South Africa opts for mass testing

Saturday April 11 2020

South Africa is rolling out mass testing of the population in a bid to arrest the rising number of coronavirus infections.

The WHO has in the past weeks cautioned that African governments were not catching the extent of infections for lack of ‘‘robust testing.’’

Officials said they hope to conduct tests on “hundreds of thousands” of people to understand how many people have been affected in the country.

Starting this weekend, provinces are expected to have deployed lab technicians who will also target poor neighbourhoods where people are believed to be infected, but no true picture has emerged yet because of lack of testing.

South Africa has the highest number of coronavirus infections in sub-Saharan Africa, and the government is worried that the infection rate could get out of hand if the virus starts spreading rapidly in the country’s poor and overcrowded townships.

Already, there have been confirmed Covid-19 cases in impoverished and densely populated townships —Khayelitsha and Alexander—in Cape Town and Johannesburg respectively, where as many as eight people share a single room. 


Cluster outbreaks

The new township infections present a new dynamic to the war against the virus that has claimed the lives of 18 people in South Africa of the 1,845 confirmed cases. 

In the early stages of the epidemic, the target of the mass testing was people with symptoms of the virus, who were returning from overseas. But all that has changed with the onset of community spreading, and health authorities risk missing to contain cluster outbreaks, unless they do mass testing in communities. 

As at end of March, the country was doing about 5,000 tests in 24 hours. The number then increased to 15,000 with the new target aimed for the end of April at 36,000. 

Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize expressed concern that not enough testing is being done, meaning the actual size of the infected population may be larger than thought.

These units are part of the massive testing project announced late last month by President Cyril Ramaphosa, where workers will go out to different areas to test people for Covid-19.

South Africa had conducted over 70,000 tests by April 7. This compares well to, say, Brazil, which has conducted about the same number of tests but has a much bigger population.