South Africa passes 500,000 confirmed coronavirus cases

South Africa surpassed 500,000 coronavirus cases Saturday, accounting for 50 percent of the continent’s reported cases — and officials have warned that the country has not yet reached its peak in the pandemic.

Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize announced more than 10,000 new cases Saturday, bringing the country’s total to 503,290 confirmed cases, along with 8,005 coronavirus related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University (JHU) researchers.

South Africa is currently fifth in the world in number of reported cases, trailing behind the United States with a confirmed 4.6 million cases, Brazil with 2.6 million cases, India with nearly 1.7 million cases and Russia with over 800,000 confirmed cases.

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Even with South Africa’s caseload ranked among the top five for confirmed cases globally, it is ranked 17th in the death rate, according to JHU data.

But a report released by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) late last month showed that there are large discrepancies in the number of reported coronavirus-related deaths and the number of “excess deaths” from natural causes.

President of the SAMRC, Glenda Gray, said the increase in excess deaths could be explained by other diseases going undertreated, as resources have been pooled to fight the coronavirus.

“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,” the SAMRC report said, comparing data from the past two years.

There is a fear that the number of cases being reported is short of the reality of the situation in South Africa. And health experts have pointed to people’s fear of the virus, which further prevents them from visiting a health clinic when they feel ill.

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“Half a million is a significant milestone because it shows we’ve entered a stage of rapid increases. We may reach 1 million cases very quickly,” said Denis Chopera, a virologist based in Durban. “What we know for sure is that the figures are an underestimate and that this virus will be with us for a long time to come.”

The Gauteng province, home to the capital city of Johannesburg, has reported 35 percent of the country’s cases, making it the epicenter of the virus in South Africa.

Health experts believe that South Africa will have several peaks throughout the pandemic, but predicting the flattening of the curve has proven tricky globally.

“The Western Cape had the first peak and did relatively well. Gauteng is the epicenter now and appears to be coping so far,” Chopera told The Associated Press. “Other provinces, like the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, do not have reputations for well-organized health care systems. They may have serious problems.”

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The country has struggled with exceeding hospital capacities and abilities, along with shortages of oxygen and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health care workers.

A reported $26 million in economic relief was granted to South Africa, though the aid was marred by allegations of corruption — forcing the top health official in the Gauteng province to step down after corruption accusations regarding COVID-19 contracts surfaced this week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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