Coronavirus in South Africa: The lull before the tsunami?

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.

“It’s a bit strange. Eerie. No-one is sure what to make of it,” said Dr Evan Shoul, an infectious disease specialist in the main city, Johannesburg.

“We’re a bit perplexed,” said Dr Tom Boyles, another infectious disease doctor at Johannesburg’s Helen Joseph Hospital, one of the biggest public hospitals in the city.

“We’ve been calling it the calm before the storm for about three weeks. We’re getting everything set up here. And it just hasn’t arrived. It’s weird.”

It is nearly five weeks since the first confirmed Covid-19 case in South Africa, and until 28 March, the daily graph tracking the number of new infections followed a familiar, accelerating, upward curve.

But on that Saturday, the curve suddenly broke sharply – from 243 new cases in one day, to just 17. Since then, the daily average has settled at around 50 new cases.

<<BBC>>