SA’s spike in Covid cases could be connected to religious holidays, says health minister

Business Insider SA
Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla (Photo by Gallo Images/Daily Maverick/Leila Dougan)
Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla (Photo by Gallo Images/Daily Maverick/Leila Dougan)
  • South Africa's Covid-19 infections and test positivity rate are rising, signalling the start of a fifth wave.
  • While it's still too early to officially declare the arrival of a new wave, according to health minister Joe Phaahla, the next week will be crucial in determining the pandemic's trajectory.
  • And without a new variant of concern clearly driving infections, the recent spike could be related to recent religious holidays coinciding with the Easter weekend.
  • These holidays saw a number of social gatherings, which Phaahla says "could've been the trigger for the spike" of infections over the past two weeks.
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South Africa is experiencing a rise in Covid-19 cases, which could signal the fifth wave of infections. Social gatherings across numerous religious holidays in April may have something to do with the spike.

Warning signs of the fifth wave of Covid-19 have emerged over the past week. The Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) announced on Tuesday that "the fifth wave has arrived", citing a steady rise in new infections and test positivity rate.

South Africa's test positivity rate has risen to nearly 18%, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), the highest level since the tail-end of the fourth wave in early January. Daily new confirmed Covid-19 cases, measured as a seven-day moving average, have also seen a significant uptick since mid-April.

See also | South Africa has lost interest in Covid-19 – just in time for a fresh wave of infections

But while the rise in infections and test positivity rates are undeniable, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said, during a media briefing on Friday morning, that it was still too early to officially declare the arrival of a fifth wave.

"Whichever way we look at it, it does suggest that we may actually be entering the fifth wave much earlier [than anticipated],"

"We have to just wait for a few more days, maybe another seven days, to be very sure that this was not just a sporadic uptick but a sustained uptick."

Among the questions connected to the arrival of the fifth wave include debates around a new coronavirus variant, which have, in the past, driven surges in infections. Phaahla said that he had not yet been alerted to a "definite new variant" but acknowledged that a subvariant of Omicron was being monitored closely.

Because no new variant of concern has been identified as a driver of recent infection, one theory under investigation is that the recent flurry of religious holidays could account for the anomaly or be connected to an earlier arrival of the fifth wave.

"There is also an analysis that because of the Easter weekend, which also coincided this time with the holy period of Ramadan for Muslims and Passover for the Jewish faith, that there were a lot of religious gatherings which also could've been the trigger for the spike that we've seen over the last 14 days," said Phaahla.

"So, the next seven days, until 6 May, will give a clearer picture as to where we are going. That is, whether the fifth wave has started earlier without any distinct variant… whether the subvariant will be the one driving the early entry into the fifth wave or whether it's simply gatherings as a result of the Easter weekend."

Phaahla further warned that with winter fast approaching, the risk for higher rates of infection, due to social gatherings indoors, increased significantly.

"What is clear is that we are still at great risk of Covid-19, especially as we go into a very long winter," said Phaahla.

"It's going to be a very long winter, where people spend more time indoors and where even our gatherings, whether for functions or just restaurants and other activities, will largely be indoors, which has a risk of high spread for any respiratory infection."

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