Health minister gives South Africa a lockdown-free Christmas — for now

Health minister Joe Phaahla had to stand and deliver on Tuesday to convince the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) to keep South Africa at lockdown alert level 1, Rapport reported.

According to the paper, several cabinet ministers wanted to impose stricter lockdown measures.

They were concerned over the rapidly rising number of Covid–19 cases in South Africa, and that countries like the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, and France had implemented lockdowns.

An Imperial College London study from the UK found no evidence to suggest that Covid–19 from the omicron variant was less severe than the delta variant.

However, while European countries may be seeing a concerning increase in severe Covid–19 cases, the same is not true in South Africa.

Phaahla reportedly remained cool-headed and convinced his colleagues using the data collected in South Africa over the past few weeks.

As a result, South Africans will be able to enjoy the beach and other public amenities over the December holidays — for now, at least.

Last year the government closed beaches and public parks from 16 December to 3 January, and declared parts of the Eastern Cape and the Garden Route Covid–19 hotspots.

Public opinion on last year’s Christmas lockdown was divided, and local governments targeted by the bans criticised Ramaphosa saying that the national government was destroying their tourism sector.

This year the South African government did not implement a stricter lockdown even as the omicron variant caused Covid–19 cases to surge, as relatively few people who caught the diseases ended up in hospital.

However, medical researchers warned that it is still too early to conclude that South Africa’s fourth wave will be less severe than the Delta-drive third wave.

On Friday, several experts reported their latest findings in a media briefing convened by Phaahla’s health department. The experts presenting included:

  • Michelle Groome, head of public health surveillance and response at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD)
  • Waasila Jassat, on behalf of the DATCOV hospital surveillance team at the NICD
  • Nicholas Crisp, deputy director-general at the National Department of Health

Groome and Jassat presented data showing that despite South Africa’s surge in Covid–19 cases, the level of hospitalisations and deaths remained low compared to the previous waves.

Jassat reported that the proportion of Covid–19 patients requiring critical care appeared to be decreasing, and the average length of stay in hospital was also coming down.

This could be for one of several reasons.

The level of vaccination combined with the number of people infected with previous coronavirus variants may be protecting many South Africans from contracting severe disease during the fourth wave.

It is also possible that the omicron variant causes less severe symptoms than Delta. However, the Imperial College London study contradicts this.

Another possibility, researchers warned, is that South Africa’s surge in hospitalisations could still be coming.

Given how much more rapidly Omicron spread than previous variants, a surge in hospital admissions could still lag a few weeks behind.

Jassat also warned that even though the preliminary data was promising, Covid-19 still presents with a spectrum of symptoms.

People still get severe symptoms and die, and some report suffering “long Covid”.

For this reason, people should not let their guard down. South Africans should vaccinate, continue to wear their masks, and avoid large gatherings, Jassat said.

While experts caution against being overly optimistic until more data is available, the latest data remains promising.

CSIR researcher Ridhwaan Suliman said that the number of Covid–19 cases in South Africa are still rising as other provinces follow Gauteng’s epidemic trajectory, but are slowing.

Actuarial scientist Louis Rossouw concurred, saying that cases in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and the North West are slowing, but are still growing in other provinces.

Rossouw’s calculations also showed that the Covid–19 reproduction number in South Africa has declined to a range of 1.13 – 1.24.

Now read: It’s time to end South Africa’s state of disaster — what must happen

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Health minister gives South Africa a lockdown-free Christmas — for now