Eastern Cape’s Covid-19 denialists

As deaths surge, Furnworld openly breaks vital regulations

By Thamsanqa Mbovane and GroundUp Staff

23 July 2020

The Furnworld shop in Uitenhage actively discourages wearing of masks and using hand sanitisers in contravention of the law and science. Photo: Thamsanqa Mbovane

South Africa recorded its highest official number of Covid-19 deaths yet on Wednesday – 572. Of these, 400 were from the Eastern Cape. The health department counts a total of just under 6,000 Covid-19 deaths so far, 1,345 of these from the Eastern Cape.

But these are grim underestimates as the latest weekly Medical Research Council (MRC) mortality report shows. Depending on the methodology used there could be as many 17,000 excess natural deaths between 6 May and 14 July. (Unnatural deaths are homicides, accidents and suicides, the total of which has fallen dramatically since lockdown.) Most of the excess deaths are Covid-19, though it’s currently impossible to say precisely how many.

“Deaths from natural causes in the City of Cape Town (3,341), Johannesburg (1,863), Ekurhuleni (1,402), Nelson Mandela Bay (1,027), Buffalo City (658) and City of Tshwane (607) metros continued increasing in the week up to 14 July 2020,” says the MRC report.

But the two Eastern Cape cities have the smallest populations of the above six and when this is accounted for they have the highest excess death rates.

And yet in Uitenhage, part of Nelson Mandela Bay, you will find a shop that blatantly disregards the most important measures for controlling the spread of the virus: physical distancing and face masks.

Customers are urged to come in without any sanitisers. The shop owner and staff don’t wear masks and don’t respect physical distancing. A banner claims Covid-19 is a “fake pandemic”. And the shop owner, Armand du Preez, promotes conspiracy theories about the epidemic on Furnworld’s website.

Furnworld was established 21 years ago. The store sells furniture, beds, TVs and tables.

Du Preez claims, falsely: “Sanitizing five or ten times a day is killing our skin.”

His views on masks are no less pseudo-scientific: “We are saying masks are sucking back the bad gas that we breathe out of our bodies every day. We don’t wear masks either.”

He disputes the Covid-19 death count even though he has no known expertise in epidemiology. “I am not saying there is no such thing as a Coronavirus: I am saying it’s there as a mild flu virus, and that is proven by many good doctors, physicians out there in Germany and America who are no fake doctors.”

But this is false. The World Health Organisation estimates that 290,000 to 650,000 die annually of seasonal flu. Note, this is an estimate, not confirmed deaths. In fewer than seven months, the worldwide confirmed Covid-19 death toll is already 630,000. The real death toll is much, much greater than that because many deaths of Covid-19 are never diagnosed and most countries do not have the capacity to accurately count their Covid-19 deaths. Moreover, this has happened despite the extraordinary global measures — lockdowns, masks, physical distancing — introduced to reduce Covid-19 deaths. Without these measures, many millions would likely have already died of the disease.

Yet Du Preez claims: “There are big pestilences (in the Book of Revelations) that are coming, instead of Covid-19 which is a fake pandemic used to prepare for a cashless society.”

“We have never closed our store even when Covid-19 started,” he brags.

His colleague, Victoria Bassey, says she greets people, shakes their hands, with or without masks and that she does not wear face masks to protect herself against Covid-19 pandemic.

Police spokesperson Colonel Priscilla Naidu said the Department of Labour opened a case during May 2020 after an inspection was conducted at Furnworld in terms of the Disaster Management Act. Naidu said it had been handed over to the Uitenhage state prosecutor for a decision.

Editor’s comment: Covid-19 denialism is deadly

Some of government’s disaster regulations are questionable. The cigarette ban makes no sense. The alcohol ban is debatable as is the 9pm curfew.

But the regulations to wear masks in shops and to observe physical distancing are absolutely vital to reduce new Covid-19 cases and save lives.

It’s easy to dismiss Armand du Preez as a conspiracy theorist. That he certainly is. But he isn’t an outlier; many share his delusions. His dangerously wrong views are common. It’s important that they be debunked and condemned.