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Covid-19 second waves around the world: Could SA be spared?

Countries around the world are experiencing second coronavirus waves. The question on everyone’s lips is: will SA be next? We take a look at what the experts have to say, and compare SA to what’s happening elsewhere in the world.

A wave of Covid-19 second surges appears to be sweeping much of the world, especially in the Northern hemisphere, and with lockdown now at level 1, there are concerns that SA will follow suit. 😓

But while experts predict a rise in cases early next year, South Africa is quite unlikely to follow a similar trend to that of countries abroad. 

Much of Europe is experiencing a resurgence in cases – from Albania to Montenegro, Sweden and Switzerland. The United Kingdom appears to be on the verge of experiencing its own second wave, while the United States is still in the thick of its first, huge wave. 

We take a look at nine countries currently experiencing, or about to experience, second waves:

Some of the factors influencing the second waves abroad include early easing of lockdown restrictions, plus some equally bizarre decisions, such as the opening of nightclubs early on in the pandemic. (We like to get our groove on as much as any hombre. But seriously, Spain? Seriously?)

The second wave in Europe particularly was also expected: experts said that Covid-19 cases would increase as the continent heads into the winter months. 

(Here’s another chart mapping out how Europe is doing, and here’s one for the whole world.)

But here in sunny SA, the situation is different. 

Professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology at Wits University, Dr Shabir Madhi said in a webinar on Tuesday that South Africa could see a resurgence in infections as people become more complacent, especially with the December holidays approaching.

But Madhi told explain.co.za that it would be a mistake to compare South Africa with other countries, because our first wave was fundamentally different. 

He said countries in the North had a very different first wave – possibly with a lower percentage of the population having been infected at the time – which makes them more susceptible to a resurgence if the situation is not managed well. He added that the resurgence could exceed what happened in the first wave in these countries.

South Africa, on the other hand, had a high infection rate in the first wave (30-40%), so in some ways, we are better off in terms of what we are likely to experience with the resurgence. 

“We probably will see a less severe epidemic in South Africa if there is a resurgence compared to the first time round of what is currently being experienced in Spain and the UK”, he said. 

Let’s have a look what’s happening in other countries experiencing second waves. 

Spain

Spain reported its very first Covid-19 case on February 1. The country imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, which helped reduce cases. Spain reached its peak of approximately 213 000 cases around mid-May, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center. Come the end of June, most restrictions were relaxed, as the country appeared to be over its peak. But cases increased again. 

On August 21, the country reported nearly 10 000 new daily Covid-19 cases, sparking a fear of a second surge. Ten days later, this had increased to 23 000 daily new cases. According to Johns Hopkins, the country’s highest recorded level of daily infection was 31 785 on September 29, and in the last month alone, the country reported 308 980 NEW cases and 2 400 new deaths. 

Experts cited in an article on healthline attributed the increase in infections to the premature reopening of businesses, and allowing large public gatherings – including the reopening of night clubs (silly, much?) without observing the proper precautions. Politics also played a role in the resurgence: reportedly, divisions between Spain’s regional and federal governments left room for miscom

Experts cited in an article on healthline attributed the increase in infections to the premature reopening of businesses, and allowing large public gatherings – including the reopening of night clubs (silly, much?) without observing the proper precautions. Politics also played a role in the resurgence: reportedly, divisions between Spain’s regional and federal governments left room for miscommunication and patchy policy. Like South Africa, there was much confusion around the reopening of schools and other restrictions. 

But, even as cases increase, no new restrictions have been imposed. The Spanish government is however considering placing the capital, Madrid under confinement, which is a bit like a milder version of lockdown. But even with these new developments, doctors at the forefront say they are better equipped and better experienced to manage cases. The New York Times points out: 

“National coordination is improving — the central government last week agreed to a deal to deploy 2,000 soldiers as contact tracers. Testing speeds are accelerating — in Málaga, the biggest hospital can process tests within a single morning, thanks to the recent purchase of a series of robots. Across the road, a makeshift hospital built in a rush in April stands empty, ready for a rise in cases.”

