South Africa’s Third COVID-19 Wave Could Be The Worst Yet

With 60,038 deaths officially registered, South Africa accounts for over 40% of all COVID-19 deaths on the continent. The state is currently experiencing a third wave, which is being fueled by the rapid spread of the Delta variant – initially discovered in India – which is quickly becoming the dominant strain. 

Bayanda Gumende, who runs a 10-bed private clinic in western Johannesburg, is more familiar with treating renal disorders than COVID-19. However, with the city’s hospitals being overcrowded, patients lingering in casualty units for days, and ambulances stranded in parking lots…things are starting to change. The 27-year-old head nephrology technologist says he’s been overwhelmed with calls from patients in need of oxygen who can’t get it anywhere else. Due to a scarcity of supplies, he is obliged to prioritize. “It has taken a toll on me. It is very emotional to watch people taking their last breath. Some people are gasping for air. There is literally nothing you can do about it. You cannot save everybody,” he says.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, a world-renowned epidemiologist and previous founder of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, claims that this version is especially harmful because of a defect in furin, an enzyme that “scatters” the spike protein. “That cutting process is critical. It enables the virus to enter cells more easily, and therefore spread faster,” he explains. “This variant is about twice as transmissible as the other variants of concern.”

Science has influenced policy. President Cyril Ramaphosa revealed many of the new restrictions in a broadcast address on Sunday, including the prohibition of all alcoholic beverages and events, as well as an extension of curfew hours from 9:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. Provincial Premier David Makhura announced at a press conference last week that “We are struggling. We are under extreme pressure. The pandemic is everywhere.”

For the time being, Gauteng province (inclusive of Johannesburg and Pretoria – the nation’s monetary and administrative capital) has been the epicenter of this third wave, accounting for over 60% of new cases reported. The province recorded 81,399 active cases as of Monday. In addition, a fire in April has forced the 1,000-bed Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital to close down, further exacerbating the crisis in the city. Several people believe that the authorities are not completely blameless. “Where is the preparedness of the existing system regarding ICU, oxygen, diagnostics, and treatment?” tweeted Tlaleng Mofokeng, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to health.

According to Ramapahosa, the solution to the terrible crisis the nation is facing is the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccination is, in fact, a vital component of attempting to manage the virus. Furthermore, vaccinations must be used with several of the public health prevention initiatives. Despite the fact that Ramapahosa has been a major voice in the global drive for vaccine fairness and the lifting of manufacturing licenses, his government’s immunization effort has been delayed. Despite receiving 7.4 million vaccines, South Africa has only provided 2.9 million doses up to this point, and less than 5 percent of the population has been given the first dose.  

Opposition parties and government critics believe the expansion has been delayed due to improper management. However, in his Sunday address, Ramaphosa addressed vaccine apprehension as a significant factor. “There is still a lot of misinformation being circulated about the COVID-19 vaccine. False stories are being spread on WhatsApp groups, on social media, and by word of mouth about the COVID-19 vaccine, claiming that the vaccine is not safe, that it can make you sick, or that it doesn’t work,” the president said.