With South Africa scrambling to contain the second wave of Covid-19 infections – fuelled by a virulent new local variant of the virus, ‘Covid fatigue’ and a series of ‘super-spreader’ events – there are now grim warnings that a third wave, and possibly a fourth, is in the offing.
The Health Ministry on Thursday announced that the death toll has surpassed 35 000, with a record 806 new fatalities and 21,832 new cases in a 24-hour period – the worst toll yet.
Experts believe the second wave has yet to reach its peak in the country with around 60 million people, and fear that already struggling healthcare services in Gauteng, South Africa’s main economic hub, as well as in other hot spots such as the Eastern Cape, and Kwa-ZuluNatal, may buckle under the influx of patients.
SA cannot afford stricter lockdowns
South Africa, unlike its wealthier counterparts, cannot afford to repeat the hard lockdown imposed last year, which caused massive economic and social damage.
Some predict a third wave when winter comes in the southern hemisphere in May and June amid huge concerns that current vaccines may be less effective against the new variant.
“We are going to get a third wave, even a fourth. This pandemic has only just started,” said Tivani Mashamba, professor of diagnostic research at the University of Pretoria.
There is also growing criticism of the government’s apparent failure to secure adequate supplies of vaccines.
Last week health officials announced that around 1.5m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, sourced from India, would be available for health workers by the end of next month.
The Democratic Alliance, reacting after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s latest address to the nation on Monday, said the “lack of clear vaccine plan is now developing into full-blown crisis.”
It also remains unclear how promises to roll out jabs to two-thirds of the population through the year can be kept, though South Africa will get enough shots for 10% of its 60 million citizens through the global Covax initiative, designed to ensure an equitable supply of cheap vaccines to poorer countries.
The official Covid-19 death toll in South Africa now stands at 35,140, but reliable excess mortality figures suggest over 71,000 have died since May, The Guardian reported.
The worst-hit in Africa
Limpopo province appeared to have escaped the worst of the first wave, but has been hit badly by the second, Mashamba told the The Guardian.
“It’s actually really bad here. Everyone knows someone who’s passed away. The health system is very weak,” said Mashamba. “Covid fatigue was a big factor. You can’t believe how many weddings were going on. I was invited to baby showers. I thought: this is horrendous, you’re exposing pregnant women.”
Alex van den Heever, professor of social security systems administration at Wits University, Johannesburg, said the government, led by president Cyril Ramaphosa, had limited options.
“The problem in South Africa is a [hard lockdown] has massive social and economic impact. South Africa isn’t in a position to support those who lose their earnings and parts of the country are effectively unlockdownable because of the social context… The government is constrained in what it can do… We have to ride the storm, target what we can.”
Porous borders adding to the challenges
Efforts to control the flow of people across borders are also undermined by corruption and inefficiency, The Guardian found.
“I went with a group of about 20 and we all paid the Zimbabwean soldiers, then the South African soldiers and us walked around the frontier post through the bush and across the border, then we all went wherever we were going in South Africa,” Joy Mvulane – a domestic worker who travelled last week from Zimbabwe to South Africa – told the London-based newspaper.
Growing anger directed at ruling ANC
However, as the crisis continues, there is growing anger at the ruling African National Congress party, in power since 1994. Public trust has been damaged by a series of allegations of corruption, particularly surrounding massive contracts for protective equipment in the early stages of the pandemic.
The granddaughter of Nelson Mandela said wasteful expenditure during a pandemic had made her “blood boil,” Ndileka Mandela, told the Mail and Guardian.
“What upsets me, even more, is the amount of money lost through corruption, it’s billions of rand. I will never vote for the ANC again, ever… I’m sure wherever my granddad and our freedom fighters are, they are not happy.”