Student parties blamed as South Africa braces for Covid second wave

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Health minister says end-of-year mass gatherings are turning into super-spreader events

Health workers prepare for Covid testing in Johannesburg.
Health workers prepare for Covid testing in Johannesburg. Photograph: Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images
Health workers prepare for Covid testing in Johannesburg. Photograph: Michele Spatari/AFP via Getty Images
in Johannesburg

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 18.20 EST

South Africans have been warned to brace for a second wave of Covid-19 infections that has been blamed on a series of mass end-of-year parties held by students.

Zweli Mkhize, the health minister, said on Monday that numbers of new infections were rising fast and warned that if the trajectory continued health systems would be overwhelmed.

“A new issue and most worrying is … a large number of parties and young people drinking alcohol with no adherence to [social distancing and other measures] … This inevitably leads to super-spreader events … We have to contain these parties and mass gatherings,” Mkhize said.

One event in the south-eastern coastal town of Ballito earlier this month that was attended by more than 1,500 recent school leavers has been blamed for sparking a massive wave of infections.

Almost two-thirds of those present at the “Ballito Rage” festival – a series of parties, concerts and club nights – have tested positive, including hundreds who returned to homes many hundreds of miles from the venue.

Authorities are trying to trace all those who attended the festival, urging them to self-isolate.

Organisers said the event had received the go-ahead from local authorities, and that venues had been inspected by police.

Similar events involving students in Cape Town were blamed for accelerating a second wave of infections in and around the city, a favourite with tourists.

New infections in South Africa are highest in the 15-19 age group, statistics show.

“This age group is highly mobile and the majority of carriers are asymptomatic,” Mkhize said.

South Africa has recorded 861,000 cases of the virus, with 23,276 deaths, according to official statistics. Excess mortality studies suggest a death toll of more than 50,000 due to the outbreak. The president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is due to address the nation on Monday evening.

The disease claimed another high-profile victim over the weekend. The prime minister of Eswatini, which borders South Africa, died on Sunday aged 52 after being hospitalised with Covid. The small kingdom has recorded 127 confirmed deaths so far among 1.2m inhabitants.

“Their Majesties have commanded that I inform the nation of the sad and untimely passing away of His Excellency the Prime Minister Ambrose Mandvulo Dlamini. His Excellency passed on this afternoon while under medical care in a hospital in South Africa,” the deputy prime minister, Themba Masuku, said in a statement.

South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised nation, was widely praised for its initial response to the pandemic but criticism has since mounted since as the government has struggled to retain public trust amid allegations of widespread corruption, arbitrary decisions on restrictions and administrative incompetence.

The difficulty – if not outright impossibility – of social distancing in South Africa’s poorer, tightly packed urban areas was an enabler for the spread of the virus in the early months of the outbreak.

Harsh curfews inflicted massive suffering on the very large number of people who do not have regular incomes but rely on day-to-day earnings to pay for basic necessities.

The second wave of infections appears to have been accelerated by events aimed at more prosperous parts of South African society.

There have been more than 2.3m confirmed cases of Covid on the African continent – with more than 2m recoveries and 55,000 deaths cumulatively, according to the World Health Organization.