After belatedly declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, the World Health Organization Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that there was only one way that countries could deal with the coronavirus outbreak sweeping the globe: “Test, test, test.” He warned countries that they couldn’t “fight a fire blindfolded.”
A fortnight into the national lockdown, which ended on Wednesday night, Botswana’s Ministry of Health and Wellness announced plans to conduct mass community testing. It soon made an about-turn and opted for contact tracing – the use of location data to identify who an infected individual may have come into contact with and infected. Last Wednesday, the Ministry revealed that it has conducted 14 283 laboratory tests through the contact tracing programme.
According to the 2011 population and housing census, Botswana has 2.3 million citizens and that number goes up when non-citizens are included. That figure that would certainly have increased nine years later. However, based on the official 2011 figure, Botswana would have tested less than 1 percent of its population – which is not certainly what WHO meant by “test, test, test” and is unlikely to give a true indication of the disease’s penetration.
On the other hand, South Africa, which has been using its massive resources to conduct mass community testing across the country, has unearthed a high number of cases. Some have attributed the high number of cases to this testing – which merely reveals the extent of the disease’s penetration. It is widely believed that South Korea was able to contain spread because it tested nearly 20 000 people, more people per capita than anywhere else in the world.
In another part of the world, a leader has expressed opposition to mass community testing because it reveals more infections and increases the number of positive cases.
“In a way, by doing all this testing we make ourselves look bad,” said United States president, Donald Trump.
However, the issue is trickier than might be concluded – that testing as low as Botswana’s means that the disease is spreading undetected. A government medical doctor says that if that was indeed the case, there would be a lot of mysterious deaths that could be chalked down to the disease.
A COVID-19 diagnostic test is called a nasopharyngeal swab: a health professional puts a special cotton swab stick up both sides of the nose and move it around for about 15 seconds. The swab is then sent to a medical laboratory to test the material collected from inside the nose.