New virus strain is met with weariness in a tired and frustrated South Africa

Progress against the vaccine after a strict initial lockdown risks being unravelled

Health workers chat near an ambulance  at the parking lot of the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, amid a nationwide coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, in Pretoria, South Africa, January 11, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Powered by automated translation

“It’s not fair,” said the young woman behind the counter in a store I was visiting.

“I know,” replied her colleague, pulling a face. “Why should we have to stop going to our nice secluded beach just because hundreds of them crowded onto the city beaches at Christmas?”

Moments earlier I had asked the two women if they wouldn’t mind putting on their masks before they served me, which tells you a lot about the problems South Africa faces in its battle against Covid-19.

Like so many around the world, South Africans have been living with this pandemic for almost a year, and they are tired of it. Worse, some are also becoming complacent. It is a deadly combination.

Covid-19 cases are, once again, surging in South Africa. For more people every day, previously abstract numbers now have names and faces. The woman who taught me to play piano died last week, aged 77. Two women who worked at my local pharmacy also lost their battles with the virus.

I was travelling when Covid-19 appeared in Africa last February. My feet had barely touched the ground in Cairo when the first cases were announced. Egypt was ground zero for the continent. From Cairo I moved on to Lagos, Nigeria, before flying home.

I still remember the quizzical, even disapproving looks I received on that flight. It was during that brief limbo period when the idea of whether to wear a mask was still a matter for debate and I was among the only passengers wearing one.

By the time I made it back to Johannesburg, however, the notion that this was a true pandemic was becoming clear. Almost exactly as I was putting my key in my front door, the announcement came that the country was going into lockdown.

A coronavirus testing unit sign outside Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. The pandemic and restrictions imposed to contain it have devastated Africa's most industrialized economy, and the extension of curbs that came into effect at the height of the holiday season bode ill for efforts to engineer a rebound. Photographer: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg
Vaccines remain a long way off for most people in South Africa

South Africa’s response to Covid-19 was swift and decisive, as well as painful. Lockdown measures in 2020 largely succeeded in stemming the tide and flattening the curve. Numbers remained low in comparison to countries like Italy, Spain, the UK and US – even if, economically and socially, the measures hit hard. Unemployment soared during the country’s stringent lockdown and there was even a spike in domestic violence cases.

But as summer began to warm the southern hemisphere once again, there was a sense that South Africa had weathered the storm. Lockdown eased and a feeling of normality returned to the streets, shopping centres and beaches. That feeling, we are now learning, was misplaced.

“We have let down our guard, and unfortunately we are now paying the price,” President Cyril Ramaphosa told the nation in an emotional televised address on December 28. He was speaking after the emergence of the new strain of Covid-19 that has even taken epidemiologists by surprise.

The first cases of this new mutation were identified around Nelson Mandela Bay, on South Africa’s south-eastern coast, but the strain has spread rapidly. Mr Ramaphosa has warned that the new variant appears to “be more contagious than the virus that drove the first wave of infections”.

Like the new strain identified in the UK, the accompanying record surge in cases has threatened to overwhelm South Africa’s hospitals. By December, it accounted for around 90 per cent of new cases in the country. South Africa's health minister Zweli Mkhize says this “strongly suggests” that the variant is driving a powerful second wave.

It has also been found internationally, in at least four other nations as of last week. Meanwhile Denmark, Germany, Israel, Switzerland and Turkey are among a growing number of countries to have banned travel from South Africa.

Much like the strain identified in the UK, it is unclear where the South African variant originated. While the two recently identified strains share a common mutation of the “spike” protein, they have – according to the World Health Organisation – come about independently.

It is also likely that other new strains have and will continue to emerge as the virus mutates elsewhere. "We're playing a very dangerous game with this virus right now," Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for the coronavirus response, told CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen last week. "What worries us is that the longer this spreads the more opportunities it has to change."

The other question on everyone’s lips is whether the good news of vaccines might be tempered by these new strains. Dr Anthony Fauci, director of America's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has warned the South African strain is “a little bit more complicated” than the UK variant, and that its mutations “might” have an impact on the efficacy of some monoclonal antibodies. Scientists do, however, reassure us that vaccines can be modified and tests of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine show that it is effective against the new UK and South African strains.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks beneath a mural depicting a hospital in Soweto, South Africa, December 28, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo

In any case, vaccines remain a long way off for most people in South Africa. The first doses will begin arriving soon but priority will be given to the country’s healthcare workers in the first round of inoculations.

The message is clear: South Africa, like most countries in the world, has many battles left to fight in the war against Covid-19, and its people simply cannot afford to be complacent.

It is a message that has not always been getting through, especially among the young and affluent. The rapid rise in infections in South Africa has also been fuelled by so-called “super-spreader” events. One such gathering, an end of year student party called “Rage”, drew sharp criticism after photos of tightly-packed revellers without masks emerged. Attendees have even been threatened with legal action.

On Monday, Mr Ramaphosa addressed South Africans again, announcing new measures such as port closures and new restrictions on social gatherings. “We are dealing with something that we do not fully understand,” he warned, and said that South Africans must do “everything possible” to slow transmission and flatten the curve. That includes wearing masks, which is a legal requirement, staying socially distanced and limiting travel.

For now at least, South Africans must go back to basics to fight this virus, whatever form it takes.

Eleni Giokos is a CNN correspondent and anchors Connecting Africa on CNN International