Health Minister Zweli Mkhize this week said South Africa needed to conduct hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 coronavirus tests to understand the true number of infections in the country.
South Africa has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in sub-Saharan Africa, and government is worried that infection rates could get out of hand if the virus spreads rapidly in the country’s poor and overcrowded townships.
Officials have imposed some of the toughest anti-coronavirus measures on the continent, including a 21-day lockdown, which started last Friday.
On Wednesday, Mkhize said officials were moving away from a testing model focused on people with symptoms to one that also targeted communities where people with mild symptoms may not be able to seek medical help quickly enough.
Mkhize said the testing criteria had been “reactive and restrictive”.
“We need to test hundreds of thousands of people to get a better picture and refine our containment strategy,” he said.
South Africa has conducted about 47 000 tests. So far, there have been 1 380 confirmed cases of the virus and five deaths.
According to the National Health Laboratory Service, about 5 000 tests can currently be conducted a day, and there are hopes that number can be increased to 36 000 a day by the end of this month.
Mkhize said government was sending 67 mobile testing vans across the country.
“Even though we talk about 47 000 tests, that is still far too few because of the nature of our country, the nature of the disease burden and the inequalities.”
Health workers started testing people in Alexandra, Johannesburg, on Tuesday, and there are plans to move to other townships in the next few days.
Mkhize said South Africa could seek reinforcements from China and Cuba to help with containment efforts, adding that it was important to make quick progress.
“Next month, the flu season will start, thus making more people sick with similar symptoms ... these will flood our hospitals and clinics and create a fertile breeding ground for coronavirus to spread,” he said. “We might be currently experiencing the calm before we have a devastating storm.”