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South Africa’s Giant Third Wave: ‘In July, Gauteng Might Look Like India During Their Peak’

Published 5 months ago
By Yeshiel Panchia
An elderly woman receives her first dose of the vaccine during Phase 2 in Krugersdorp, South Africa, 17 May 2021. Picture: Yeshiel Panchia

With Covid-19 infections spiking rapidly in South Africa and heading for a fierce pandemic peak, it’s a tough winter ahead. Will the new tightened restrictions help quell the wave?

South Africa’s third wave of Covid-19 infections, which the president Cyril Ramaphosa called “devastating” in a nationwide address on June 27, has been attributed to the highly-contagious Delta variant.

With private and public health facilities in some provinces already reportedly overwhelmed and at capacity with the heavy new caseload, the South African government has urged citizens to take increased precautions amid tighter regulations and a reversal to lockdown alert level 4 announced by the president last night.

“The death rate is very likely to be two or even three times higher than the last wave.” –Professor François Venter, Director of Ezintsha and Deputy Executive Director of Wits RHI

“We need to take extra precautions. As of today, the seven-day average of new daily cases nationally has overtaken the peak of the first wave in July last year, and will soon overtake the peak of the second wave we experienced in January this year,” said Ramaphosa, as he announced the move to adjusted restrictions, which includes an expanded curfew, the prohibition of gatherings, the closing of gyms and sit-down eateries, as well as stopping the sale of alcohol.

While efforts to hamper the spread of the virus have some efficacy, members of the medical fraternity, including members of the government’s own Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC), have been critical of what they think has been slow action.

“Government did not properly prepare – as a province, we thought that it the third wave wouldn’t be as brutal as the first or second,” says co-chair of the MAC, Professor Koleka Mlisana, to FORBES AFRICA. “The province should not have closed quarantine facilities after infections of the second wave seemed to be decreasing, that’s where we dropped the ball. When the third wave infections picked up, we were playing catch-up, worsened by one of our major academic hospitals was offline.”

Indeed, the Gauteng province, the country’s commercial heart, is the hardest hit in South Africa, with the seven-day moving average cases fast approaching 10,000.

“We are seeing Gauteng in particular being hammered, with infection rates higher than any other province, almost by a factor of two,” says Professor François Venter, Director of Ezintsha and Deputy Executive Director of Wits RHI (reproductive health and HIV Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand), in an interview with FORBES AFRICA.

“This is the worst, most severe health crisis we have ever faced. In July, Gauteng might look like India during their peak.”

Many of the additional health infrastructure and medical care capacity created during and for the first and second waves of the pandemic were decommissioned late last year, and not reopened in preparation for the third wave, he adds.

To bolster additional capacity, the Nasrec quarantine facility is now being reactivated.

“What we were so scared of during the hard lockdowns of May and July [last year] – that’s what we are seeing now,” continues Venter. “The death rate is very likely to be two or even three times higher than the last wave.”

The surge in cases has already taken its toll on already strained healthcare infrastructure in both state and private facilities, with many hospitals reporting that they are at ICU capacity, even as the peak of the third wave has reportedly not yet been reached.

While the provincial government has committed to the hiring of new staff and expansion of existing facilities this week, it may be too late, for many patients and personnel attempting to save lives, say frontline staff.

“Our staff shortages are constant. We are often over [patient] capacity and are not always able to admit sick Covid-positive patients to our wards because of a lack of space,” says one state doctor who wished to be unnamed.

On the vaccine front, the president announced yesterday that 2.7 million people had received a single vaccine dose countrywide, with the daily vaccination rate exceeding 100,000 – with 1.2 million new Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines and 1.4 million Pfizer doses having arrived in the last three days through the COVAX program, which South Africa is largely reliant on for vaccine-procurement, and which is still trying to acquire enough doses for member states across the continent.

The J&J vaccine trial earlier in the year had been temporarily halted due to cautionary concerns regarding possible blood clots. While the J&J vaccine application has resumed, delivery of the doses to South Africa had been earlier hindered by reported concerns around site contamination at a production plant in Baltimore in the United States.

While vaccination rates are increasing, the government also has a tough job balancing safety and economic necessity; the hard lockdowns of 2020 caused South Africa’s GDP to fall by over 16% between the first and second quarters (source: Stats SA).

Keen to avoid similar damage to the economy, the government is forced to walk a tightrope in an attempt to curb the spread of infections while keeping the economic engine turning in a country with a youth jobless rate of 74.7%.

Attempts to keep this balance are reflected in the new lockdown regulations, which allow most businesses to function as normal. However, the liquor and restaurant industry say the new restrictions will be terribly damaging.

“Another ban will offer a severe blow to thousands of small businesses still trying to get back on their feet from the previous bans, resulting in even more job losses, business closures and loss in revenue for the national fiscus,” the Beer Association of South Africa said in a statement soon after the president’s June 27 address.

“The only way forward is to provide an uninterrupted supply of beds, supplies, staff and oxygen,” says Venter firmly. “We need not waste time on lockdowns or alcohol, but focus on providing the health system, what it urgently requires, and providing health staff as efficiently as possible. The supply of the healthcare system must be an absolute priority.”

With 15,036 new cases reported in the last 24 hours and private and public ICUs filled to capacity, there is uncertainty and a cold Covid winter ahead for South Africa.

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Related Topics: #COVID-19, #Covid-19 Deaths, #covid-19 recovery, #covid-19 second wave, #Covid-19 spike, #COVID-19 testing, #Covid-19 Vaccine, #COVID19, #Delta Variant, #Featured.