Friday, 05 March 2021

Pretoria: Today marks exactly a year to the day that South Africa confirmed its first COVID-19 case.

On 5 March 2020, Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, announced the news of a 38-year-old COVID-19 patient from KwaZulu-Natal.

The man tested positive after a ski trip in Italy with his wife and eight others, sending shock waves through the nation.

Since then, the country’s COVID-19 caseload has topped 1.5 million, with over 50 000 people succumbing to illnesses related to the infectious disease.

Last year when the number of cases reached 61, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the National State of Disaster on 15 March. This saw government banning travellers from the most affected countries.

A week later, government imposed a 21-day lockdown – alert level 5. This would see a cessation of the sale of non-essential items including alcohol, tobacco and clothing, and the ban of social gatherings and restrictions for the conduct of funerals.

Cases continued to climb, threatening to put the country’s healthcare system under enormous strain.

South Africa had to act fast to prevent an unmanageable rise of cases.

Government was forced to close off South Africa by cancelling flights, suspending public transport and shutting non-essential shops, businesses and schools.

“All South Africans will have to stay at home,” President Ramaphosa announced on 23 March.

26 March marked the beginning of life in lockdown and the use of facemasks in public.

The lockdown would result in havoc for businesses whose doors were forced to shut. Job losses ensued for many citizens, further depressing an economy that was already under strain.

Government pledged a R500 billion stimulus package to support the vulnerable and respond to the devastating effects of the lockdown on workers and businesses.

The relief fund, amounting to about 10% of Gross Domestic Pproduct (GDP), also helped to secure personal protective equipment (PPE) for the health workers, who faced great danger as cases and hospital admissions soared.

The public purse suffered a huge contraction over the months of April, May and June, when the country operated under widespread restrictions, Statistics South Africa revealed.

Almost 340 local State healthcare workers were reported to have died of COVID-19 related illness between March and November 2020.

As the public health benefits of the harsh lockdown began to pay off, with the infection rate somewhat slowing, President Ramaphosa would over time adjust downwards the lockdown levels, allowing commerce to resume under the new, albeit restricted, normal.

As the pace of economic activity gained momentum and social interaction resumed between people, infections would begin to climb again, leading the President to institute level 3 lockdown in December, which included the clamping of alcohol sales.

By December, the country was racing against time to acquire vaccines. South Africa was using its diplomatic channels, having secured a place in the COVAX Facility, which was set up to ensure equitable access to vaccines.

New variant and vaccination

A spanner in the works, however, was the emergence of the new 501Y.V2 variant, which was first discovered in South Africa.

Infections were more aggressive, increasing rapidly and causing many healthcare workers to fall ill. Young people, who were thought of as less vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, were now susceptible to illness.

In February 2021, there was a ray of hope as the first shipment of one million Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine doses arrived from the Serum Institute of India.

However, the country’s vaccination rollout programme suffered a setback when disappointing studies showed that the vaccine was less effective against the 501Y.V2 variant, which was dominant in South Africa.

Despite this, South Africa remained resolute, and secured the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine last month, which has been shown to be highly effective against the 501Y.V2 variant, preventing severe illness and death.

The first vaccinations against COVID-19 took place on 17 February, with Cape Town nurse Zoliswa Gidi-Dyosi becoming the first South African to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at Khayelitsha Hospital.

To date, over 90 000 healthcare workers have been vaccinated under the Sisonke Vaccine Programme.

While healthcare workers are top priority in the vaccination programme, other sectors of the population, including those with comorbidities and essential service workers, will be prioritised in subsequent phases of the programme.

A slight form of reprieve has also come in the form of research results from the KwaZulu-Natal Research Informatics and Sequencing Programme (KRISP), which found that people who were infected with the 501Y.V2 variant are immune from reinfection and possibly other circulating variants.

A word from the experts

Reflecting on the year that was, Professor Salim Abdool Karim, said: “March last year feels like a world away and these last 12 months have felt more like 12 years.”

Karim, who speaking during a webinar at the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (Caprisa), recalled how he was asked to go to St Augustine’s Hospital to evaluate the scenario unfolding from “patient zero” early on in the pandemic.

“In a period of uncertainty, I learnt a lot about this virus and its initial outbreak, and will be returning there [to St Augustine Hospital] to get vaccinated,” he said on Thursday [4 March].

Karim, who is the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on COVID-19 Chair and Caprisa Director, said they could not have anticipated that the second wave would be so brutal.

“Our first wave was like Mount Kilimanjaro, and our second more like Everest. We could not have anticipated that it would hit us that hard and now we are again in the throes of low transmission,” he said.

Despite the hurdles along the way, the State is committed to inoculate 40 million South Africans to reach the heard immunity it needs to fight COVID-19.

Addressing the nation on 28 February, the President said South Africa is expecting millions of vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and the COVAX Facility.

As South Africa works its way back to economic stability, with the country having been placed on lockdown level 1 from 1 March, the First Citizen warned about the threat of a third wave and new variants.

“This pandemic has taken much from us, but it has not taken our strength, our courage or our sense of solidarity as a people. It has not dampened our spirit or weakened our resolve.” he said, calling on everyone to remain hopeful.