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South Africa plunged into lockdown as Covid-19 cases soar 

South Africans were plunged into a new lockdown on Monday after the country hit one million coronavirus cases, with the sale of alcohol and public gatherings banned.

In an emotional national address on Monday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that a new variant of the disease – 501.V2 – was probably driving the surge in cases.

“There is now a new variant of Covid-19 that is now well established in South Africa… It appears that it may be more contagious than the virus that drove the first wave of infections.”

Many private and public hospitals were beginning to be overwhelmed, according to Mr Ramaphosa, who took time to read out a social media post from one doctor, criticising the public.

“[There are] no oxygen points. Private hospitals are full. Not accepting more patients. No beds anywhere. And this is not yet the peak… we are all going to pay for your inability to be responsible with our lives.”

Mr Ramaphosa said the surge infections has in part been fuelled by “super spreader events including year-end functions, family and social gathering and music and cultural events.”

“This is a cause for great alarm and points to an extreme lack of vigilance amongst us over the holiday period. We have simply let our guard down, and unfortunately, we are now paying the price,” he added.

Currently, the rainbow nation is recording about 10,000 new infections a day, with national test positivity is about 30 per cent, a six-fold increase from two weeks ago.

Cabinet minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told South Africans they need to bury their relatives within five days as mortuaries are filling up. She also warned people: “We must really look after ourselves. There is no cure for Covid-19.”

The president’s announcement comes as Netcare, South Africa’s largest private health care group, warned that its 52 hospitals, which are among the best equipped and staffed on the continent, are now stretched to the limit.

Dr Richard Friedland, CEO of Netcare said South Africa faced an “extremely concerning” new surge in infections of Covid-19 and had substantially increased its oxygen capacity at all hospitals and has urgently recalled all frontline staff from leave.

Dr Friedland said that the recent surge of cases particularly in Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces placed a significant and unprecedented demand on the company’s healthcare facilities.

Netcare said it is most concerned at present about the surge of infections in Gauteng Province, which is home to South Africa’s commercial capital, Johannesburg, and is the most densely populated part of the country.

The surge is intensified by the annual migration of workers and holidaymakers going to the seaside.

South Africa’s health ministry has banned the sale of alcohol, made mask wearing compulsory in public and imposed strict limitations on gatherings.

The president said that excessive alcohol consumption was driving up the number of trauma cases admitted to hospitals with bullet wounds, stabbings and road traffic accidents putting a massive strain on services already struggling to treat virus patients.

In December, more than 4,600 public sector health workers contracted the virus, said Mr Ramaphosa.

Earlier this year, South Africa imposed one of the most draconian lockdowns on earth, devastating its economy in an attempt to stop the virus spreading. 

Africa’s most industrialised nation has been hit worse than anywhere else on the continent. More than 27,000 people have died of recorded coronavirus. 

However, an estimated 60,000 more people have died than would normally be expected since the virus was first recorded in South Africa. It is not yet clear to what extent this is unrecorded Covid-19 deaths or excess deaths from overloaded health facilities and the effects of lockdown.

Professor Barry Schaub, chair of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Covid-19 said that South Africa was working on the question of a vaccine.   “We would probably import [the vaccine] from Johnson and Johnson and locally package it into phials,” he said.

The distribution of the vaccine in South Africa is not expected to begin before April 2021.

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