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SA's stringent measures may have delayed Covid-19 surge, says health department official


The government’s stringent restrictions on travel, trade and social interaction have slowed the rate of new infections of Covid-19 and may have delayed the epidemic’s peak by several months, parliament’s health committee heard on Friday evening.

The government’s models had projected that without interventions to slow transmission of the coronavirus, there would be an overwhelming surge in patients by July, but that point was now projected for September, said the health department’s acting director-general Anban Pillay.

A delay would be significant, as it would provide the government more time to prepare.

The government moved swiftly after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in SA on March 5. Ten days later, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced sweeping travel bans, the closure of schools and a prohibition on mass gatherings, quickly followed by a national lock down that began on March 27. Initially slated for 3 weeks, the lockdown has now been extended until the end of April.  

Pillay warned against complacency, saying the number of seriously ill patients seeking care would still pose a challenge to the health system.

“The curve is still quite high, relative to the capacity of the health system,” he said in a conference call with MP’s.

As of Friday, the total number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in SA stood at 2003, with 24 deaths.

The government estimated that it would require between 25,000 and 70,000 hospital beds for Covid-19 patients during peak transmission, and between 4,000 and 14,000 ICU beds, said Pillay. Work was under way to identify sites for field hospitals, including stadiums, convention centres and military facilities, and provinces were assessing their mortuary capacity, he said.

Business Day has previously reported that SA had about 4,950 critical care beds in the private sector in 2017, and about 2,240 in the state sector, according to Wits governance expert Alex van den Heever. The state had about 85,000 hospital beds, and there were about 40,000 in the private sector at that stage.

While it seemed SA might be charting a different path to countries such as the US, UK, China and Australia, which had seen an exponential increase in Covid-19 cases, the government remained concerned, said health minister Zweli Mkhize. “We are worried about winter, when there could be an explosion, worried about the lifting of the lockdown, when there could also be another rebound explosion,” he said.

In line with a growing number of countries that have recommended people wear masks in public, the minister announced on Friday that the government is now advising everyone to wear a cloth face mask when they go out. Members of the public are being asked not to use medical masks, as these are in short supply are being prioritised for health-care workers.


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