Johannesburg: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to recall ministers and top officials from their festive season break to seek urgent ways of addressing an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 infections and deaths, with hospitals turning away patients due to a lack of beds and oxygen.
"I can confidently say that the meeting (called by Ramaphosa) will be on Tuesday (to) consider further measures to ensure that we curb this alarming rate of spread," the weekly Sunday Times quoted a government insider.
Despite stricter control measures, the country has had increasing daily infections of over 14,000 per day for the past week, with the total number of infections expected to exceed a million.
As of Saturday evening, there were more than 995,000 cases, 26,521 deaths and 839,000 recoveries in South Africa.
The second wave, described by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize as even worse than the first, has largely been attributed to a new strain of the COVID virus and the huge public gatherings and inter-provincial travel during the festive season.
This was despite restrictions on the number of people at gatherings, including funerals, curbs on alcohol sales, an increased curfew time, and even the closure of popular beaches between the Christmas and New Year holiday period.
Tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane told the weekly that large gatherings, where people did not observe health protocols, were to blame for the new wave.
“People are just not listening,” the minister said, cautioning that restaurants and other indoor venues would face new restrictions if they did not comply with regulations.
Embattled doctors, nurses have pleaded with government for urgent action as they can no longer cope with the large number of patients arriving for COVID-19 treatment, with hospital administrators saying they have to make heart-breaking choices between younger people who are now being affected by the new strain and older ones with co-morbidities as priorities.
“It is emotionally draining because we are basically deciding who dies first, as we cannot even get enough supplies of oxygen,” said a doctor at one of the reopened massive field hospitals in Johannesburg which was shut down after not being fully utilised during the first wave.
“This second wave has hit us sooner than expected right in the middle of our summer, so what are we going to do when the winter season with its higher risks start in a few months’ time? Even now, we are losing colleagues daily as they valiantly try to save others,’ added the doctor, who requested anonymity.
Dr Irene Boeddinghaus, an oncologist at Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town, told the weekly that patients were far sicker than in the first wave. ICU bed availability was dire and doctors and nurses were burnt out and sick with COVID, she said.
Eleanor Roberts of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa said nurses in the public and private sectors were under siege as they faced the dual pressure of sicker patients and oxygen shortages.
The South African Medical Association confirmed the lack of oxygen was among the issues putting doctors under stress.
Dr Andrea Mendelsohn, a senior medical officer, wrote in an open letter to Cape Town citizens earlier this week: "Once the beds are full and oxygen used up -- we are rapidly approaching that point - then my hospital and so many others will not be able to help. They will be clearing stations for corpses. This is my nightmare and yours.
"If hypoxic patients - where there's a lack of oxygen in the blood - are put on a waiting list for high-flow nasal oxygen, they are in all likelihood waiting to die,” she wrote, appealing to people to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Although South Africa’s two largest oxygen suppliers, Afrox and Air Liquide, have increased production, the hospitals will still not get enough for their demands due to the serious shortages of cylinders and drivers and vehicles to distribute oxygen.
There was even more bad news for South Africans who are not complying with the non-pharmaceutical interventions of masks and social distancing from South African Medical Research Council president Glenda Gray.
"What is most important is to curb the transmission … virus escape [mutation] will drive the next wave. We need to understand that when this wave is over, there is going to be a third and a fourth (wave),” Gray said.