The only additional restriction that will be of any real significance and would have an impact on the resurging COVID-19 infection rate is a ban on mass gatherings.”
This was the word from professor of Vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Shabir Madhi, after South Africa’s health ministry confirmed that the country is battling its second wave.
On Wednesday evening, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize announced that the increase of 6 709 Covid-19 infections in 24 hours has exceeded the country’s highest number of infections recorded to date. The second wave, Mkhize said, was confirmed by criteria set out by scientists and modelling teams. Four provinces, namely the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng, are “key drivers” in the resurgence.
Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the National State of Disaster extended to 15 January 2021. The president further implemented a range of restrictions in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro in the Eastern Cape- which included a curfew and limits to alcohol sales- and highlighted Sarah Baartman District in the Eastern Cape and the Garden Route in the Western Cape as areas of concern.
Many factors, Ramaphosa explained, contributed to a resurgence in cases, including an increase in inter- and intra-provincial travel, the movement of seasonal workers. Large cultural and religious gatherings attended by more than the 250 people permitted under the Level 1 restrictions, he added, played key roles. Funerals and “after tears” parties had been banned as a result.
In the Western Cape, premier Alan Winde announced that several areas would be targeted and receive ‘targeted interventions’ by the provincial government. As of the 9th of December, the province was host to nearly 16 000 cases (15 986), with both infections and hospitalizations on the rise. Extra resources had, after Ramaphosa’s announcement, been deployed to districts identified as hotspots, including the Garden Route and Cape Metro. Winde had, from the onset, been against the reimplementation of a hard lockdown, siting devasting damage to the economy and the prospect of successfully emerging from the virus if citizens abided to the health and safety protocols.
Speaking to VOC’s Breakfast Beat on Thursday, Prof Mahdi said the latest figures need to contextualized according to the amount of testing being done. He surmised that cases on the ground could be far higher.
“At the peak of the epidemic, there were about 50 000 tests being done every day. Currently, there are about 25 000 tests per day. So, the 6000 itself is a significant underestimate in terms of the real number of infections currently taking place in South Africa,” he explained.
Earlier this week, the health department also identified matric end of year or “rage” parties as ‘super spreader’ events and banned these from taking place, urging recent attendees to self-quarantine. The latest report further highlighted that 15-19 age group saw the biggest change in infection rate over the past two days. The department said the presence of alcohol and flouting of health and safety protocols, contributed to this.
Mahdi highlighted that the resurgence was taking place in different parts of the country and are, most likely, driven by mass events.
“At this stage, it’s sort of limited to specific districts instead of being generalized. The main driver behind the resurgence are termed as “Super-spreader” events. (These) are gatherings in poorly ventilated areas indoors, irrespective of the people. It doesn’t have to be hundreds or 1000 people- it can even be 20 or 50 people where (alongside the poor ventilation) people are not wearing their face masks.”
He used the United States as an example to point out that 80 percent of all infections had links to gatherings.
“Unfortunately, that is what is currently probably transpiring in South Africa as well. We can expect it to get worse if people continue engaging in these sort of mass gatherings,” he warned.
“The virus disperses extremely quickly in those environments. What we’ve come to understand about the virus and its main mode of transmission; is that most of the transmission is air-borne. These contaminated microscopic particles can remain suspended in the air for even up to an hour- in a poorly ventilated indoor space where there’s high humidity, for example,” explained the vaccinology professor.
A harder lockdown or the reinstatement of restrictions, he said, is not a plausible solution for the country.
“It simply makes absolutely no sense to close open spaces, including beaches and parks. That’s not where infections are taking place; (it’s) mainly taking place indoors. this includes places of worship, bars, shebeens, parties indoors,” he said.
“The only additional restriction that will be of any real significance and would have an impact is a ban on mass gatherings. Beyond that, nothing else is going to make much difference. All that it will do is delay the resurgence.”
“Going into a higher level of lockdown simply is not going to help in terms of the number of people that are going to get infected. The only thing in terms of managing the resurgence in terms of magnitude is to put restrictions on mass gatherings in all forms,” he emphasised.
Mahdi urged the public to adhere to the protocols and circumvent mass gatherings to avoid exacerbating the second wave.
“We need to be measured in terms of the messaging so we can get people to adhere to what we’re saying, rather than being completely beyond realistic in terms of what is being asked of people,” added Prof Mahdi.
“The resurgence is going to continue gaining momentum. What we can expect to see by February is a much wider spread of the virus and many more cases than what is currently being counted,” he added.
Clinical trials for South Africa, he meanwhile explained, are ongoing.
“We don’t need to complete our clinical trials in order to gain access to one or two of the vaccines that are shown to be effective. Unfortunately, South Africa has been delayed in engaging with the COVAX facilities and other companies to be able to gain access at an early stage,” he said.
“Unlike a country like South Korea, expected to vaccinate 50 of its 54 million people in a space of the next few months, in South Africa we still don’t have any idea in terms of where we’re going to get the vaccine from and how much we’re going to get,” he added.