Updated: Mar 26
The South African COVID-19 response is now bolstered by a surge team of health experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) with the WHO deploying 43 experts from various fields to support the COVID-19 outbreak response management. The first 17 health experts arrived on 5 August and include key expertise in epidemiology, surveillance, case management, infection, prevention and control, procurement, as well as community mobilization and health education. Among them is Dr David Heymann, an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health expert, who was at one-time assistant director-general for Health Security and Environment at WHO. He headed the response to the SARS epidemic in 2003 working with his team to mediate international efforts to halt the pandemic. With South Africa now among the top five of the world’s most affected countries, it is critical to strengthen its COVID-19 response. These deployments emanated from continued discussions between Dr Zweli Mkhize, the minister of health and the WHO global and regional leadership. Dr Owen Kaluwa, South Africa’s representative for the WHO, says at this time when the COVID 19 epidemic in South Africa is spreading rapidly, it is important we work together to intensify our fight against the virus. He says for this reason, the WHO is ramping up support to complement national and provincial efforts to scale-up the response. “Our collective efforts are necessary to identify cases, isolate and provide care, follow up contacts and fully implement physical distancing and other key public health measures. In this way, we will minimize the spread and impact of COVID19. The WHO is primarily responsible for funding the international surge team, while South Africa is largely responsible for providing administrative resources for smooth initiation and integration of the partnership,” says Dr Kaluwa. The surge team will be jointly led by Dr Matshidiso Moeti, Africa’s regional director at the WHO and Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme. They will work virtually from Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo and Geneva, Switzerland respectively to support the experts on the ground. Dr Mkhize says Dr Moeti and Dr Ryan have become familiar and trusted figures in the fight against COVID-19 and they have been supporting and complementing South Africa’s national efforts. He says he has had fruitful and honest discussions with them and the WHO will bolster South Africa’s efforts seeing how effective their interventions have been in countries like China, Spain, Italy and Mauritius that have been through what South Africa is facing now. “I would also like to pay tribute to the Dr Tedros Adhanhom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, who has been steadfast in his leadership during a defining global crisis. We welcome the WHO team and their integration to buttress our COVID-19 response,” says Dr Mkhize. The delegation will complete an initial period of quarantine and testing before being cleared for deployment in the country. They will be initiated into the current national health efforts and informed on how the National Department of Health is supporting provincial COVID-19 programs. Then they will be deployed in the national department and provinces of the Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, Kwazulu Natal and Mpumalanga. Dr Sandile Buthelezi, director-general of health, says these provinces have been identified as the ones needing the most urgent support where the first team can make the most impact and as the remaining experts are deployed by the WHO, all provinces in the country will benefit from their presence. According to him, the surge team aims to contribute to national efforts in response areas including surveillance and streamlining of epidemiological systems, the WHO global COVID-19 response guidelines and improved case management. Dr Buthelezi says this should lead to a reduced hospital burden and increased community buy-in, resulting in greater compliance to public health measures. “The WHO regional office for Africa has made supporting South Africa a key priority. It believed our joint efforts with South African health experts will help flatten the curve and save lives. We are in this together and our solidarity which spans the globe is a model partnership for an effective response. United we will defeat COVID-19,” says Dr Moeti.