office and protecting employees was not adequately addressed.
“That [official] made contact with a lot of people in Dirco. The minister herself has been meeting with Cabinet colleagues and she even attended the inauguration in Namibia,” said one government official.
As of March 15, after a special Cabinet meeting, Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster, announcing “urgent and drastic measures to manage the disease”.
“It is essential, therefore, that we minimise the risk of the spread of this virus by limiting contact among groups of people,” said Ramaphosa.
He also mentioned that the government had been aware of a case of a University of the Witwatersrand student who had tested positive and that those people who had been in contact with the student would be quarantined.
“They [Pandor’s office] are telling people to come to work because they are not at risk, but they know that one of their own tested positive [for Covid-19]. This has also caused some tension in and around Cabinet because of the way it has been dealt with and [because] people have been in close contact with each other during briefings,” said another government official.
By Wednesday, South Africa had recorded 709 positive cases of Covid-19. The rising numbers forced Ramaphosa to announce a complete lockdown for 21 days and deploy the South African National Defence Force to assist police in enforcing it.
Ramaphosa also announced major economic contingency plans, as the lockdown will have serious economic implications for an already struggling economy, and negatively affect livelihoods.
The WHO declared coronavirus a global pandemic on March 1.
Scott also said: “Unfortunately we cannot comment about this case in adherence to the NICD and WHO protocols.”