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 related deaths in the last week alone threatens to overwhelm public and private hospitals.
“As soon as the beds are opened, there are more than 10 people waiting to fill them – we can’t cope,” a doctor working at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg told Al Jazeera. “It was 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 linked to 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 of 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 prevent infections. Public gatherings have also been discouraged, funerals limited to a maximum of 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, to an extent caused by the formation of winding queues of several kilometers at the country’s borders. as migrants attempted to return from neighboring countries after visiting their home country 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. Lots of people are arriving without proof of COVID-19 testing, ”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, ” said Vinayak Bhardwaj of Doctors Without Borders.
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 neighbouring Mozambique, eSwatini and Lesotho by climbing fences and crossing rivers, as well as forging fake travel documents and PCR tests.
“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.