CAPE TOWN — The rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa has raised questions over whether the virus is spiralling out of control.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Wednesday that there have been 5,688 confirmed COVID-19 cases reported in the past 24 hours, the highest single-day surge since the outbreak in early March.
With the new infections, the cumulative number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa has reached 111,796, and the total related deaths are now at 2,205, the minister said.
Of these, 103 deaths have been recorded since Tuesday, one day after the country reached a grim milestone when COVID-19 infections breached the 100,000 mark this week.
Experts with the coronavirus team which is tasked to advise the government have raised a heightened alarm, suggesting that as many as one million South Africans might be infected in the weeks to come.
“When we say we have reached 100,000 cases, that is a complete underestimate. In my estimate, it is close to 10 times more, probably around a million people,” said Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Wits University in Johannesburg.
Evidence indicated that many of those understood to be infected “are asymptomatic but are still spreaders,” Madhi, also director of the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit at the South Africa Medical Research Council, said at a COVID-19 webinar on Wednesday.
Madhi’s remarks followed some equally grim pronouncements from Mkhize, who said on Tuesday that “we are moving into a decimating and devastating storm.”
During an inspection of a field hospital for COVID-19 patients in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape Province, the minister said the death toll from the disease is going to increase.
The country’s health system could be overwhelmed by the pandemic, Mkhize said.
“We have had to implement drastic measures to slow the spread of the virus, and we have had to regulate and at times enforce the regulations. But now the numbers are rising, and we have to adapt the World Health Organization’s guidelines to our reality,” Mkhize said.
“At this point we should say we are actually starting riding into the storm,” the health minister added.
The minister also reflected on the complexity of governance in the almost siege-like coronavirus environment, in which the government had to weigh not only the health risks brought about by the pandemic, but also the economic devastation that it wrought.
“We are faced with little choice but to open the economy despite the rising numbers. It will not help us to save people from COVID-19, only for them to succumb to hunger,” Mkhize said.
The Western Cape Province remains the epicenter of the pandemic. As of Wednesday, the province recorded 55,162 confirmed cases and 1,599 deaths. Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said the province was edging “closer to the peak.”
The peak addressed by Winde is expected to inflict deep and lasting psychological damage as the province prepares for unsettling grim days ahead, when deaths from the pandemic could put pressure on burial spaces.
The Western Cape authorities were reportedly preparing several burial sites for almost 9,000 people who are expected to succumb to the disease.
Marius Fransman, former deputy minister of international relations and cooperation, is among South Africa’s first infected patients. He warned against being cavalier regarding either the disease or what it is capable of.
“As a survivor of COVID-19, from the time I got ill and specifically from the period that I was admitted into the intensive care unit, I can personally attest that this pandemic breaks you down, physically, psychologically and spiritually,” Fransman told Xinhua.
“COVID-19 is as real as it gets, and for those who still are skeptical all we have to do is to look at what has resulted in every sphere of life, where its ravages are clear globally in both the first world and the developed world,” he said.