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South African hospitals warn of virus surge in holiday season

‘The numbers in the Eastern Cape are very serious and the surge at the moment is mimicking the first wave.’
Visitors queue at a health screening desk outside the entrance to Netcare Pretoria East Hospital on Monday, March 16, 2020. Image: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

South African hospital operators have warned of the increasing risk of a resurgence in coronavirus cases during the upcoming December holiday season, when millions of people travel across the country to holiday destinations, home towns and villages.

While the Covid-19 pandemic peaked in Africa’s most industrialised economy in late July, case numbers have started to pick up again just before the busiest time of the year for intra-provincial journeys and social gatherings.

“It is not the time to let your guard down, we must hold onto lessons from the first wave,” Netcare chief executive officer Richard Friedland said by phone. “The numbers in the Eastern Cape are very serious and the surge at the moment is mimicking the first wave. We are also seeing increasing cases in the Western Cape.”

Read: Western Cape officials warn of Covid-19 resurgence

The arrival of the coronavirus in South Africa prompted a five-week hard lockdown in March and April, which was gradually eased over the rest of the year. President Cyril Ramaphosa has now turned his attention to reviving an economy that’s in its longest recession in three decades, and any return to tough restrictions would likely derail that effort. South Africa’s jobless rate rose to 31% in the third quarter, a 17-year high.

Alcohol injuries

One response to the pandemic was to impose a lengthy ban on alcohol sales, in part to reduce the burden on hospital ICUs from drunken violence, accidents and car crashes. While drink-related injuries have increased since the measure was lifted, Friedland said Netcare has the capacity to accommodate the rise alongside Covid-19 patients, partly as the latter now need shorter stays.

Mediclinic International Plc’s South Africa unit is sending fewer people with coronavirus infections to ICU than earlier in the year as patients are being treated “much more efficiently and effectively,” CEO Ronnie van der Merwe said earlier this month.

However, the company again suspended dividend payments to shareholders “because we are still cautious about the pandemic and potential second wave,” he said. Hospitals struggled during initial lockdown periods due to the sharp drop off in people seeking non-essential care, though demand is coming back slowly, the CEO said.

The early stages of South Africa’s pandemic tended to show spikes in cases in the coastal provinces first, before similar surges in the likes of Gauteng, which includes the commercial hub of Johannesburg. That pattern is likely to happen again, according to Life Healthcare Group Holdings CEO Peter Wharton-Hood.

“Certain hospitals in the Eastern Cape are experiencing significant volumes almost at the same levels they were at the peak in the first wave,” he said. “Most of the other provinces have not had any increase in Covid-related volumes yet.”

South Africa has the highest number of recorded coronavirus cases on the continent and is the 16th most-affected country globally.

© 2020 Bloomberg

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