Maputo — The Mozambican Health Ministry on Monday warned the public not to be carried away on a wave of "exaggerated optimism" just because so far only a handful of people have tested positive for the respiratory disease Covid-19.
Speaking at a Maputo press conference, the National Director of Public Health, Rosa Marlene, expressed her fears that, if citizens become too optimistic, they may let their guard down and relax the preventive measures against Covid-19.
So far the Mozambican health authorities have only been testing suspect Covid-19 cases, and the great majority of the test results have been negative. Marlene said that, in the previous 24 hours, 14 people were tested and all were negative. So 48 hours had passed without a single new case of Covid-19 being detected.
In all, 231 suspect cases had been tested, and eight of them were positive for the disease. The Health Ministry is monitoring 124 people who are known to have been in contact with the eight.
According to Monday's issue of the daily bulletin on Covid-19 issued by the National Health Institute (INS), by 30 March, 402,311 people had crossed the borders into Mozambique and had been screened. But only 4,764 were in quarantine.
This is alarming, because last Thursday around 23,000 Mozambicans returned from South Africa, escaping that country's total lockdown. Every one of them should have gone into home quarantine for 14 days, but apparently the vast majority did not.
Marlene said "we should not deceive ourselves with the fact that the number of those infected with Covid-19 in Mozambique is not rising drastically".
"These are the initial cases", she added. "Just because we have only diagnosed eight cases doesn't mean we are doing well".
Marlene said the Covid-19 spreads quickly and silently. Cases may be occurring, without those infected knowing. Since they are not showing any symptoms yet, they have not gone to the health units.
She was concerned with the fact that much of Mozambican society is not yet taking seriously the preventive measures ordered by the authorities - including the ban on gatherings of more than 50 people.
There were still cases where people gathered in much larger numbers. "We cannot and we must not be in large crowds, whatever the motive", said Marlene.
Over the weekend photographs circulated on social media of Wimbe beach in Pemba, capital of the northern province of Cabo Delgado. The beach was thronged with people enjoying themselves, quite oblivious to any threat of disease.
In some cases there has been active opposition to social distancing measures. In Inhambane province, the authorities demanded limits on the number of people in the boats that cross the bay of Inhambane. The boat owners protested that this would cut their profits and so they went on strike.
The INS deputy director, Eduardo Samo Gudo, said the measures taken by the Mozambican authorities are intended to "flatten the curve" of new infections, and delay the peak of the epidemic. Spreading the cases out over a longer period will buy time, and prevent the health service from being overwhelmed.
But this would only work with the collaboration of all citizens - "that is, if we are disciplined, and do not have attitudes such as those in Pemba, where people went to the beach", he added.
There are now hopes for a cure. "Anti-viral drugs are at an advanced stage", said Samo Gudo. "Probably we will have anti-virals before we have a vaccine".
Delaying the peak of the epidemic, he stressed, would give time for preparation "and thus avoid a collapse in the health system".