Coronavirus in South Africa: The lull before the tsunami?

In Summary

•But - as the country and the continent continue to brace for the potentially devastating impact of the pandemic - doctors are struggling to explain what's going on.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Image: FILE

During the past fortnight South Africa has seen a dramatic, and unexpected slow-down in the daily rate of coronavirus infections.

Health experts are warning that it is far too early to see this as a significant development, and worry that it could even trigger a dangerous sense of complacency.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has now suggested that the two weeks of lockdown is responsible. He has extended the nationwide restrictiions, scheduled to end in one week's time, to the end of the month.

But - as the country and the continent continue to brace for the potentially devastating impact of the pandemic - doctors are struggling to explain what's going on.

The beds are ready. Wards have been cleared. Non-emergency operations rescheduled. Ambulances kitted out. Medical teams have been rehearsing non-stop for weeks. Managers have spent long hours in online meetings drawing up, and tweaking their emergency plans.

But so far, and against most predictions, South Africa's hospitals remain quiet, the anticipated "tsunami" of infections that many experts here have been waiting for has yet to materialise.

During the past fortnight South Africa has seen a dramatic, and unexpected slow-down in the daily rate of coronavirus infections.

Health experts are warning that it is far too early to see this as a significant development, and worry that it could even trigger a dangerous sense of complacency.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has now suggested that the two weeks of lockdown is responsible. He has extended the nationwide restrictiions, scheduled to end in one week's time, to the end of the month.

But - as the country and the continent continue to brace for the potentially devastating impact of the pandemic - doctors are struggling to explain what's going on.

The beds are ready. Wards have been cleared. Non-emergency operations rescheduled. Ambulances kitted out. Medical teams have been rehearsing non-stop for weeks. Managers have spent long hours in online meetings drawing up, and tweaking their emergency plans.

But so far, and against most predictions, South Africa's hospitals remain quiet, the anticipated "tsunami" of infections that many experts here have been waiting for has yet to materialise.

Could it be that South Africa's early, and strict lockdown, and its aggressive tracing work, are actually working? Or is this just a small lull?

On Thursday President Ramaphosa said it was "too early to make a definite analysis", but he said that since the lockdown had been introduced the daily increase in infections had dropped from 42% to "around 4%".

"I think the more people we test, the more we'll reveal whether it's an aberration, or it's real. The numbers are not yet there," cautioned Precious Matotso, a public health official who is monitoring South Africa's pandemic on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Complacency fears

There is a general acknowledgement here, from the health minister to frontline hospital staff, that it is dangerously early to try to reach any firm conclusions about the spread of the virus.

"It's difficult to predict which road we're going to take - a high, middle or low [rate of infection]. We don't have widespread testing.

"There might be early signs that are positive, but my fear is that people start becoming complacent, based on limited data," said Stavros Nicolaou, a healthcare executive now coordinating elements of the private sector's response.

The sense of a vacuum caused by this extended lull - the potential "calm before a devastating storm," as Health Minister Zweli Mkhize described it last week - is, inevitably, being filled by speculation.

The widespread assumption has been that the virus - introduced to South Africa, and many other African countries largely by wealthier travellers and foreign visitors - would inevitably move into poorer, crowded neighbourhoods and spread fast.

Nervous anticipation

According to experts, that remains the most likely next stage of the outbreak, and there have already been several confirmed infections in a number of townships.

But doctors here and in some neighbouring countries have noted that public hospitals have seen not yet any hint of an increase in admissions for respiratory infections - the most likely indication that, despite limited testing, the virus is spreading fast.