At least 67 of the 859 churchgoers who attended a prayer gathering in Bloemfontein early this month where five overseas visitors infected with the Covid-19 coronavirus were present, have now tested positive for the virus.
Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize announced on March 20 that all five tourists had tested positive for the virus. A further 305 tests had since been done on churchgoers who attended the gathering.
Reverend Kenneth Meshoe, leader of the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), Steve Swart, an ACDP member of Parliament, lay preacher Angus Buchan as well as his wife Jill, are among the 67 who tested positive.
On Tuesday, Mkhize said government had not been able to track down everyone who attended the
Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast (JPB) gathering from March 9-11 at the Divine Restoration Ministries in Bloemfontein, Free State.
Mkhize called on all those who attended to report to the department of health for testing. On Friday, he attributed the sharp increase in cases in the Free State to that gathering.
“The majority of the 61 patients [in the Free State] come from the church meeting,” Mkhize said.
“Church leaders who attended the meeting, put their congregation in contact with the virus,” he said.
As many as 16% – 50 of the 305 people – who were tested, have now contracted the virus.
Meshoe and Buchan were guest speakers at the event.
Albert Veksler, the Israeli director of the event, was quoted then as saying the fact that the gathering had happened despite the virus, was a “victory”.
“The fact that we gathered in spite of the [virus] distraction is already a great victory,” said Veksler told online religious news platform GatewayNews.
On Friday, contacted, spokesperson for the health department in the Free State, said they identified had already contacted 973 of the 1 259 people they were tracing.
“We have now reached about 973 contacts of whom 773 are asymptomatic while 200 are symptomatic with 67 of these being positive,” said Mvambi
According to GatewayNews, the JPB prayer movement was started by a member of the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), Robert Ilatov. It is aimed at “mobilising Christians around the world to pray for the peace of Jerusalem”.
Meshoe, who was tested last Sunday after being informed by City Press’s sister publication, Rapport, that the five tourists had tested positive, found out that he was also positive on Friday afternoon.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and other political leaders, who had attended a political meeting with Meshoe, were also tested. The president’s test was negative.
Deputy President David Mabuza’s spokesperson, Matshepo Seedat, said he takes the virus seriously but would not confirm if he had been tested.
John Steenhuisen, leader of the DA, said he had experienced no symptoms, but would get tested as soon as he can.
Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu, also tested for the virus and is awaiting his results.
Bantu Holomisa, the United Democratic Movement leader, on Friday night told Rapport that he heard about Meshoe’s positive test result while he was travelling through Bloemfontein, on his way to Mthatha.
“I decided to stop in Queenstown to have a test done immediately,” Holomisa said.
The EFF did not respond to questions about whether party leader Julius Malema had been tested.
Robyn Maclean, Buchan’s daughter, said her parents immediately went into self-isolation on their farm in Greytown in KwaZulu-Natal after they became aware that some of the tourists had been diagnosed.
They have not yet experienced any symptoms, she said.
It is understood that a businessperson from Gauteng, a couple who are pastors in the Northern Cape, a farmer from the Free State, a resident of KwaZulu-Natal and a member of the local congregation who drove the overseas tourists around, all tested positive for Covid-19. They all attended the prayer meeting.
Angelize de Lange (57), an entrepreneur from Kempton Park, was tested on Monday, after reading in Rapport last week about the five visitors, said her husband, Jaco.
De Lange was immediately admitted to the Life Little Company of Mary Hospital in Pretoria after she found it difficult to breath.
“She was very ill over the past week, but she’s doing a lot better now,” he said.
He said his wife spent a few minutes speaking to a visitor from Israel at the conference.
“There was no physical contact between them. As far as my wife recalls, they didn’t touch each other.”
Prophet Elisée Yao, the church’s founder, confirmed that he was also waiting for his test results, just like many other church members.
“The department of health is saying that there is a backlog in delivering results,” he said.
Yao said that although some of his congregants have tested positive for the virus, nobody was panicking.
“Members simply followed government’s guidelines by isolating themselves,”’ he said.
He said that the overseas guests had shown no symptoms upon their arrival and were also screened at the airport. They were taken for tests on March 16, after the president announced that all international guests must be tested before leaving. They found out two days later that they all tested positive for Covid-19.
“Upon receiving the results, we immediately isolated them and that same evening engaged with the heads of the National of Disaster Management Centre as well as the department of health as to the way forward.
“The next morning on Thursday March 19, we started sending messages to the participants that were on the database that we had of the JPB as well as the whole database of the church.”
It was decided that all attendees should be tested at the church premises on March 21-22.
“We are aware of the gravity of the disease but are doing everything with the department of health to minimise the risk of an outbreak. As a whole, caution has been taken for the safety of all.”
Barry Taylor (36), a congregant who drove the overseas visitors, also tested positive for the virus. Taylor said the visitors were only at the guest house and were never taken to any shopping centres or other public places.
The father of a small baby said he was not showing any symptoms yet.