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COVID-19 – just how bad is it in South Africa?

On 12 July, President Cyril Ramaphosa painted a pessimistic picture of South Africa’s battle against COVID-19. Hospitals are struggling to keep up and the country has not even reached the peak of infections. Margaret Blackie notes the differences between South Africa’s infection and other badly-affected countries during their peak. As a consequence, she questions the government’s wisdom in allowing minibus taxis to operate at full capacity.

We have entered a new phase in South Africa – we are in the ‘surge’. The daily infection rate is such that our hospitals cannot cope with the influx of those who need to be treated. As a result, alcohol has been banned again. It is frustrating, but I am sure the medical staff are breathing a (small) sigh of relief. At least the preventable, alcohol induced injuries will free up some hospital resources.

So, just how bad is it in South Africa? We don’t know yet. Over the last five days we have had just below 13,000 new infections every day. To put that in perspective have a look at the table. Total population isn’t really a good counter indicator, but I am guessing that most of the readers of this article will remember watching the stories coming from these three countries in March and April. We have more than twice the daily infection rate of either Italy or the UK. And we don’t know whether we have hit the peak yet.

We have more than twice the daily infection rate of either Italy or the UK.

Bottom line it is very serious. The only element in our favour is that our population is a lot younger than any of these three countries and so we do have lower percentage of complicated cases and a lower mortality rate.

CountryTotal populationapproximate number of daily infections at the peak
UK68 million5,500
Italy60 million6,000
Spain47 million8,000
South Africa58 million12,058 (on 12 July)

Into this unfolding human tragedy, the government has made a truly bizarre decision. The only possible motive is political expediency. They have changed the regulations from requiring taxis to operate at 70% capacity to allowing full capacity for short journeys. Even at 70% capacity taxis were likely to be hotspots.

At 100% capacity one infectious person on a taxi will infect more people. Given that a large percentage of our population has no choice but to use taxis, it seems that saving the most lives possible is not the President’s top priority.

One infectious person on a taxi will infect more people.

This decision makes a mockery of the complex screening and entry procedures many businesses and organisations have had to implement at substantial expense. It is profoundly disappointing.

Nonetheless, we are — in the words of the President — in the centre of storm, the extent to which it will get worse depends on the actions of every single one of us. We are all tired, and the recent announcement by President Ramaphosa which began with him berating us rubbed salt into the wound.

However, flouting the simple rules of good hand hygiene, social distancing and wearing of masks will not help. And it will not ‘send a message’ or whatever it is supposed to do. The virus does not care! We need to take a deep breath and gently persist. There is nothing else to be done.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Margaret Blackie
Dr Margaret Blackie is a senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University. She was the recipient in 2020 of the Chemical Education Medal of the South African Chemical Institute. She is also a spiritual director and author of two books: ‘Rooted in Love’ and ‘The Grace of Forgiveness’.

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