Virus vanguard: Cape Town learned painful lessons early on

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FILE - In this July 15, 2020, file photo, a grave digger prepares graves in the COVID-19 section of the Maitland Cemetary in Cape Town, South Africa as a burial takes place in the background. For months, the city of Cape Town was the biggest coronavirus hot spot in Africa. Now, finally, there are signs of relief. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht, File)

CAPE TOWN – When Cape Town emerged as Africa’s first coronavirus hot spot, Dr. Abu Mowlana was surprised by the fear that broke out among his colleagues.

Morale was crashing among doctors and nurses at Tygerberg Hospital even as infections surged in May and June, recalled Mowlana, one of the senior doctors leading the COVID-19 response there. The staff at the city’s largest hospital soon was fighting two battles: one against their own fear and another against the new disease that was killing their patients.

“It’s scary for the public but it’s scary for all of us,” he said. “Everybody is scared. The critical-care physician. The guy in the wards. The guy cleaning. Everybody.”

By the end of June, when the virus was reaching its peak in Cape Town and the surrounding Western Cape province, the area had 62,481 of South Africa's 151,209 total cases, more than 40 percent, according to government figures. And 1,859 of South Africa's 2,657 total deaths at the time from COVID-19 were in the province.

Now, as the situation begins to ease in the continent’s southernmost tip and the focus shifts to South Africa’s most densely populated province, the doctors in Cape Town hope their experience can serve as a blueprint for the rest of their country, as well as Africa’s 1.3 billion people.

Gauteng province, home to Johannesburg, is now Africa’s worst-affected region. It officially overtook the Western Cape for total virus cases on July 8, and in just three weeks its caseload has more than doubled to over 160,000 of the country's 450,000 confirmed infections.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that local transmission has begun in many countries, and once it is seeded in vulnerable communities such as slums, it “spreads like wildfire, which is what we’re seeing in South Africa now.”

For Tygerberg and other hospitals in Cape Town, however, there is a decrease in admissions for the first time in four months, and Mowlana has entertained a thought: “It’s felt like, yes, we have got this under control.”