Shirley de Villiers FM features editor & columnist
Doctors Without Border nurse Bhelekazi Mdlalose (centre) performs a Covid-19 test in the Wolhuter men's hostel in Jeppestown. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP
Doctors Without Border nurse Bhelekazi Mdlalose (centre) performs a Covid-19 test in the Wolhuter men's hostel in Jeppestown. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP

With Covid-19, there’s only ever bad news ­– and more bad news.

This week, after receiving an open letter from 239 scientists in 32 countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) admitted there is “emerging evidence” of airborne transmission of the virus.

The suggestion, as The New York Times reports, is that “the coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale”. (This article answers some questions on what that means, practically.)

This comes as The Lancet published a study suggesting that we may want to park our expectations around herd immunity as a means of controlling the virus. The study of more than 60,000 people in Spain – the largest of its kind in Europe – found an antibody prevalence rate of just 5% in the country, despite the heavy toll the virus has taken there. For herd immunity to be successful, 70%-90% of a population needs to be immune.

On Thursday, the WHO announced that the virus is not under control in most countries, and the pandemic is accelerating globally.

That much is clear from the numbers: global infections have doubled in six weeks; 1-million new cases were recorded in the past week, to reach 12-million infections; and there have been near on 550,000 deaths. The US hit yet another record on Wednesday, with 62,000 new cases in a single day, bringing its overall tally to more than 3-million.

Africa is also showing a dramatic uptick. The BBC reports that while it took the continent almost 100 days to reach 100,000 cases, that doubled in just 18 days – and doubled again, to 400,000, in 20 days. By Wednesday, Africa accounted for 500,000 infections.

All of which makes this report from Reuters especially concerning. The news agency warns of a “silent epidemic” in Africa: given a dearth of testing and data on the continent, the number of infections is likely to be substantially higher.

By Reuters’ calculations (using figures from the Africa Centres for Disease Control & Prevention), only 4,200 tests per million people had been carried out across the whole of Africa by July 7. That’s against an average 7,650 in Asia and 74,255 in Europe.

The issue lies, in part, in a lack of testing capacity. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it took three months before tests could be processed outside of the capital, Kinshasa. Other countries have the means for testing, but lack qualified personnel: Nigeria has the laboratory capacity for 10,000 tests a day, but is only averaging 2,950.

Other countries simply refuse to play open cards. Tanzania, for example, stopped releasing Covid figures on April 29 – hitting pause on 509 infections and 21 deaths. But in May, a health professional “with intimate knowledge of hospital caseloads” reportedly told think-tank the Center for Strategic & International Studies that the number likely topped 1-million in that country. That same month, the US embassy in Tanzania warned of exponential growth and hospitals being overwhelmed. (For more on the country’s bungled response, you can read the think-tank’s report here.)

Which makes it hard to take seriously the Tanzanian government’s claim this week – particularly given its restrictions on press freedom – that it has closed a number of dedicated Covid facilities due to a lack of patients.

Particularly concerning in the Reuters report is that in most African countries, the number of positive cases is also increasing faster than the number of tests being carried out. As Tim Bromfield, regional director for East Africa of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, told the agency: “The spread of the virus seems to be outpacing testing.”

On the home front

SA, of course, is in the fortunate position, relative to the rest of the continent, of having capacity for widespread testing (at last count, we’d conducted 2-million tests).

Not that things are looking much better here. We’re lying 13th in the world, in terms of number of cases (238,000 on Thursday), and rank fourth in terms of new daily cases, behind the US, India and Brazil.

And SA’s economic heartland, Gauteng, this week passed the Western Cape as the epicentre of the epidemic. At the time of writing, the province had more than 81,500 infections against the Cape’s roughly 74,800. In the eight days from July 1 to July 9, the province’s numbers rose 77% (from 45,944 to 81,546).

If the numbers don’t paint a frightening enough picture, this article on TimesLive, by Joburg emergency room doctor Adam Barnes, certainly does. It’s a first-person telling of the horror confronting our medical professionals, the strains they’re feeling, and the attitudes they’re confronted by.

In particular, his essay is a wake-up call about what lies ahead over the coming months – and don’t expect a cushion just because you have private medical insurance. As Barnes points out: “Beds aren’t guaranteed for anyone, regardless or who pays monthly or what kind of money you have. Medical aid gives you an option, not a guarantee. It’s our job to make the decisions as to who qualifies for those beds.”

Which is especially chilling when he adds: “There. Are. No. Beds.”

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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