#UnrestSA and Covid-19: 'A recipe for disaster', especially with more infectious Delta variant

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  • The National Department of Health says that the recent unrest in SA may prolong the third wave.
  • According to the NICD protests make contact tracing impossible.
  • Final year health sciences students will help rebuild the country's healthcare services.

The South African National Department of Health has called the recent unrest in the country "a recipe for disaster" as far as Covid-19 is concerned, and said that this may prolong the third wave.

"The fact that most of these protesters don't wear masks, have no time to sanitise and physical distance is a recipe for fast transmission of the virus," said department spokesperson Popo Maja.

Infectious disease expert Professor Francios Venter also added that protests and looting can cause a potential spike in infections.

"Anything where people are crowded indoors, especially if not wearing masks, is very dangerous, especially as the Delta variant is far more infectious than the ones responsible for the prior two waves. It is likely to both make more severe and protract the third wave," says Venter.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) says that protests like those in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng make contact tracing for Covid-19 impossible and it is therefore "difficult to have direct evidence that such events have contributed specifically to the caseload".

"The important factors that can influence whether clusters occur under such conditions include proximity, duration, and circulation. Thus, persons in close contact without masks for a great duration and where there is contact with aerosols and droplets may possibly pose a risk.

"Such events may also result in decreased mobility (access to transport to work, for example) and thereby limit transmission. We have traced cases linked to clusters, e.g. school events," Acting Executive Director of the NICD Prof Adrian Puren told Health24.

SA better prepared to deal with Delta than India

South Africa faces its third wave of Covid-19 infections driven by the Delta variant first identified in India. 

According to a report by The Times of India, the surge of Covid-19 that was seen earlier this year in the country was caused by people letting their guard down, believing that the worse of the virus was over. The report also states that according to experts the government did not use the 30-week decline in cases before the Delta surge to prepare its healthcare system.

However, Philip Aruna, head of MSF's Southern Africa Support Team, says South Africa is better prepared to handle Delta than India. The government, however, needs to ensure that the protests do not impact medical supplies.

 "While the Delta variant is already the major variant in the country and is a major part of the reason that this third wave is so large, it appears that our health system is managing to cope far better than India. Ensuring access to oxygen, enough staffing, and appropriate patient care, flow, and supplies of PPE (personal protective equipment)  will remain critically important, but undoubtedly the concurrent violence makes it harder to deliver," Aruna told Health24.

Increasing staffing capacity

As protests forced some vaccination sites to stop operations, the National Department of Health says that it has teamed up with the Department of Higher Education and Training to increase staffing capacity.

"The Department of Higher Education and Institution of Higher Learning have committed to assist with final year health students such as nurses, pharmacists to complement our overwhelmed healthcare workers. Some of these protesters and looters who get injured expect to receive medical assistance from the same facilities and nurses they threatened and vandalised," says Maja. 

Venter says that the government needs to prepare for the anticipated fourth wave as Gauteng has reached it peak.

"Gauteng appears to have bounced back fast, but KZN will need a lot of help to make up lost gtround. We must not forget we are terribly far behind if we get a 4th wave in November and December, and need to accelerate significantly. Its much too late for the thrid wave," he says.

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