France 

France imposed its first lockdown between March and May. It lasted about 2 months and worked well to cushion the impact of cases on the healthcare system. But it wasn’t enough to prevent a resurgence. The country is now experiencing a second wave, with the latest daily cases increasing by 25,507 and new deaths by 69 (September 29). 

France’s Prime Minister, Emmanuel Macron has introduced new restrictions, including the early closure of bars and restaurants across the country. Fortunately, present figures are nowhere near the highs recorded in Spring, but medical experts fear the combination of Covid-19 and seasonal diseases such as flu might overwhelm hospital capacity, Reuters reported. One of the reasons for the resurgence cited by experts: Covid fatigue. Just for the record, France’s highest recorded new infections was 258 994 in September. So, like Spain, France’s second wave is seemingly worse than the first, as more new cases are being reported now than when the countries experienced their first wave. 

United Kingdom

Experts have been warning that the United Kingdom could see a resurgence, and the numbers are there to back it up. The latest daily increase in new cases is 4 056 (as of September 29) and the highest on record daily new cases of 6 878 was reported on September 25. The United Kingdom went into lockdown on March 23, and around the end of June, cases began to reduce. But July came with fresh warnings of a resurgence. 

Now, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is looking to impose restrictions again, and so far, a lot is already in place. Restrictions put into place on September 22 include mandatory mask wearing, early closure of pubs, restrictions on the hospitality sector and weddings are limited to 15 people only.  According to The Telegraph that if you don’t wear a mask you can be fined £200 (approximately R4300) for a first offence, and if you’re found gathering with more than 6 people, you’d have to pay a minimum £200 on-the-spot fine, which doubles with repeat offences, up to £6,400 (R 139 400,00) 🙂.

The Guardian says it’s not obvious why the numbers are increasing. It could either be attributed to the rapid testing taking place or the more obvious reason: relaxed restrictions and the opening of restaurants and pubs. 

Belgium

Belgiumthe country famous for chocolate, waffles and beer (according to Google – we haven’t been there, unfortunately 😜) is on the verge of experiencing a second wave of Covid-19. The last recorded daily increase in new cases was 1 174. This is compared to the highest recorded new daily cases of 2 454 in April. While Belgium’s situation is not as desperate compared to that of Spain, France and the UK above, it is becoming a concern. 

Belgium’s Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes is even lifting the nation’s mandatory mask wearing requirement, saying masks should only be worn in crowded spaces where social distancing cannot be maintained (we can’t help but wonder whether she and Donald Trump have been sharing notes). 

She also reduced the isolation period to 7 days from 14 and is allowing at least 200 people in an indoor public event. But, travel to France has been banned as cases increase in Paris, predominantly. Experts have thus warned that Belgium needs to heed the lessons from its European counterparts about containing the spread, before it’s too late. 

United States

Remember all the wishy-washy responses to the virus in the United States – from President Donald Trump’s straight out denialism, to overconfidence over recoveries, suggestions to consume bleach and … honestly do we need to say more? During the first presidential debate this week, Trump even mocked presidential candidate Joe Biden for wearing his mask too often (how mature) and blamed the pandemic’s spread on China. 😏

The US has been the epicentre of the pandemic since March. As of September 29, the country’s latest daily increase in new infections is 33 037, and in the last month alone, there were 1 194 570 new cases. According to the Economic Times  the general reason for the US’s resurgence is due to “a patchwork of responses at the official level, the politicisation of masks and physical distancing, and the widespread onset of complacency…” (June 25). 

