As South Africa prepares to lift a tight lockdown, the expert leading the fight against coronavirus said the restrictions have paid off but warned of a possible surge of cases in July and overwhelmed hospitals.
Chief COVID-19 adviser professor Salim Abdool Karim said South Africa had performed better than developed countries in slowing transmission although the number of cases has continued to rise.
With 5,350 infections and 103 deaths, the country has the highest numbers of cases on the continent.
South Africa announced its first coronavirus case on March 5 and went into lockdown on March 27, when infections spiked to 1,170.
On May 1 it will begin to ease the shutdown.
Karim answered three key questions for AFP.
Q: Was the lockdown effective?
The lockdown has had quite an effect. If we look at a simple comparison, comparing South Africa to the United Kingdom for the first two weeks of the epidemic, our numbers were virtually the same.
About two weeks into the epidemic our curve turned and went in a completely different direction.
So I think we have got quite clear evidence that we have flattened the curve and that the number of cases we are seeing — and the number of infections probably occurring — has declined quite substantially.
Q: Why lift the lockdown now?
The issue of the lockdown is not only an epidemiological issue. There are many factors that go into (consideration) including the economic situation, the social situation and so on.
From an epidemiological point of view we are at a level of low community transmission, so I think it has had its effect because that’s what its primary goal was.
On the actual timing of the lifting of the lockdown, whenever there is low community transmission it will be okay to do so.
We can expect to see the bulk of the bulge occurring somewhere around July.
The problem is we don’t know how many people have this virus asymptomatically. So our next step is going to be to try and get some idea about that, using some new tests that look at antibodies.
Q: Is the health system prepared?
We needed a bit of time to get better prepared. The key is going to be the extent to which we can protect hospitals.
Viral transmission will pick up again once the lockdown ends.
If it turns out that this rise in infections occurs (too) quickly… our health system just won’t cope.
It’s not just about beds and ventilators. You need the skilled expertise to manage all that.
You can buy beds and machines, but the challenge is people. Doctors who can look after ICU (intensive care unit) patients are not walking around and looking for jobs, they are in high demand.
I have no doubt this is going to test us. But … we have done as good a job as possible.