The coronavirus epidemic is only starting in South Africa, according to experts, and the disease will spread through the country in waves, causing intermittent lockdowns over the course of two or three years.
South Africa’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on 5 March and the country entered a nationwide lockdown on 23 March, which was originally scheduled to be lifted on 16 April. However, having already extended the lockdown period until the end of April, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation last night, giving some details for a R500 billion relief effort that’s due to be rolled out to combat further spread of the virus, saying that the South African economy will be reopened in phases over time. He has not given much insight into what a phased reopening will look like, but a Times Live interview with Prof Shabir Madhi of Wits University, who heads the public health subcommittee advising Ramaphosa and his cabinet, reveals the scope of the uphill battle that the country is now facing.
“We are not returning to normal for the next two to three years,” Madhi said. “This is not necessarily going to take place in a single wave but more likely in several waves.
“We can’t go into perpetual periods of lockdown [but] the reality is that this is going to cause many epidemics at least for the next two to three years. This is not a short-term crisis that is going to be sorted out in the next few months. We might see a huge upsurge in cases and at least three to four epidemics over the next few years.”
Madhi also predicted that up to 45,000 South Africans will lose their lives over that period, which is a figure that has actually been revised downwards from the original modelling that predicted 120,000 to 150,000 fatalities.
“The only information we had in the early days from China was that a vast majority would be symptomatic,” Madhi said.
“Based on that modelling, we felt at least 120,000 would die in SA because of COVID-19.”
Studies in the US, China and Iceland, showing that at least 50% of all COVID-19 infections are asymptomatic have “changed the numbers completely”.
“But the bad news is we don’t know who is spreading it”.