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South Africa hits 500,000 coronavirus infections, world’s 5th-highest total

COVID-19 patients in Pretoria, South Africa
COVID-19 patients being treated with oxygen at the Tshwane District Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa.
(Jerome Delay / Associated Press)

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in South Africa has surpassed 500,000, meaning that the country now accounts for more than half of all reported coronavirus infections on the African continent.

But President Cyril Ramaphosa said Sunday there were “promising signs” that the rapid growth of cases has stabilized and that the country’s strained health system is managing to cope.

Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize announced 10,107 new cases Saturday night, bringing the country’s cumulative total to 503,290, including 8,153 deaths. That is by far the most in any of Africa’s 54 countries, though many of them have done little testing.

With a population of about 58 million, South Africa has the fifth-highest number of cases in the world, behind the U.S., Brazil, Russia and India, all countries with significantly higher populations, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

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Ramaphosa, in a letter to the nation Sunday, said that, in spite of the high number of confirmed cases, he sees some positive developments.

“After a rapid rise in infections over the last two months, the daily increase in infections appears to be stabilizing,” said Ramaphosa. He said the number of new infections has slowed in the provinces of the Western Cape, which includes Cape Town, the Eastern Cape and Gauteng, which hosts the major cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the national capital.

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South Africa’s hospitals have been stretched to the limit, but in most provinces they are succeeding in providing treatment to COVID-19 patients, he said.

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“The health system has so far had sufficient capacity to cope with the number of admissions,” said Ramaphosa of the hard-hit provinces of Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. He said, however, that in the Eastern Cape, several public hospitals were overwhelmed and a specialist team has been deployed to help.

He said his government is working with “greatest urgency” to deliver adequate supplies of personal protective equipment to areas where shortages have been reported. South African authorities are also working to root out corruption in the purchase and distribution of medical equipment, he said.

“It is unconscionable that there are people who may be using this health crisis to unlawfully enrich themselves,” said Ramaphosa.

A bootlegging culture has sprung up across South Africa in response to the government’s nearly 8-week-old ban on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol.

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South Africa’s case fatality rate — the number of deaths as a proportion of confirmed cases — is at 1.6%, significantly lower than the global average, said Ramaphosa.

“While South Africa has the fifth-highest number of total COVID-19 cases globally, we have only the 36th-highest number of deaths as a proportion of the population,” said Ramaphosa. “For this, we are grateful to the work of our health professionals and the innovative treatments they have pioneered.”

South Africa also has a younger population than countries in Europe that were hard hit in the pandemic, which has killed older patients at a far higher rate than younger people.


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