South Africa’s excess deaths surge as virus like ‘wildfire’

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Global hot spot South Africa is seeing a “huge discrepancy” between confirmed COVID-19 deaths and an unusually high number of excess deaths from natural causes, while Africa’s top health official said on Thursday the coronavirus is spreading there “like wildfire”.

A new report by the South African Medical Research Council, released late Wednesday, shows over 17,000 excess deaths from May 6 to July 14 as compared to data from the past two years, while confirmed COVID-19 deaths have surpassed 6,000.

“The numbers have shown a relentless increase — by the second week of July, there were 59 per cent more deaths from natural causes than would have been expected,” the report said.

Council’s President Glenda Gray said the excess deaths could be attributed to COVID-19 as well as other widespread diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis while many health resources are redirected toward the pandemic.

Meanwhile, some South Africans are thought to be avoiding health facilities as fears of the new virus spread and public hospitals are overwhelmed.

Mourners attend the funeral of nurse Duduzile Margaret Mbonane in Thokoza east of Johannesburg. PHOTO: AP

“The coronavirus storm has indeed arrived,” President Cyril Ramaphosa told the nation on Thursday evening as cases surpassed 400,000. He announced that schools would “take a break” for a month to protect students.

South Africa now has the world’s fifth largest caseload. It makes up more than half the confirmed cases on the African continent with 408,052.

One of the country’s nurses was buried on Thursday, the latest of over 5,000 infected health workers across South Africa.

Duduzile Margaret Mbonane died just a month before her retirement, her husband said. She was 59.

Colleagues dressed in white stood at her outdoor memorial and recited the nurses’ pledge of service.

Those on the front lines have been hit hard: The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday over 10,000 health workers have been infected in its African region, which is largely sub-Saharan Africa.

WHO Africa Chief Matshidiso Moeti said she wasn’t able to say how many health workers, the majority of them nurses, have died. She said 41 million items of personal protective equipment are set to begin shipping from China this weekend.

Africa’s 54 countries now have 768,978 cases overall.