Speaking at the launch of a field hospital in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, South Africa’s Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said that on the 5th of March 2020, exactly 107 days ago, the country announced its very first confirmed case of COVID-19. The case had emanated from a group of South Africans who had travelled to Italy on holiday and had experienced symptoms a few days after returning.
“Before this first case, on 29 January, I addressed the nation from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases to reassure South Africans that, as a country, we were prepared for active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of coronavirus infection, and to share full data with the World Health Organisation (WHO),” he said.
“This was the commitment we made and this is the commitment we have adhered to – what is happening here today remains a part of those fundamental principles of our outbreak response.”
There are now more than 100,000 cumulative cases of COVID-19 recorded in South Africa, with an average of about 4000 cases being recorded daily.
“A mere 4 months ago, this pandemic was a foreign concept to most South African citizens…Some have publicly debated whether this increase in numbers means failure by government to effectively respond to the spread the COVID-19 pandemic…Today I want to publicly and boldly dispel such notions,” Mkhize said.
“It is my humble view that the South African government, under the leadership of His Excellency President Ramaphosa, has thus far done their very best to mount an effective response to COVID-19…It is important that we remind our citizens that while we do not claim to have a perfect strategy, it is important for us to understand that is with unity, cooperation and working together…that we should be able to face this vicious pandemic together.”
More than 50% people who have been infected have recovered from the virus. “A few days after our first confirmed case, I made what appeared to be an unpopular statement…that it is possible that we could go up to 60-70% of our population becoming infected. I also warned South Africans that 20% of those infected would be cases that would need to be hospitalised,” Mkhize said, basing his statement on modelling data available at the time.
“The models are theoretical…Whatever the models are, it is not the models that determine where we end up, it is our own conduct and determination to fight the pandemic that lends us to the situation we find ourselves in.”
South Africa has 2888 patients who are in isolation in general ward, 262 patients who are in high care, 539 patients who are in ICU, 218 patients who are on ventilators and 566 patients who are on oxygen.
These figures are much lower than the 20% initially projected and represent a public health response that has placed emphasis on proactive and preventative medicine. “We can keep this up but it requires a concerted effort by all South Africans to adopt the necessary behaviour change that will keep us all safe and ensure our morbidity and mortality rates remain low…When the pandemic arrived on our shores, local spread took off exponentially and initially it seemed that we would follow the trajectory we had witnessed in Western Europe,” Mkhize said.
“After witnessing a doubling time of two days, we were compelled to institute a hard lockdown. This not only assisted to dramatically reduce the spread of COVID-19, but it also gave us an opportunity to expand our health infrastructure and therefore we delayed the doubling time to 15 days during level five lockdown and it is now at around 12 days.”
The country’s COVID-19 bed capacity is now above 27,000; 400 quarantine sites with a capacity of just under 38,000 beds have been identified across the country; over 50,000 community health care workers have been deployed and they have successfully screened almost 20,000,000 South Africans.
“All the preparations that we had put in place, we will make use of at this point. Although we started with differing and flattening the curve, we did get acknowledgement from the WHO which pointed out the advantages of our proactive community-based strategy,” Mkhize said.
“There wasn’t a way we could keep a perpetual lockdown forever, because the pandemic is going to be with us for a couple of years. Currently, a number of vaccine trials are going on, but none of them are expected to give us a vaccine in the months to come. Therefore, we have to rely on a change of social behaviour to beat this virus.”
Mkhize urged South Africans to abide to the basic principles of COVID-19 prevention: washing and sanitising hands frequently, wearing cloth masks in public, and maintain social distance.
South Africa currently has a capacity of 7,134 ventilators, of which 5,401 are currently available in both public and private sectors combined. 1,000 more have been pledged to be donated and 733 have been procured.SA government material