South Africa Turns Covid-19 Corner, but Crisis Far From Over

24 September 2020

Economic necessity having forced South Africa to open up to 'near-normal', 180 days after the country entered a damaging lockdown, Covid-19 infection and death rates appeared to be trending steadily down.

But health authorities have been quick to warn that 'Covid-19 is not gone', merely because government restrictions were loosened - though not lifted altogether - from Monday this week.

President Cyril Ramaphosa's Covid-19 task team made its call to move the country into what he said was its new 'near normal', a state of crisis set to last months on current trends, based in part on a steady drop in known infections and deaths.

Having had a severe 51 percent collapse in economic activity due to the lockdown, there was also irresistible financial pressure to re-open, risks notwithstanding.

The downward trend from what had been sky-high infection rates - the highest in Africa - and relatively low but still significant deaths, was seen as offering some relief and hope as the country tries to revive its near-dead tourism and hospitality sectors, which experienced an over 90 per cent decline during the toughest part of the lockdown.

But, as many countries are discovering, the virus that has caused the pandemic is tricky, and patterns of infection may seem to be heading down, only to surge up again.

In SA's case, the moving average of new cases had dropped significantly from highs of several thousand a day a month or so ago to under a thousand (725) on Tuesday this week.

But immediately, the figure spiked up again, overnight rising to 1,346, with a similar increase in deaths to 126 from Monday's low of 13 and Tuesday's of 39, pushing the five-day moving average of Covid-19 deaths from a post-peak low of 39 back to 56.

Despite leading the continent in infections - now just short of 664,000 - with 16,118 known Covid-related deaths, South Africa is still doing relatively well in comparison to the USA, Brazil and some European countries.

Despite universal mask wearing in public being repeatedly driven home, any outing to do shopping or on entering public spaces quickly demonstrates that, for some, masks are more like a required adornment lurking somewhere near their faces, but hardly being worn properly.

Something like one in three or four people appear to think that if a mask covers their mouth and they can breathe freely through their noses, that's fine.

But local and international public health authorities are saying it is not 'fine' at all, since the virus is airborne, and is a recipe for a lingering, strung-out Covid-19 experience.

As in the USA and elsewhere, the main worry is less about people who become infected and are ill, either at home or in hospital, than asymptomatic carriers who move about infecting others, potentially for extended periods.

Consequently, and in direct contrast to what is seen here as a severely ill-considered response of cutting back on testing in the USA, testing and tracing of contracts have become the focus of Covid-19 control in SA going forward.

But there is still not yet adequate testing capacity and though the turn-around time for results has been brought down, especially for high-risk workers such as medical staff, there is still a lag in getting most results promptly.

Nevertheless, increasing efforts are being made to ensure widespread testing in hot-spot areas, with intensive contact tracing.

With restaurants, cinemas and other entertainment venues now open, albeit with smaller numbers and social distancing still in place, another surge in numbers is expected starting two weeks or so down the line, peaking perhaps four to six weeks from now, roughly equivalent to the infection's 'second wave' that is sweeping through many countries in the EU, the US and other regions.

Meanwhile, research is under way into why the pattern of infections caused by this virus is so different, in different countries and regions.

In part the explanation is how countries have variously dealt with the pandemic, how tough lockdowns have been and how well citizens have abided by mask wearing, social distancing and other emergency regulations.

Local and international researchers are still working to fully unlock what is going on, but a shift towards less aggressive disease effects in hosts is a well-known viral adaptational phenomenon.

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