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1.5m graves readied as Covid-19 sweeps through South Africa

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Preparing for the worst: Dr Bandile Masuku said reality must be dealt with

Preparing for the worst: Dr Bandile Masuku said reality must be dealt with

Gallo Images via Getty Images

Preparing for the worst: Dr Bandile Masuku said reality must be dealt with

The Covid-19 pandemic in Africa is reaching "full speed", the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention chief said yesterday, while a South African official said a single province is preparing 1.5 million graves.

Just a day after confirmed coronavirus cases across Africa surpassed the half-million milestone, the total was over 522,000 and climbing, with more than 12,000 deaths. With testing levels low, the real numbers are unknown.

South Africa has the most confirmed cases with over 224,000, and for the first time Gauteng province - home to Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria - has the country's most cases with over 75,000, or 33pc.

Provincial official Bandile Masuku, a medical doctor, startled South Africans when he told reporters that Gauteng is preparing over 1.5 million graves.

"It's a reality that we need to deal with," he said, and it's the public's responsibility "to make sure that we don't get there".

But the province in a statement yesterday sought to calm fears, saying it "does not have over a million already open dug graves" and clarified that the official was saying the province has enough space for that many. It also said six members of Gauteng's Covid-19 war room have tested positive for the virus.

Modelling has shown that South Africa will have nowhere close to that many deaths in the months ahead. Several models forecast between 40,000 and 80,000 by the end of the year.

Asked about the graves, Africa CDC chief John Nkengasong said "there's absolutely no harm to think ahead" and prepare for the "worst-case scenario".

"We've crossed a critical number here," he said of the half-million milestone. "Our pandemic is getting full speed."

He called for more mask-wearing, saying "this battle will be won or lost at the community level".

He also called for more testing, as just 5.7 million tests for the new virus have been conducted across the continent of 1.3 billion people.

With painful memories of many people dying in Africa while waiting for accessible HIV drugs years ago, the Africa CDC yesterday launched a consortium aimed at securing more than 10 late-stage Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials on the continent as early as possible.

"We want to be sure we don't find ourselves in the 1996 scenario where HIV drugs were available but it took almost seven years for those drugs to be accessible on the continent," Mr Nkengasong said.

With any Covid-19 vaccine, a "delay in Africa of even one year would be catastrophic", he said.

The African Union last month said governments around the world should "remove all obstacles" to swift and equitable distribution of any successful Covid-19 vaccine, including by making all intellectual property and technologies immediately available.

Africa in recent days has begun taking part in Covid-19 vaccine trials in the face of increasing misinformation on the continent.

Trials have begun in South Africa and Egypt, but Mr Nkengasong said a "continent of 1.3 billion people deserves more than just two countries participating".

A vaccine "is the only weapon to allow our lives to return to normal", he said.

Irish Independent