South Africa reverts to tighter lockdown, virus ‘flares’

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Retirees wait to receive a first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine in a tent during a mass vaccination program for the elderly at the clinic near Johannesburg, South Africa on Monday, May 24, 2021. Africa South is in a race against time to vaccinate as many people as possible with signs of a reappearance of the virus. (AP Photo / Themba Hadebe)

AP

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday that his country would revert to more stringent lockdown measures amid a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases which indicate the virus is “rebounding” in Africa’s worst-hit country.

Positive cases in South Africa in the past seven days were 31% higher than the week before and 66% higher than the week before, Ramaphosa said in a live televised speech. He said parts of the country, including the Johannesburg shopping center and the capital Pretoria, were now in “a third wave”.

“We don’t yet know how serious this wave will be or how long it will last,” Ramaphosa said.

In response, Ramaphosa said that from Monday the nighttime curfew would be extended by one hour to start at 11 p.m. until 4 a.m. A maximum of 100 people would be allowed at indoor social gatherings and no more than 250 at an outdoor meeting. The number of people attending the funeral will be limited to 100 and gatherings after the funeral have been banned altogether, Ramaphosa said. Non-essential businesses must close by 10 p.m.

“We have tended to get complacent,” Ramaphosa said, warning that viral infections are “reappearing” as the country enters its winter months and people are more likely to congregate indoors, probably further increasing infections.

South Africa’s decision to return to a tighter lockdown reinforces – as the crisis in India has already done so cruelly – how far from over the global pandemic is.

“We have seen in other countries the tragic consequences of letting the virus spread unchecked,” Ramaphosa said. “We cannot let our guard down.”

South Africa has more than 1.6 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 56,000 deaths, more than 30% of cases and 40% of deaths recorded by all 54 countries in Africa, according to the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. South Africa has registered 4,515 new cases in the past 24 hours and Ramaphosa said the “positivity rate” among tests performed was now “a cause for concern”.

South Africa was below Lockdown Level One, the lowest of its five levels, but was now reverting to “adjusted level two,” Ramaphosa said. Authorities stopped before reimposing tough measures such as limits on the movement of people during the day and a ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products that were sometimes in effect last year.

South Africa has already seen two outbreaks of infections, the first in the middle of last year and a much worse second wave in December and January, when the emergence of a variant pushed infections and deaths to higher levels than the first. The virus was currently following “the same trajectory” as these waves, Ramaphosa said.

Experts have warned that this wave, arriving with the southern hemisphere winter, could be even worse.

The surge in cases has also drawn more attention to the delay in vaccine deployment in South Africa. Only about 1.5% of the country’s 60 million people have received a vaccine. Health workers were the number one priority, but less than 500,000 of the 1.2 million health workers were vaccinated with the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. South Africa started vaccinating its elderly citizens just two weeks ago. A total of 963,000 South Africans had received a vaccine on Sunday, the government said, although half of them received only the first of two required doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

South Africa has “secured” more than 50 million vaccines, Ramaphosa said, but currently only has 1.3 million doses in the country ready for deployment. More doses of Pfizer-BioNTech are expected to arrive next week, and every week after that, he said. South Africa hopes to vaccinate around 40 million people by the end of the year, a goal that seems increasingly unlikely.

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