Covid-19: Virus spreads in Cape farming communities

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Despite a glimmer of hope in the Western Cape’s coronavirus fight, authorities remain worried about the infection rate in some of the province’s farming towns, including Worcester, Ceres and De Doorns. Earlier today, the Breede Valley and Langeberg municipal areas were on the verge of reaching 7 000 infections.

Breede Valley mayor Antoinette Steyn. Photo: Supplied

Breede Valley mayor Antoinette Steyn tells Food For Mzansi although things are looking much better since the first covid-19 infection was announced in her municipal area 139 days ago, the fight is still far from over. “It’s going better. People started working again, and everyone is trying to keep to the rules, but the challenge is still there. They are trying to help each other…”

She calls on residents to fight against coronavirus fatigue and to stick to the five golden rules: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, keep apart, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough and stay at home, if you are sick. “The united effort works. It must just be taken further. The agricultural community is keeping the faith, and not losing hope.”

Steyn’s message follows a recent meeting with Dr Ivan Meyer, the Western Cape minister of agriculture, who convened stakeholders in the Breede Valley and Langeberg municipalities about worrying infection rates in some towns. Meyer was supported by Dr Helena von Schlicht, the Cape Winelands District mayor, and officials from both the departments of health and agriculture.

Worrying infection rate among young adults

Meyer reiterates that the coronavirus hotspot response in these municipal regions are aligned with the provincial strategy to flatten the curve. He is, however, worried about rising infections in some of the farming communities.

“I am concerned about the infection rate in both Langeberg and Breede Valley,” says Meyer. “The increase in the number of young people infected (with covid-19) is worrisome. The level of non-compliance with the five golden rules, especially social distancing and the wearing of masks, is a significant concern.”

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Langeberg and Breede Valley municipalities are reporting an infection increase among those aged 25 to 35. “I do not know where and when I contracted the virus,” says 20-year-old Kyle Stynder of Avian Park near Worcester who was recently discharged from a quarantine and isolation facility. “I do know now that we must take the virus serious. It is tough and one gets seriously sick. We must wear our masks, keep social distances, stay at home and wash our hands.”

Among the first covid-19 related casualties in this region count Hendrik Jansen, who was serving his first term as the mayor of Langeberg when he died early in July 2020. He first joined the municipal ranks in 2001 when he was elected deputy mayor.

Earlier, a foremost infectious diseases physician told Food For Mzansi that those in rural areas are at even greater risk of contamination. Dr Jantjie Taljaard, who heads up the division of infectious diseases at Stellenbosch University, says the infection risk in farming communities are significant because people often work together in large numbers or confined spaces like factories or pack houses.

If further outbreaks were to occur in farming communities, people would be at a disadvantage, Taljaard explains. While many rural areas might have adequate public health resources to deal with normal circumstances, covid-19 is testing this infrastructure to the limits. “Rural areas have less resources for medical care in general compared to metropolitan areas. The hospitals are smaller and there are fewer personnel. So, in this sense, they may not be able to manage as well.”

Additional quarantine and isolation facilities

According to the Western Cape department of agriculture there has already been a significant increase in people being treated at the province’s additional quarantine and isolation facilities. Meyer says, “I am encouraged that the utilisation capacity in these facilities have increased and urge those who have been exposed to or infected with the virus to make use of these facilities.”

Antoinette Steyn and Dr Helena von Schlicht, respectively the mayors of Breede Valley and Drakenstein municipalities. Photo: Supplied

Commenting on the earlier engagement with the Breede Valley and Langeberg municipalities Von Schlicht expressed her pride in the team who implemented the hotspot strategy. “Fighting the pandemic has placed us in a journey of uncharted waters. Our staff have remained resilient and continue to develop new plans to fight the pandemic.”

Schilcht adds that given the strategic positioning of both Langeberg and Breede Valley within the agricultural sector these two regions are already focused on developing an economic recovery plan. This includes slowing the virus spread, stabilising increases at old age homes and implementing behavioural change strategies to improve compliance to regulations.

Agriculture and economic recovery

“Agriculture is the building block that will pull our economy through. We must also remember that the biggest road infrastructure project in the Western Cape is (currently) happening in Langeberg,” says Von Schlicht.

Meyer adds, “Agriculture must take centre stage in the economic recovery… Economic recovery is not possible without agriculture. We aim to save lives and livelihoods.”

He also commended the Western Cape Education department for continuing to feed more than 112 000 learners during the protracted covid-19 lockdown. “I am delighted with the scope of humanitarian support and food relief provided in the Breede Valley and Langeberg. Breede Valley in particular, has done a tremendous job of reaching out to vulnerable communities. We do, however, have to shift the focus from food relief to food security.”

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