Coronavirus: South Africa in the midst of a COVID-19 'storm' - and it's likely worse than data suggests

July 27, 2020

The battle for information is key in the fight against coronavirus - and the government's statistics in South Africa are certainly alarming. 

In just a few days, the number of domestic infections will race past the half a million mark as the global hotspot fast approaches its peak.

South Africa now ranks behind the more populous US, Brazil, India and Russia with the fifth highest COVID-19 caseload worldwide.

Politicians and public health officials have had several months to prepare, but they are struggling to protect the public and provide adequate treatment as the coronavirus takes root.

There is a desperate shortage of critical care beds in cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth - and there are not enough staff to run the wards.

Essential supplies like compressed oxygen are difficult to source, while personal protective equipment (PPE) is also often unavailable.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke with solemnity last week when he said "the coronavirus storm has indeed arrived", but the reality of the situation is almost certainly worse than the official data suggests.

In the overcrowded township of Alexandra, which sits within the suburbs of northern Johannesburg, we found hundreds of residents waiting for COVID-19 tests and treatment at a local clinic.

We joined one woman, Dimpho Matau, on a lengthy walk to the back of the queue, who told us: "I've had headaches, diarrhoea, fever, shortness of breath, and I need to test to see if it is COVID."

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It was Ms Matau's second attempt to get a test, although she wasn't confident that she would get one.

"You can see how long is the queue," she said. "There are too many people."

When asked whether we know how bad the crisis really is, Ms Matau responded: "It is really bad."

Pointing at the sky, she added: "People don't know if they are sick or not so obviously the figures are up there."

The 24-year old's sister, Neo, has tried - and failed - to get a test at public clinics on three separate occasions.

Eventually, she went to a private facility and tested positive - a cause of great anxiety for the businesswoman, her family and everybody else who lives in their compound in the heart of Alexandra.

Looking around their one-bedroom dwelling, I asked: "Can you isolate here?"

"Not really, because there are seven of us in the house so it is not possible," she said.

Showing us around, she said there were 19 people in total living in her compound.

The virus will spread rapidly in conditions like these and South Africa's health system seems powerless to prevent it.

When members of the public seek basic information about the state of their health, medical professionals are forced to turn them away.

Public and private laboratories are managing around 50,000 tests a day, with around a quarter coming back as positive.

But the people who run these facilities acknowledge they cannot keep up with demand.

In Alexandra, many residents seem resigned to their fate as COVID-19 rips through their community.

Official data cannot explain the magnitude of what they are going through as they do what they can to survive.

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