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‘We are well and truly on our way to our third wave’ – warns local epidemiologist

Fear and stigma over COVID-19
Written by Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

As South Africa prepares for a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, infectious diseases specialist Professor Salim Abdool Karim believes that important lessons have been learnt from the previous waves.

“We are well and truly on our way to our third wave. In case people are not convinced that we are well and truly on our way to the third wave, the Northern Cape, Free State, North West, Gauteng, are all now rapidly increasing their cases and overall, that is driving the national figure up,” said Karim, who was speaking during a public lecture on the pandemic on Tuesday.

“We are in a situation right now where we are braising for a third wave and various planning and all kinds of things are underway,” he said.

Since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in South Africa in March 2020, the country has already experienced two waves of infections, with the second wave being deadlier than the first.

Third wave threshold

According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), South Africa has not yet reached the new wave threshold. But according to NICD Acting Executive Director, Prof Adrian Puren said we are moving rapidly towards a third wave.

“While we have not yet crossed the national threshold for a new wave, the current trajectory is worrisome and should it continue its course, we will likely cross the threshold for a new wave in the coming weeks,” said Puren.

But Karim, believes that the lessons learnt from the first two waves should be used as warning on how the country should be prepared for future spikes in the pandemic.

“I think we have learnt a lot about what it is we can do, what we did right, what we did wrong and how do we prepare for the next pandemic. And are we going to have a next pandemic, you bet we are. There is a little doubt that we are now going to be in a situation where we will be seeing these kinds of pandemics, it may not be a coronavirus but it is coming, we need to be prepared,” said Karim.

Better pandemic response

According to Karim, in future the country needs to have a better pandemic response and should also be able to develop its own diagnostic tests, as well as being able to manufacture its own vaccines.

“And among the things we need to do, we need to have a better pandemic response unit. We need to be able to build local diagnostic tests. We could not buy tests in April last year because the whole world was trying to buy the same tests we were trying to buy… We cannot manufacture vaccines, so we must join the backroom – the queue. Putting our begging bowls out saying please give us vaccines,” said Karim.

“We have got to be able to make our own vaccines and I think that for me is one of the high priorities. And we have got to make sure that we have surveillance for new threats, new pandemics and surveillance for variants of this virus, as we have already discovered how variants can be quickly dominant in our own epidemic,” he said.

Lessons learnt from previous waves

“So, my five lessons that I have tried to capture for you, we took the disease seriously, we made difficult decisions bravely, we were willing to do what was needed but we were also truthful and pro-active in communication with the public. I know we could do a lot better in communicating but we have done well. When you think of every other pandemic and every other epidemic we have had and we have made our errors, we have had our problems, but we can move mountains when we act together, and we can draw on this experience to prepare for the next pandemic,” said Karim.

Despite all the challenges posed by COVID-19 globally, and a looming third wave of infections, Karim believes that the South African healthcare system is now better prepared to deal with the deadly virus, than it was last year.

“The healthcare system is now much better prepared to deal with COVID-19, when you think about how the situation was in May last year, we did not really know what to expect, we did not really know how we were going to manage patients, we are now in a much better position and we also have better ideas. Both our scientists and government know better which restrictions work and which don’t,” said Karim.

Complacency remains a challenge

Despite more South Africans now having more knowledge about COVID-19 preventative measures such as wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and keeping hands sanitised all the time, Karim said that complacency when restrictions are eased remains a challenge in the country.

“When the government eases restrictions… we are doing so on the basis that we are hoping that people will maintain their behaviour but what happens is that it does not quite work like that. Complacency is a big challenge and complacency is partly to blame for us going now into our third wave,” he said. – Health-e News

About the author

Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

Ndivhuwo Mukwevho is citizen journalist who is based in the Vhembe District of Limpopo province. He joined OurHealth in 2015 and his interests lie in investigative journalism and reporting the untold stories of disadvantaged rural communities. Ndivhuwo holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media Studies from the University of Venda and he is currently a registered student with UNISA.