The Delta variant of COVID-19 is rapidly spreading across South Africa, prompting the government to clamp down on social activities to try to slow the virus.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said the country’s health care system is buckling under the strain from Delta cases. He announced a ban on gatherings across the country, except for funerals.
“Our health facilities are stretched to the limit. ICU beds are in short supply,” Ramaphosa said during a nationwide broadcast at the end of June. He placed the country on alert level 4 — one step less than a total lockdown. The restrictions are some of the toughest imposed since the earliest days of the pandemic in 2020.
Along with a ban on gatherings, the order also:
- Extends a curfew from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
- Bans the sale of alcohol.
- Closes schools.
- Limits restaurants to takeout and delivery.
- Bans travel to and from Guateng province.
Guateng province, home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, accounts for 64% of new Delta COVID-19 cases. Researchers also have found that the variant has appeared in wastewater from communities in Western Cape province.
The Delta variant is rapidly overtaking the Alpha and Beta variants to become the dominant strain in the country. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Delta also is becoming dominant in Kwa-Zula Natal, Eastern Cape and Limpopo provinces.
The Delta variant is about 75% more infectious than the initial COVID-19 virus strain. As of the beginning of July, the Delta variant was present in 21 African countries with 10 experiencing surges, including many in central and southern parts of the continent.
During the last week of June, Africa added more than 209,000 COVID-19 cases, up 31% from the week before. Half of those cases were in South Africa. Nearby countries Zambia and Namibia also saw thousands of new infections driven by the Delta variant.
Overall, infections rose 29% in June, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
“We are in the middle of a third wave, a third wave that is extremely aggressive,” Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong said at a press conference in early July.
The third wave has caught South Africa with half of its existing vaccine stockpile still waiting to be administered, according to Nkengasong. By the end of June, 2.7 million of more than 58.5 million South Africans had been vaccinated.
South Africa’s Aspen Pharmaceuticals has said it will begin releasing up to 400 million locally produced doses of the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine for use across the country and beyond. Studies show that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is effective against the Delta variant, as are other vaccines such as Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.
While South Africans wait for locally produced vaccines, public health leaders urge people to continue using the nonpharmaceutical protections that have worked well to slow COVID-19 in the past: masks, handwashing and social distancing.
“We understand that many are suffering from COVID-19 fatigue and becoming relaxed in exercising preventative measures,” Adrian Puren, acting executive director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said in a statement. “Remember to avoid gatherings and to roll up your sleeve once the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to you.”