Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced on 1 July that South Africa now has 168,061 COVID-19 cases – more than double the total number of infections recorded in China.
South Africa overtook China in the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases two weeks ago, and since then, the growth rate has continued to increase.
8,728 new COVID-19 cases were recorded yesterday, the highest daily increase since the pandemic hit South Africa.
While the rapid increase in cases is not unexpected, South Africa’s response to this growth phase is unique.
Other countries implemented a lockdown when cases started to rise and waited for the number of COVID-19 cases to go down before they ease their lockdown restrictions.
South Africa is going in the opposite direction and is easing lockdown restrictions as the spread of the virus is increasing.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairperson of the Health Minister’s COVID-19 advisory group, said this places South Africa in a unique position.
Instead of increasing restrictions during the growth phase of the virus to reduce its spread – like in other countries – South Africa is allowing more movement and larger congregations of people.
This fuel the spread of the virus across the country as the number of COVID-19 infections is nowhere close to reaching its peak.
Many people criticised this strategy, saying instead of flatting the infection curve the government has only flattened the economy.
South Africa versus China
To illustrate South Africa’s unique lockdown strategy, it is educational to compare it to China’s lockdown in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei.
When the virus started to spread in Wuhan, China imposed severe transport restrictions in the region on 23 January.
Three weeks later, when the growth was reaching peak levels, China imposed a strict lockdown by shutting down all non-essential companies and manufacturing plants.
A week later, it shut down all schools in the region as a further measure to curb the spread of the virus.
The travel and other restrictions remained in place until the number of active cases flatlined.
It eased the two-month lockdown on 22 March and waited for nearly three more weeks before allowing all transportation to resume.
In South Africa, a national state of disaster was declared on 15 March, and on 18 March schools were closed.
Two weeks later, the country went into a strict national lockdown where the government shut down all non-essential companies.
Because of the lockdown, the number of new daily cases remained low but the economy started to suffer, which forced the government to ease the restrictions on 1 May.
The daily cases started to increase in May, but despite this growth, the restrictions were further eased on 1 June, with schools reopening, religious gatherings being allowed, and domestic travel opened for business purposes.
South Africa has now reached a rapid COVID-19 growth phase, and the government has yet again eased restrictions on public gatherings, sit-down restaurants, and business events.
The two charts below show the different lockdown strategies followed by South Africa and China, and how these approaches affected the spread of the coronavirus.