Johannesburg, South Africa – South Africa’s health services are buckling under pressure from the surge in COVID-19 infections, in part due to a new variant of the coronavirus that is spreading across the country.
Health professionals warn that the “relentless” wave of infection that has seen more than 130,000 new cases of COVID-19 and 4,000 associated deaths in the last week alone threatens to overwhelm public and private hospitals.
“As soon as the beds are opened, more than 10 people wait to fill them – we can’t cope,” a doctor working at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg told Al Jazeera.
“It has been relentless and much worse than the first wave of infections.”
The new variant, called 501.V2, has been found in all nine provinces of the country, as well as beyond the country’s borders, leading several countries to ban flights from South Africa.
The variant has been associated with a higher viral load, which has led some scientists to believe that it is more transmissible and possibly a major contributing factor to the rise in infections.
Others, however, call for caution as more studies are ongoing, with some officials attributing the current spike in infections to a lack of compliance with coronavirus containment measures and ‘super-prevalent’ events during the period. celebrations.
In late December, the government placed the country under “level three” lockdown restrictions – again banning alcohol sales and recreating a nighttime curfew – in an attempt to avoid infections.
Public gatherings have also been discouraged, funerals limited to no more than 50 people and the reopening of schools this month has been pushed back to mid-February.
Meanwhile, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced earlier this week the closure of South Africa’s 20 land entry points, in a move prompted by the formation of winding, mile-long queues at the borders of South Africa. countries as migrants tried to return from neighboring countries after visiting their home countries during the holiday season.
“This [congestion] exposed many people to infection while waiting for treatment; and it has been difficult to ensure that the sanitary conditions required to enter South Africa are met. Many people are arriving without proof of COVID-19 tests, ”Ramaphosa said on January 11.
The borders will remain closed until mid-February, with only freight carriers, diplomats, returning South African nationals, permanent residents and foreigners with valid visas allowed to pass. Anyone hoping to cross must present a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of arriving at the border.
“People are unable to seek care or even access sanitation and water because they are stuck in long stationary lines and can exacerbate the risks of creating widespread events for COVID- 19, ”Vinayak Bhardwaj of Doctors Without Borders told Al Jazeera.
South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs sent additional staff to the country’s busiest land ports to ease congestion, while authorities arrested hundreds of people who entered the country from Zimbabwe , from neighboring Mozambique, eSwatini and Lesotho by climbing fences and crossing rivers, as well as forging fake travel documents and PCR tests.
Amir Sheikh of the African Diaspora Forum called the ban “disastrous”.
“People are going home by any means necessary,” he told Al Jazeera. “Just because they’re not South Africans doesn’t mean their life isn’t here. Some people denied entry have taken up residence in this country for decades.
The brakes came as the economic effects of one of the world’s tightest lockdowns – with large swathes of the economy shut down for most of 2020 – began to be felt. More than 2.2 million jobs were cut in the second quarter of the year alone, with the Reserve Bank of South Africa forecasting a 6.1% drop in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020.
Meanwhile, after the government was engulfed in corruption scandals emanating from the distribution of personal protective equipment and food packages during the initial stages of the pandemic, discontent is now spreading over the plans of the South Africa to procure and distribute COVID-19 vaccines.
The government aims to inoculate two-thirds of South Africa’s 59 million people over the next 18 months, but some medical experts say the target is unrealistic due to the country’s already stretched resources and the apparent delay. in obtaining an adequate supply of vaccine doses.
1.5 million initial doses of the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine have been reserved for frontline healthcare workers and are expected to arrive from India as early as February.
The government has also announced that 20 million doses of the vaccine will arrive in South Africa during 2021, but details of their supply and cost remain elusive, drawing criticism from scientists, civil society and parties. opposition that authorities have been slow to idle in the global vaccination race.
“Vaccines can be ready for deployment after months of rapid research around the world. But if South Africa is unable to acquire enough vaccines, it leaves the country with an uncertain future as to how the coronavirus crisis will end, ”said Professor Dr Shabir Madhi of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
In total, South Africa has recorded more than 1.3 million coronavirus infections and at least 36,851 related deaths. However, these are only confirmed figures. Statistics released by the government in early January showed a peak of nearly 20,000 deaths in December year-over-year, with 55,676 deaths recorded last month compared to 38,620 a year earlier.