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One week into lockdown, how is S Africa faring in COVID-19 fight?

One week into a nationwide lockdown, South Africa is scrambling to set in motion an ambitious track-and-trace programme to identify people who may have contracted the new coronavirus as infections begin to proliferate across informal settlements in the world's most unequal society.

The country confirmed its first coronavirus case on March 5, and in the weeks that followed infections were mostly confined to suburban areas and largely involved travellers from Europe, the United States and other countries.

However, the situation is rapidly changing. Earlier this week, officials confirmed the first coronavirus infections in the huge, sprawling townships of Alexandra and Khayelitsha in Gauteng and the Western Cape, respectively.

And although South Africa's confirmed figures are still relatively low (1,462 cases and five deaths), the arrival of the virus in crowded urban areas - where access to clean water for hand-washing is scarce and self-quarantine practices are challenging - holds the potential for a much larger outbreak.

"What is the worst-case scenario? We just don't know," South Africa's Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Wednesday.

"The small growth in numbers may be the calm before a devastating storm. We need to be aware that there may not be many further warnings before the pounding descends."

Along with the enforcement of the three-week lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the government has rolled out a series of sweeping measures, including travel restrictions, school closures and bans on mass gatherings.

So far, almost 50,000 people have been tested across the country, and authorities are mobilising 67 mobile testing units to ramp the figure up to 30,000 people daily.

Meanwhile, the recently unveiled track-and-trace programme will see up to 10,000 health workers descend on various communities across the country to trace primary contacts and ensure testing for secondary contacts.

It is hoped the scheme will delay and, at best, prepare for a predicted onslaught South Africa's health system will confront in the face of a severe outbreak.

"Surveillance is paramount as this will guide the ongoing response," said Professor Helen Rees, chairperson of the World Health Organization's (WHO) African Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group.

"We can't predict how this virus will spread in African countries where the age demographic is quite different to that of Europe. Social conditions make distancing very difficult and the risk of household spread is very high."

The continent's youthful population - with a third of all Africans under 30 years - should be a boon in the fight against a virus shown to affect older people disproportionately more. But as societies across Africa already battle pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, tuberculosis and HIV on a large scale, any advantage could be outweighed in the long run.

Source: Aljazeera News

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