The article explains that the US may not have actually fallen from its peak, but resurgences are taking place in selected states, and this is mainly due to differing attitudes on how to combat the virus. As the Economic Times puts it:

“Wearing a mask and maintaining an appropriate physical distance are urged in federal guidelines, but that hasn’t been made mandatory in many of the regions now seeing surges. On the other hand, in cities like the capital Washington, mask-wearing is the norm, with people voluntarily wearing them outside too, including in places like parks. These differences reflect the country’s polarised politics, with many Republicans casting face coverings as an assault on their liberty and a liberal conspiracy to stoke fear.” 

Overnight, New York introduced fines for not wearing face masks as positive cases increase. If people are found not wearing a mask, they will be given one for free, but if they refuse, they will be fined, according to The Guardian. But we’ll give the US this: the country seems to have upped its testing game, at last, according to this test tracker

Netherlands 

Overnight, the Netherlands reported its highest on record number of daily new infections, of 6980, prompting the President Mark Rutte to rethink and tighten existing restrictions. On March 15, an “intelligent lockdown” was imposed – it’s not as strict as a heavy lockdown but it saw the closure of schools, restaurants, cafes, sex clubs, sport events etc. The new restrictions include ordering bars to shut early and recommending people wear masks in shops, while also strengthening stay at home guidelines. Rutte is also considering banning regional travel to three of the country’s major cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague as infections begin to rise. 

In a news conference this week, the country’s health minister, Hugo de Jonge said, “We’re doing our best, but the virus is doing better,” adding that nearly 3,000 new infections were being recorded a day, with the figure expected to reach 5,000 within weeks. In the last month, a total of 49 941 cases were reported. The sudden surge in the Netherlands, which started around the end of August. The President has rejected the idea of a second lockdown or making face masks mandatory. 

Israel 

Israel is one of the few countries experiencing a resurgence to ACTUALLY go into another lockdown – other countries are doing their ‘best’ to avoid that. The country imposed its first lockdown in late March and eased in May as new cases started to slow, reaching single-digit lows, but in mid-September, new cases reached daily highs of more than 5 000. Reuters reported in September that Israeli leaders acknowledged that they lifted measures too soon, but the decision to reintroduce restrictions is not sitting well with residents. Israel reported its highest daily increase in infections of 11 316 on September 23. Under new rules approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, Israelis must stay within 1,000 metres of home, with exceptions for activities such as commuting to workplaces that will operate on a limited basis. The lockdown is meant to last 3 weeks from the start on September 18, Reuters reported. 

Hungary 

Hungary closed its borders on September 1 after noticing a resurgence in cases coming mainly from travelers. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said exceptions for the travel ban on entry for foreigners would apply to military convoys and for humanitarian transit, as well as business or diplomatic travel. Hungary reported its highest daily new coronavirus cases of 1 070 on September 20 and its new infections in the past month reached about 19 000. The European nation has cumulatively reported 24 700 cases. The Prime Minister said he does not intend to bring the country’s activity to a halt, but rather to defend the country’s functionality, AP News reported. 

Argentina

Argentina’s first case was reported on March 3 2020 and the country went into lockdown on March 20, from which it is yet to emerge. The lockdown helped slow the spread of the virus a little, but infections in the capital Buenos Aires continued to spike. This prompted an extended lockdown but on July 17, Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez announced a plan which would gradually relax restrictions and see a return to normal life. Outdoor recreation was permitted and shops, hair salons and some professional services re-opened earlier in Buenos Aires earlier in the month, Reuters reported in July. But cases in Argentina are spiking by the day. On September 30, it reported its highest daily increase of 14 392 from 11 807 the day before and it’s not really clear why. The number of cases in the past month amounted to 321 893 

What can SA learn?

Clearly, SA should not be complacent, despite its slight advantage over other countries. But non-compliance with regulations, as well as timing such as the December holidays, could influence the possibility of a second wave. 

As Madhi explained, the timing of the second wave depends on the percentage of the population who were infected in the first wave, because it likely induces some level of immunity. 

So, we’re kind of neither here nor there, but the golden rules remain in place: don’t let your guard down and keep your mask up, and hopefully we can avoid that second wave.