Health care workers protest over the lack of personal protective equipment outside a hospital in Cape Town. Picture: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Health care workers protest over the lack of personal protective equipment outside a hospital in Cape Town. Picture: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The numbers are in: yesterday SA became the 19th country to reach 100,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, after the infection rate doubled in just two weeks.

Data from the health department shows that total cases rose to 101,590 (a 4,288 jump), while the number of people who have died now stands at 1,991.

The coronavirus, which first emerged in China late last year, has spread to every part of the world: more than 9-million people have been infected, and 470,000 have lost their lives. And the especially bad news is that it’s growing faster than ever.

On Sunday, the World Health Organisation recorded the largest one-day increase in global infections. It said 183,020 worldwide cases were reported, beating an earlier record of 181,232 on June 18. Before these two days, official daily cases had not exceeded 143,000.

We also know that the the number of confirmed cases is probably an undercount of the true number of infections, partly due to testing gaps and partly because asymptomatic carriers skew the numbers.

SA’s growing infection rate lays bare the shifting geography of the pandemic. Most recent figures show that the Western Cape (where many say the pandemic is approaching its peak) accounts for 51.7% of SA’s total cases. That’s down from 60% a week ago, which illustrates the growing infection rate in the rest of the country.

Gauteng, in the same period, went from a 16.6% share of total infections to 22%. Though its share of cases is lower than Cape Town’s, infection and death rates are increasing fast.

Relative pain

But what does this all mean for SA’s epidemic? Where were other countries at this point in the epidemic?

When the US hit 100,000 cases (on March 27), securing safety and medical equipment had become next to impossible. A hospital in Detroit said it was preparing for life-and-death decisions after a letter circulated online detailing who would be able to receive life-saving resources if there wasn’t enough equipment.

At the time, one emergency nurse from the Bronx described New York’s shortage of equipment as “like going to war with no protection”.

On May 3, when Brazil reached 100,000 cases, it had already recorded a massive 7,025 deaths. A few days before, questioned by reporters, President Jair Bolsonaro uttered his now infamous words: “So what? I’m sorry, but what do you want me to do?”

And on April 16, when the UK reached 100,000 cases, news that the country paid $20m for Covid-19 test kits from China that did not work dominated the headlines.

If only SA were immune to the inefficiency of state institutions. SA reaches 100,000 cases just days after news broke that Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) money earmarked for workers affected by the pandemic had been raided. The Sunday Times reported that R5.7m in UIF funds intended for 200 workers was paid into a single account. Within five days, that money had been distributed to friends and businesses.

Covid-19’s assault on the entire world is a once-in-a-century event. No government could have adequately prepared for what it is now dealing with. Still, SA will be judged harshly for a number of failures – including its inability to prevent sorely needed funds from disappearing to fraud and corruption.

Field hospitals

However, SA’s lockdown has also given rise to extraordinary – and unlikely – co-operation. New Frame provides an account of the conversion of the Khayelitsha Thusong Service Centre into a 60-bed field hospital. It details the voices of three people involved in the project: Swedish engineer Rifad Saberg, who found himself stuck in Cape Town unable to leave, Wendy Lutchman, a supply manager for Doctors Without Borders in Cape Town, and Celeste Jonker, who works as a senior doctor on an international cruise ship.

Saberg, who had been involved in the building of four hospitals over the past two years, was tasked with designing the new hospital. Jonker was appointed clinical manager. And Lutchman had the arduous task of sourcing supplies.

Setting up a hospital at this time was no mean feat, but Lutchman managed to source 90% of the supplies under level 5 lockdown, when there were no domestic flights and everything had to come by road.

The Western Cape’s health-care system has been heavily tested by the virus – a reality the rest of the country hasn’t quite experienced yet. GroundUp provides a glimpse into state-run Groote Schuur Hospital’s handling of the pandemic.

A month ago, GroundUp reported that Groote Schuur was on the brink. At that point, it was running seven wards with over 120 confirmed or possible Covid-19 patients, and four intensive care units with 19 Covid patients (besides its usual wards for other patients). By the end of last week, this had increased to 25 Covid wards. It had seen about 2,000 patients since the start of the pandemic. Its Covid wards are at 80% capacity.

Other cities will soon feel this pressure. Today, Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane will attend the opening of phase 1 of a R107m field hospital built by the Volkswagen Group SA (VWSA) in Nelson Mandela Bay. Funded by the German government and VWSA, it will eventually accommodate 3,300 beds.

The power of volume

Meanwhile, in an interesting development, African countries plan to set up “a one-stop shop” to give the continent a fairer chance in the international scramble for Covid-19 test kits, protective equipment and any vaccines that emerge, according to a report in The Guardian.

Called the Africa Medical Supplies Platform, it will work like eBay or Amazon, unlocking access to supplies across the continent. It will be run as a nonprofit by the Africa Centres for Disease Control & Prevention in Ethiopia and African Export–Import Bank in Egypt.

Though preference will be given to suppliers on the continent, such as SA company Invicta, which has pledged to supply 10,000 inexpensive ventilators, or Senegal’s $1 rapid test kits, supplies will also be shipped from countries like China.

* Munshi is News & Fox editor of the FM​

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