Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has lauded South Africans and frontline workers who have helped lessen the full effects of Covid-19, as the country marks one year since the virus hit our shores.
"It has been a very rough journey if one may say, we have learnt a lot, we have made mistakes and we have also achieved a lot," he said on Friday.
Mkhize was speaking at Grey's Hospital in Pietermaritzburg where Premier Sihle Zikalala and Health MEC Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu remembered the first ever infection, a 38-year-old Hilton man who had traveled to Italy in 2020.
"When patient zero was admitted, he was not so bad. He just had dryness of the throat and that was it. At the time we were still unpacking everything around the virus."
He recalled feeling a lot of "of anxiety and trepidation" in the country as he drove to Cape Town to meet other government officials for a debate on the preparedness of the country for the coronavirus infection.
"I had to call the president and say to him that this is the call I wish I never had to make to confirm we have the first Covid-19 positive patient identified in South Africa. I went to brief the president and thereafter the media. The rest of the debate was on the basis of how well prepared we were as a country."
Mkhize said information was key in the early days, and a call centre had been set up. He said they were also initially concerned with tracking and tracing all the Italy travellers.
"Once the first patient was discovered, we realised there were nine of them in the country and the whole machinery had to be activated to find where all these individuals were."
He said the following day he was in KwaZulu-Natal and headed to Cowen House School where panic had set in amongst the Hilton community.
"There was a panic in Cowen House because the parents did not know how to deal with this matter. However, after we spoke to them, things seemed to calm down. No one really knew what to expect at the time."
He said he was reinvigorated with hope when he arrived at Grey's Hospital to discuss their preparedness.
"What was heartening was a team of nurses that were sitting here, and when we finished, they started singing 'we don't fear coronavirus and we will be ready to nurse all of our people'. That was the beginning of the hope we all shared as we moved around."
He recalled how the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 soon began doubling every day.
"I recall, we had several meetings with a number of experts and professors. It became very clear that the numbers, the way they were rising, were likely to overrun the health services, unless we created a space during which we should be able to go and look at how to upgrade health services so that we can absorb the [high] number of people [being infected]."
Mkhize said the famous term "flattening the curve" became the next priority.
"And then came the whole expression of flattening the curve. We said let's draw out this infection, then it will not rise very rapidly. We wanted to draw it out over a long time and make sure that, even at the peak, it does not go beyond what the department of health's capacity is."
'They cooperated and saved our nation'
Mkhize said that the issue of lockdowns was also a tough talking point one year ago.
"To say to South Africans there is no travel between provinces was hard. Most people live between several provinces with relatives on one side, while working on the other. But for a while, they were asked not to visit.
"It was the most difficult and inconvenient decisions, but it had to be done because we had to save our people and prepare our health services. We thank South Africans for cooperating."
He also lauded religious leaders for calling on people to pray at home.
"I'd never thought in the history of the country we would get to the point where religious leaders would actually say we will cancel the Easter services. For all Christians in particular, that is a mark for yearly centre of devotion, where everyone looks forward to that day. Even those who don't attend church too much go on that day."
"We want to pay tribute to religious leaders, because had they not done so, they would have been party to the creation of super-spread activities like we saw in South Korea.
"They cooperated and saved our nation. They came out of a meeting and said 'turn your home into a church, mosque or synagogue', and people cooperated. For that we are very grateful."
Mkhize very briefly touched on PPE corruption, only saying: "Regarding acts of corruption that were associated with PPE, we want to say we will continue our commitment to fight against those kinds of irregularities and corruption."