Health Minister Zweli Mkhize appeared before the health portfolio committee on Wednesday to assure members that South Africans should not fear a similar surge in Covid-19 infections as being experienced in India.
Mkhize and the department’s director general, Sandile Buthelezi, told the committee that South Africa’s Johnson & Johnson vaccination programme had resumed, and that phase two would start in mid-May.
India is experiencing a deadly second wave of the virus, with the official death toll having passed 200 000. The country has seen more Covid-19 cases in the past seven days than any other nation, and the need for oxygen tanks has reached a crisis level.
Mkhize said he understood people’s panic, but the government was monitoring Covid trends across South Africa to detect a possible third wave.
Buthelezi said the country’s position could be viewed as positive when taking into account the overall decrease in infections, and the number of individuals in need of medical treatment.
“Nationally, there has been a 16.9% decrease in new cases, compared with seven days prior [to Monday 26 April]. Five provinces showed positive percentage changes,” he said, adding that “there has been a 12.7% decrease in hospitalisations” compared with seven days prior. The recovery rate now stands at 95.3% and, as of Tuesday, 27 April, the number of active cases was 20 254.
The Sisonke vaccination programme started again on Wednesday and “is expected to be finalised by the middle of May 2021”, Buthelezi said.
Phase two will start on 17 May. Buthelezi and Mkhize said they were confident that the second phase would start on time.
But this didn’t stop committee members raising concerns about a possible third wave and what contingency plans were in place to mitigate it.
The ANC’s Kenneth Jacobs said: “I have a concern with a third wave coming sooner than expected, and we know that there are no new variants in South Africa but the variants may emerge at any time.”
Buthelezi said “new variants emerge unpredictably” and the “timing of the third wave is uncertain due to uncertainty in the rate at which contacts increase”. The monitoring of nationwide trends was the best way to forecast a third wave.
The National Freedom Party’s Ahmed Munzoor Shaik-Emam wanted to know why travel restrictions to Inder could not be put in place, a concern that was voiced by other committee members.
“Why do you want to wait before another crisis unfolds in the country, and then put restrictions on travellers that are travelling from India to South Africa?” asked Shaik-Emam.
The Democratic Alliance’s Evelyn Wilson wanted information on the plans in place “to ensure that the India crisis is not brought to South Africa”.
Mkhize said there was “understandable” panic, and said the government was aware of the severity of the situation.
“I have been seeing a lot of stuff circulating on WhatsApp groups about the government that is not aware of flights or not monitoring the flights from India. But there are no direct flights from India. We will be checking if people are coming in from other parts of the world with positive reports. We are aware of the situation,” said the minister.
But he said there might be a problem when people travelling from India via other countries landed in South Africa and were thus not reported as travelling from India.
He said the government was prepared for a third wave.
Buthelezi added that the department was monitoring health facilities, the availability of beds, ventilators and amounts of oxygen to address any problems.