JOHANNESBURG – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says the country will immediately return to a ban on the sale of alcohol to reduce the volume of trauma patients so that hospitals have more beds open to treat COVID-19 patients.
Confronted by surging hospitalizations due to the coronavirus, South Africa is also reinstating a night curfew to reduce traffic accidents and made it mandatory for all residents to wear face masks when in public.
Ramaphosa said, in a nationally televised address Sunday night, that top health officials warn of impending shortages of hospital beds and medical oxygen as South Africa reaches a peak of COVID-19 cases, expected between the end of July and September. He said some hospitals have had to turn away patients because all their beds are full.
South Africa’s rapid increase in reported cases has made it one of the world’s centers for COVID-19, as it is ranked as the 9th country most affected by the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University. The country has reported increases of more than 10,000 confirmed cases for several days and the latest daily increase was nearly 13,500. South Africa accounts for 40% of all the confirmed cases in Africa, with 276,242, an increase of 12,058 in one day.
South Africa has recorded 4,079 deaths, 25% of which have been in the past week, said Ramaphosa.
“While the surge of infections has been expected, the force and the speed with which it has progressed has, quite understandably, caused great concern," said Ramaphosa. “Many of us are fearful of the danger this presents for ourselves, and for our families.”
Ramaphosa said that since the sale of alcohol was re-introduced on in June, hospitals have experienced a spike in admissions in their trauma and emergency wards.
The countrywide curfew mandates that people must not be on the roads between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m. effective Monday.
Masks have also been declared mandatory, with all transport operators, employers, and owners of businesses and buildings now legally obliged to ensure everyone entering their businesses or premises are wearing masks.
Ramaphosa lambasted citizens who have continued to have social gatherings, including parties and overcrowded funerals, saying they had contributed significantly to the rapid spread of the virus.
“In the midst of our national effort to fight against this virus there are a number of people who have taken to organizing parties, who have drinking sprees, and some who walk around in crowded spaces without masks,” he said.
South Africa imposed one of the world's strictest lockdowns in April and May, including closing virtually all mines, factories and businesses, and a ban on sales of liquor and cigarettes. The measures slowed the spread of the coronavirus but South Africa's economy, already in recession, contracted dramatically, increasing unemployment above 30% and hunger.
In June the country began relaxing restrictions to allow millions of South Africans to return to work. The easing of restrictions allowed the sales of alcohol on four days a week. However, within a few weeks the country's numbers of confirmed cases and hospitalizations increased dramatically, bringing Ramaphosa to reimpose the ban on alcohol sales and other restrictions.
More than 30% of South Africa’s cases are in the economic hub of Gauteng province, which includes the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria. The tourist center of Cape Town also has a high number of cases. Johannesburg’s densely populated Soweto township has a high concentration of cases, according to officials.
“We knew that with the easing of restrictions, the number of cases would go up. But what is surprising is the speed with which the case numbers have grown,” said Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, who is on the national coronavirus committee that is advising Ramaphosa.
“We can expect to see the numbers of cases and hospitalizations to increase for a number of weeks ... this will continue for the next six to eight weeks. By October we may be seeing a decline.”
South Africa has carried out 2.1 million tests, on its population of 58 million. Because of an international shortage of testing materials, South Africa in June experienced a long delay in the time to get test results, at one point reaching 12 days in government clinics. The situation has improved and the average time to get test results is five days in by public laboratories and two days in private labs, according to the latest figures issued by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Africa’s 54 countries have reported 577,904 cases, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The continent’s confirmed cases are concentrated in four countries -- South Africa, Egypt with 81,158 cases, Nigeria with 31,987 cases and Algeria with 18,712 cases – which together make up more than 65% of the continent’s cases. The number of actual cases in Africa is believed to be much higher, as the testing rate is very low in many countries.