South Africa, which had one of the world’s earliest and strictest lockdowns, is marking a significant shift in its fight against coronavirus, writes SA TIMES correspondent Rue Mashayamombe
It was hardly a “mission accomplished” moment.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa looked appropriately dour, and sounded appropriately cautious, as he appeared on national television this week to warn of the dangers of a second wave of infections and to urge the public against relaxing their guard against the virus.
And yet the president’s key message was a simple, optimistic and impressive truth.
“We have succeeded in overcoming the worst phase of this epidemic,” he declared.
As the infection rate here sinks below an important threshold of one new case per day per 100,000 people, South Africa is moving – with relief, and with some pride – into a new phase.
What the president and his scientific advisers describe as “a new normal”.
With almost all economic activity resuming, the nation’s borders slowly opening, and one of the world’s earliest and strictest lockdowns ending, this feels like a significant moment – an opportunity to take stock, even to celebrate, and to explore the ever-thorny issue of who, or what, should share most credit for containing Covid-19.
“I had visions of Italy… that we’re not ready, that we’re going to get overwhelmed,” recalled Professor Salim Abdool Karim – chair of the government’s Covid-19 advisory panel and the public face of the scientific community – thinking back to March, and to what he and the government publicly warned was an oncoming viral “storm”.
Instead, very few hospitals were overwhelmed, and the official death toll of some 15,000 is significantly lower than even the most optimistic modelling predicted.
Speaking on an internet link from his office in Durban, Prof Karim does not disguise the relief he feels.
But, like many scientists, his inclination is not to sit back and enjoy the good news, but rather to keep probing and testing hypotheses in order to better understand both Covid-19, and South Africa’s response to it.
There is plenty of data to wade through now.
Much of it contradictory. Or rather, much of it still needing to be put in proper context.
Take South Africa’s long battle against HIV and tuberculosis.
New evidence suggests TB patients are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19.
But, on the flip side, the systems put in place to cope with both pre-existing diseases, “assisted us and better prepared us to cope with Covid,” said Prof Karim.
And while South Africa may have good reason to celebrate its successes, there is plenty to criticise too.
“We’ve had a pretty bad epidemic,” said Prof Karim.
“At one stage we were the fifth worst in the world. I wouldn’t call that something to be proud of.
“I’d have been really proud if we’d been able to mitigate the impact to a much greater extent.”