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04.03.2021 South Africa

South Africa medics celebrate after sharp drop in Covid cases

By Maryke VERMAAK
On the front line in the fight against Covid-19 in South Africa, nurse Salome Nkoana dons protective gear.  By Guillem Sartorio (AFP)
LISTEN MAR 4, 2021
On the front line in the fight against Covid-19 in South Africa, nurse Salome Nkoana dons protective gear. By Guillem Sartorio (AFP)

After a year battling coronavirus, exhausted health workers in South Africa are celebrating a drop in cases but dread another wave of infections -- a scenario that could strike just months from now.

"We are relieved now because the numbers are down and patients are no longer that sick," nurse Constance Mathibela told AFP at Thembisa Hospital, in a township east of Johannesburg.

After the epidemic hit its stride, the hospital "was almost full everyday," she recalled.

"There was no time when we had an empty (Covid) ward. It was just a continuous (flow of) things."

South Africa recorded its first case of coronavirus on March 5 last year.

It has since been through two virus storms, recording over 1.5 million cases and more than 50,000 deaths -- the highest in all of Africa.

More than a million and a half people have caught coronavirus in South Africa.  By Guillem Sartorio (AFP) More than a million and a half people have caught coronavirus in South Africa. By Guillem Sartorio (AFP)

But on Sunday President Cyril Ramaphosa declared that the second wave, fuelled by a new, more contagious, variant, was now over.

The nationwide tally of daily new infections fell to just over 500 this week after peaking at more than 21,000 on January 7.

Ramaphosa's announcement was welcome news for many medical workers who have been driven to the brink of burnout.

But with a vaccination drive having started only last month, they are also bracing for a possible third wave.

Scientists believe it could land with the onset of the southern hemisphere winter, around May or June.

'Very scary'

Workers at Thembisa -- the public hospital of a township that is alternatively spelt Tembisa -- relived the surges of previous waves.

"At the beginning it was very scary because we didn't know Covid at all," said Mathibela, the first nurse to work in a Covid-19 ward at the hospital.

A health worker at Thembisa Hospital, east of Johannesburg, screens visitors for Covid-19 symptoms.  By Guillem Sartorio (AFP) A health worker at Thembisa Hospital, east of Johannesburg, screens visitors for Covid-19 symptoms. By Guillem Sartorio (AFP)

Another senior nurse, Salome Nkoana, said that in those early days, frontline workers struggled to care for patients suffering from an unfamiliar infection, all the while fearing that they could fall sick too.

"Every day when I went home, I prayed... 'God, can you please help me to go through this?'"

"Now I'm exhausted, I need leave," said the nurse, dressed in blue scrubs, as she went through patients' notes.

One of the least documented aspects of the epidemic is the mental toll inflicted on health workers as they watched patients struggle with the disease and pass away.

"We were so depressed, all of us," said Nkoana, recalling a terrible day when five patients died.

"Emotionally it stressed us a lot," observed Phuti Kobo, 39, another ward manager. "One death (alone) is enough to traumatise nurses."

The waiting area at Thembisa Hospital, where Covid-19 admissions have fallen sharply recently -- though there are fears a third wave could be on its way.  By Guillem Sartorio (AFP) The waiting area at Thembisa Hospital, where Covid-19 admissions have fallen sharply recently -- though there are fears a third wave could be on its way. By Guillem Sartorio (AFP)

"If you had more than five in a day, that was a real trauma, but we managed through it all."

Now the "wards are much quieter...no more ventilated patients," she added cheerfully.

In the male ward, a Covid-19 patient dressed in green-and-white striped hospital pyjamas, lay on a bed, listening to music on his earphones -- a therapy for anxiety as he underwent treatment.

AFP was granted access to the hospital after several requests in the face of a de facto media blackout on healthcare institutions during the pandemic.

Dread of third wave

The daily number of Covid admissions at Thembisa has fallen by around 80 percent from the peak early this year, from around 100 to about 20.

But the let-up may be just temporary.

Treatment for Covid-19 is labour-intensive -- patients require constant monitoring and frequent turning.  By Guillem Sartorio (AFP) Treatment for Covid-19 is labour-intensive -- patients require constant monitoring and frequent turning. By Guillem Sartorio (AFP)

"We are just imagining how worse it is going to be, how bad is it going to be," said Kobo.

"Is it going to be the same as the first or second wave or is it going to be worse?"

On the plus side, the enemy is far better known today than it was a year ago.

The hospital's clinical director, Dr Saziwe Mbekeli, said planning was already underway for a possible new surge in cases.

"We will be much wiser when we approach the third wave," said Kobo. "We are ready."

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