South Africa’s health services are buckling under the strain of soaring COVID-19 infections driven partly by a new variant of coronavirus spreading across the country.
Medical professionals warn that the “relentless” infection wave that has seen more than 130,000 new COVID-19 cases and 4,000 related deaths in the last week alone threatens to overrun both public and private hospitals.
“As soon as beds open, there are more than 10 people waiting to fill them – we cannot cope,” a medical officer working at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg told Al Jazeera.
“This has been relentless and far worse than the first wave of infections.”
The new variant, referred to as 501.V2, has been found in all of the country’s nine provinces, as well as beyond the country’s borders, leading several countries to ban flights from South Africa.
The variant has been associated with a higher viral load, leading some scientists to believe it is more transmissible and possibly a major contributing factor in the surge in infections.
Others, however, urge caution as more studies are being carried out, with some officials blaming the current surge in infections to a lack of adherence to coronavirus containment measures and “superspreader” events during the festive period.
In late December, the government placed the country under “level three” lockdown restrictions – banning alcohol sales again and re-enacting an overnight curfew – in an attempt to stave off infections.
Public gatherings were also discouraged, funerals limited to no more than 50 people and the reopening of schools this month was pushed back to mid-February.
Meanwhile, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced earlier this week the closure of all of South Africa’s 20 land entry points, in a move prompted by the formation of snaking, kilometres-long queues at the country’s borders as migrants attempted to return from neighbouring countries after visiting their home countries during the festive period.
“This [congestion] has exposed many people to infection as they wait to be processed; and it has been difficult to ensure that the health requirements for entry into South Africa are met. Many people are arriving without proof of COVID-19 tests,” Ramaphosa said on January 11.