Billboard on a building informing South Africans to “stop the spread” of the virus.

South Africa has been doing extremely badly on containing Covid-19. While South Africa has 5.8 per cent of the population of Africa, it accounts for 53.2 per cent of the total cases in Africa. As of yesterday, it has now recorded 538,184 cases and even with its small population of 59.3 million, it is the country with the fifth highest number of cases in the world. On the more positive side its rate of death from the virus is 1.8 per cent (9,604 deaths). This is below the average for Africa of 2.2 per cent and the global average of 3.7 per cent. Moreover South Africa has conducted a total of 3,149,807 tests which is many times more than other African countries. It is possible that part of the explanation for the large number of cases in South Africa is that it has conducted many more tests than other African countries.

As can be seen in the chart above, the current rate of infection in South Africa is approximately equal per million of population to that of the United States, the hardest hit country in the world. I have included the United States and Kenya in the chart for comparison. South Africa’s death rate per day per million population is about one-third the rate of the United States.

Why is the rate in South Africa so high? The first cases of Covid-19 arrived very early in mid-March. This was due to tourists from Europe visiting Cape Town which is a warm winter tourist spot for people from Europe. At one point early in the pandemic, southern South Africa had 60 per cent of the total cases in the country. In time the virus spread to Johannesburg area which now accounts for a third of the cases.

In April and May, South Africa imposed a severe lockdown including forbidding the sale of alcohol and tobacco. At first I wondered about the banning of the sale of cigarettes, but then I realized in Africa people who smoke frequently share a cigarette with their friends. This could easily lead to the transmission of the disease.

All schools were closed. These schools were reopened on June 8 for 7th and 12th graders. But a month later, after 2740 teachers/staff and 1260 students became infected with the virus, they were closed again. Eleven teachers, 4 staff, and 3 students died. This should be a warning to the United States which wants to reopen schools while Covid-19 is still out of control. Schools are slated to be reopened again at the end of August. This seems to be extremely risky.

The total lockdown in South Africa, which included restrictions on walking dogs or doing exercise outside, created shock waves to the economy. Police were rough in handling people who were not adhering to the lockdown. This led to strong opposition to the lockdown by many South Africans. When the severest restrictions were removed in June, cases skyrocketed and so many of the restrictions were re-imposed. I am not sure if the recent downturn in cases in the last two weeks (see chart above) is an indication that the lockdown is being effective or if the number of cases will again begin to climb.

South Africa has the best health care system in Africa. Notwithstanding this the health care system has been over-taxed. The government attempted to respond, but the case load now exceeds the country’s abilities to respond. 3,500 health care workers have contracted the virus and at least 34 have died.

South Africa is the richest country per capital in Africa so it has the resources to combat Covid-19. The South African government was not in denial about the virus like some countries (the United States, Burundi, and Tanzania) and resorted quickly to strict lockdown measures. Nonetheless South Africa has been unable to contain the spread of the virus. While its present low death rate is impressive, will it climb more quickly as deaths lag new cases by about a month? Is the current slow-down of new cases an encouraging sign that South Africans are taking the virus more seriously with masks, hand washing, social distancing, staying at home, and avoiding gatherings of people?

But a bigger concern is this: Is South Africa a unique case or is its inability to control the virus a precursor for what is going to happen in some, many, or all of the other African nations? Early on the countries in South America seemed to be escaping the virus, but now have become some the largest hot spots in the world for Covid-19. Will this be the future of African countries?


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David Zarembka

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