Photo: GCIS / Flickr
Photo: GCIS / Flickr
That the COVID-19 pandemic besetting South Africa will get worse before it gets better is not news, it is
reality. President Ramaphosa finally reacted on Sunday, albeit far too late, ordering the country back
into lockdown. However, questions remain about what indeed lies ahead for South Africans.
The best-case scenario is that the current exponential rates of caseloads plateau out towards the end of
July, the health system can start to repair the damage which the recent onslaught has wreaked and we
return to life as usual. This is to assume that the current two-week lockdown works a near miracle, and
infections suddenly ebb.
However, Africa’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the likely outlook is
however looking much, much, much worse.
With caseloads across the continent skyrocketing – up three times since only one month ago – doctors
in many parts of the country are warning that hospital beds are scarce, oxygen is running low and the
vaccination campaign is running far behind schedule.
“We are not winning for sure. Each time you get a wave the peak is worse than the previous one,” said
John Nkengasong, director of Africa’s CDC. “What haunts me a lot is the India scenario which could well
happen here, we are not nearly out of the woods yet”.
When referring to the Indian scenario he was referring to the deadly second wave that the country
experienced in the last three months, with the total tally of infections over 20m and over 250 000 dead,
although this is almost certainly a gross underestimate. If that was to happen in SA it could result in
another 100 000 South Africans dead, adding to the estimated 170 000 excess mortalities as of June
The situation in India was unbearable, with hospitals completely overwhelmed, bodies piling up on the
sides of streets and daily mass cremations becoming part of life. Exacerbating the devastation was the
particularly contagious Delta and so called Delta Plus variants which are now spreading across South
Africa. These variants are not only dangerous for the elderly and vulnerable, but many doctors in India
were recorded as being horrified by how many twenty and thirty year olds were getting seriously ill. The
same is now being reported in Gauteng.
There are many lessons for South Africa that can be drawn from this ghastly experience.
First, the implied tradeoff between saving the economy and containing the spread of the virus through
lockdowns is simply fallacious. If governments dither, as India’s did in February and March and as we did
in May and June, then the subsequent effects of the virus on the health system and the economy are
far, far worse. Ironically, this is a point that was made very clearly by Indian Prime Minister Narendra
Modi and President Cyril Ramaphosa when they ordered the first lockdowns in March last year, but at
some point over the course of the last 12 months they seem to have forgotten it. A lockdown ordered
now, with the virus already circulating throughout the population, is simply pointless. It should have
been done months ago.
Scenes of South Africans partying and gathering in May and June 2021 will have been very familiar to
Indians who enjoyed watching live sport, attending weddings and going to mass religious events like the
Kumbh Mela, where over 650 000 Hindus swam in the River Ganges, in March and April.
Second, vaccination drives are the only way to permanently halt the spread of the virus, and both in
India and South Africa the pace has been glacial, especially amongst the communities where the spread
of the virus happens most. There is no point in vaccinating the elderly, well off and isolated residents of
Constantia and Bryanston if those communities where spread is fastest – in the informal settlements
and rural areas – are not able to register and access vaccines. Variants, which may become immune to
vaccines, will just continue to evolve and proliferate.
Finally, there is a risk to the politicians themselves when they handle the situation as disastrously as
they have done. Modi’s popularity rating has collapsed since the catastrophic second wave, and
Ramaphosa should not be surprised if his does as well if these chilling forecasts become reality.
At this critical turning point, Ramapahosa’s fate and indeed the fate of the country rests on one thing
only: speeding up and expanding the vaccination campaigns, particularly for those most at risk.
Dr Ridhwaan Suliman, a senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, told the
Daily Maverick this week that if this does not happen and South Africa does not manage to achieve
the critical aim of 60% of all South Africans having received at least one dose of the vaccine by Spring then
there will be a fourth wave by December.
Indeed, Professor Francois Venter of the Ezintsha unit at Wits University told the Daily Maverick that
“There will be between 20 and 40 waves before we are all vaccinated,” said Venter, adding that at the
current pace it could take up to 10 years to reach herd immunity in South Africa.
Dissent, across the country, is brewing. The handling of this pandemic has clearly been nothing short of
calamitous. Ramaphosa himself might end up being the highest profile political casualty of a looming