Health services collapse as third wave of coronavirus fueled by Delta variant hits South Africa | South Africa
The health system in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, is overwhelmed by a massive wave of infections caused by the Delta variant, winter in the southern hemisphere and a faltering vaccination campaign.
The new variant is now dominant in Africa’s most developed country, where the official death toll is now over 60,000, although excess mortality statistics suggest over 170,000 may have died from Covid.
Across Africa, the Delta variant is fueling an aggressive third wave of infections, with the number of cases increasing faster than any previous peaks, according to the World Health Organization.
WHO experts warned last week that infections in Africa had risen for six consecutive weeks, up 25% last week, reaching 202,000 positive cases. South Africa accounted for more than half of African cases last week, despite being one of the few countries where testing is going deeper. As of July 1 alone, more than 21,000 cases have been recorded.
South African authorities have been unable to stem the spread of the new variant, imposing further restrictions only after a massive wave of infections ravaged the economic heart of the country.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said last week the country’s healthcare system was “collapsing” as he imposed a two-week ban on all gatherings, indoors and outdoors, as well as sale alcohol and travel to or from the hardest hit parts of the country, such as Gauteng, its most populous and economically productive province. An extended curfew was also imposed and schools closed early for the holidays.
“We have overcome two decisive waves, but now we have a new hill to climb, a great challenge, a massive resurgence of infections… a devastating wave,” he said.
Anger and frustration grew after repeated promises to speed up the faltering vaccination campaign were broken. Only three million jabs have been issued to a population of 60 million. Acting Health Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said vaccine delivery would accelerate in the coming weeks, with all people over 50, as well as police, teachers and soldiers targeted .
However, a series of corruption scandals involving Covid spending has undermined confidence in the government. The Minister of Health has been suspended pending an investigation into allegations of corruption.
The upsurge in infections has exposed the weakness of public health services, with overwhelmed hospitals and oxygen shortages, but above all a lack of trained staff. The highly publicized arrival of military medics has been described by medical professionals as “a very late drop in a very large ocean”.
Last Thursday, the South African Medical Association threatened to sue the government because dozens of new junior doctors cannot find placements despite being understaffed.
The vaccination campaign was interrupted on weekends and holidays to rest health workers, but also because there is no budget for overtime, officials admitted.
In many parts of the country, voluntary organizations are filling the gaps. Some Johannesburg patients who have not been able to find a bed in a public service are being treated in a makeshift Covid service set up by a Muslim charity in the city.
“We don’t see any deaths. Funeral services see dead people. We see death. This is the difference. We see death coming. We try to get to patients on time, but unfortunately we can’t always do it, ”said Anees Kara, a volunteer doctor.
Studies of blood donors released on Friday found that nearly half of the population may have already been infected with the virus, although the third wave appears to be the worst yet.
WHO has said the speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is unprecedented.
“The rampant spread of more contagious variants is pushing the threat to Africa to a whole new level. More transmission means more serious illnesses and more deaths, so everyone must act now and step up prevention measures to prevent an emergency from becoming a tragedy, ”said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, regional director of the WHO for Africa.
Eight vaccines have been approved for the WHO emergency list, but shipments to Africa have actually dried up. “As supply issues persist, dose sharing can help bridge the gap. We are grateful for the promises made by our international partners, but we need urgent action on allocations. Africa must not languish in the throes of its worst wave to date, ”said Moeti.
Only 15 million people – 1.2% of Africa’s population – are fully immunized.