South Africa could be heading for an easing of Covid restrictions down to alert level 2 as early as tomorrow if President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation but the respite could be short-lived, say experts.
While the third wave of infection is waning with positivity rates down to just above 12% experts believe it could be replaced by a fourth and more severe wave.
The World Health Organisation said that for a return to relative normality or an easing of restrictions, a country’s infection rate should be at 5% or less of the population.
The health department’s Popo Maja said: “Achieving a level of 5% would mean we are out of the third wave and the pressure is off the healthcare system until the next wave.
“As society we should use the period wisely and get vaccinated.”
Dr Zaandre Hitzeroth, who has been at the frontline of vaccination efforts, said the newly discovered variant, Covid 1.2 or lambda, may in fact be far more infectious than expected and more severe in its impact.
“I expect that we may return to alert level 3 or 4 soon after the possible easing of restrictions,” he said.
Current infection levels seem to have stabilised and are heading on a downward trajectory.
“But not enough people have been vaccinated to avoid a fourth wave hitting the country,” he warned.
Vaccine hesitancy because of social media chatter and misinformation is also a major culprit. Mike van Wyk, chief executive of Medicare 24, anticipates a fourth wave by the end of the year.
“Many South Africans are living as if Covid has been relegated to history,” he says.
“I have seen large parties at clubs in areas from Tembisa through to Benoni where social distancing and responsible behaviours are simply cast aside.”
Van Wyk said there have recently been instances where Covid-positive pupils have circumvented regulations and headed to exam halls, while many asymptomatic employees believe isolation at the office is a good enough remedy to prevent spreading infection.
“It just does not work like that, and such sustained behaviours will just lessen massive efforts by government, the medical fraternity and business.”
Maja said if the current downward trend in infections can be maintained, we are on a positive wicket for the country.
However, vaccination hesitancy remains a real challenge and the department is looking at several interventions, including the development of a “demand strategy”.
“Our future is in our hands, we need to comply with all regulations and get vaccinated if we want more freedom,” Maja said.
“Getting vaccinated is critically important,” said Hitzeroth. “It is the only way that we will see a return to some sustained form of normality.”
He said he expected the fourth wave to present the same challenges as the third.
“There won’t be enough ventilators, there will be oxygen shortages and medical facilities again won’t be able to cope with the influx of patients.” He predicted that it might be at a larger scale than we had previously seen.
“Add to that the fact that vaccinated persons can still be carriers of the virus and show no illness but pass it on to others unknowingly.”
He also warned that there had been an alarming increase in children contracting Covid, and that while it might first manifest as a cold or flu, “the virus seems to rapidly move to a multi-system inflammatory condition where it can impact the heart, the lungs and other organs severely, resulting in intensive care hospitalisation or even death”.
Van Wyk agreed and said his company was trying to make vaccination as attractive as possible, easing the drollness of queuing with live music, celebrity visits and even adding facilities like licensing of vehicles, food stalls and a coffee shop into the mix.
“We just want people to get protection, to vaccinate as soon as possible and en masse,” Van Wyk said.
He added that people should also get tested regularly, emphasising its importance.
“An easing of restrictions right now is not recommended. And if it happens, it will be temporary.”
He said South Africans just don’t take the virus seriously enough.