South Africa's excess deaths surge as virus like 'wildfire'
Funeral home workers in protective suits carry the coffin of a woman who died from COVID-19 into a hearse in Katlehong, near Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
Global hot spot South Africa is seeing a "huge discrepancy" between confirmed COVID-19 deaths and much higher excess deaths from natural causes, while Africa's top health official says the coronavirus is spreading there "like wildfire."
A new report by the South African Medical Research Council, released late Wednesday, shows more than 17,000 excess deaths in South Africa from May 6 to July 14 as compared to data from the past two years, while confirmed COVID-19 deaths are 5,940.
"The numbers have shown a relentless increase — by the second week of July, there were 59 percent more deaths from natural causes than would have been expected based," the report says.
The council's president, Glenda Gray, said in a statement the excess deaths could be attributed to COVID-19 as well as to 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.
"In all countries with COVID-19, we are seeing this," Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said of the report.
South Africa now has the world's fifth largest caseload. It makes up more than half the confirmed cases on the African continent with 394,948, and the toll is expected to surpass 400,000 by the end of Thursday.
Africa's 54 countries now have more than 750,000 cases.
South Africa is "very concerning," the director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, told reporters Thursday.
And now other African countries are becoming a problem, notably Kenya, where Nkengasong said cases have "taken off very, very quickly."
East Africa's commercial hub now has more than 14,000 confirmed cases.
Local transmission of the virus has begun in many countries across the continent, and once it is seeded in vulnerable communities such as slums it "spreads like wildfire, which is what we're seeing in South Africa now," Nkengasong said.
The true number of cases in Africa is unknown, as shown by the new report in South Africa, the continent's most developed country.
Testing remains limited by shortages of supplies, with just 7.2 million tests conducted on a continent of 1.3 billion people.
Data collection is incomplete as some people are dying at home or before being tested. Few African countries were equipped to widely track deaths even before the pandemic.
"Community deaths, we just don't know how countries are capturing that," Nkengasong said.
Africa's case fatality rate in this pandemic remains relatively low at just over 2%, but that measure is weakened if authorities don't know the real number of deaths.
As cases climb, the Africa CDC director said a "universal masking of the continent is very important at this critical stage" as some officials in South Africa and elsewhere warn against pandemic fatigue.
Many countries across Africa locked down quickly as the pandemic raced across Europe and the United States, delaying its spread at home.
But economic pressures have forced most governments to loosen restrictions, though South Africa this month returned to a ban on alcohol sales to help free up precious hospital beds.
"The continent still, as a while, has a chance to fight back in a successful manner," Nkengasong said, pointing out that 37 countries still have reported less than 5,000 cases.
But those on the front lines have been hit hard: The World Health Organization said Thursday more than 10,000 health workers have been infected in its African region, which is largely sub-Saharan Africa.
WHO Africa chief Matshidiso Moeti said she isn't able to say how many workers have died as efforts to improve data collection continue.