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SA universities batten down hatches as Covid-19 cases rise

Some restrict staff travel, others shut down potential paths of transmission

South Africa’s universities have started to prepare for what seems likely to be an increase in Covid-19 cases in the country in the coming days and weeks. 

As of 11 March, the country had 13 confirmed cases, of which six were announced earlier that day. All cases can be traced to recent travel, and there is still no evidence of the virus spreading within the country. 

Most dramatic was the University of KwaZulu-Natal announcement last week that it was creating a ‘coronavirus war room’ to coordinate surveillance, prevention and response measures. 

“‘The plan offers a co-ordinated, cohesive strategy for preparedness, and will require each and every one of us to get involved. Given the high concentration of people on our campuses, prevention and protection against the spread of disease is critical,” said UKZN vice-chancellor Nana Poku.

Other universities have instituted quick ways aimed at stopping the virus spreading. The University of Pretoria announced last week that it was disabling its biometric access system that requires students and staff to place their finger on a fingerprint scanner. 

The University of Stellenbosch has placed a “temporary ban” on staff and students travelling to China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. Staff who choose to travel to these countries in their private capacity are urged to obtain information from travel insurance companies about incidents related to Covid-19, the university says in a staff newsletter dated 11 March.

And while the University of Cape Town has not introduced any general travel bans, vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng urged staff and students to “consider postponing or cancelling all non-essential travel” in a message on 11 March. Travel to high-risk destinations like China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, Japan and Hong Kong was most strongly discouraged, she said, adding that the UCT’s insurance provider won’t cover individuals traveling to those areas. 

She added that UCT staff should also consider postponing non-essential visits from abroad, and that all visits from high-risk areas should be postponed.