On Sunday, reported coronavirus infections in South Africa surpassed one million since the start of the pandemic.
The country has now recorded 1,004,413 cases and 26,735 deaths.
With one of the strictest initial lockdowns in the world, South Africa avoided the high death toll that many experts feared. As restrictions eased in the last quarter of the year, however, the death toll climbed steadily, beginning to spike as the holiday season approached.
Many South Africans also traveled from cities to more rural provinces to celebrate the holidays. Officials recorded a daily increase of more than 14,000 cases on Christmas Day and the two days before, though the number fell to 9,502 on Sunday.
Physicians and nurses described overwhelmed hospitals. “For many of the young doctors at the front line, it’s an incredibly traumatic experience, the moral trauma of having to, if you will, decide who lives and dies,” said Dr. Ntobeko Ntusi, chair and head of medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital, a large public institution in Cape Town.
Dr. Ntusi said there had been some patients who were “28, 32 years old” without other health conditions who had extremely low oxygen levels from Covid-19 pneumonia. But because of the overwhelming demand for resources, “We are not able to offer them the treatment that we know can save their lives.”
Some medical professionals urged the government to return to stricter lockdown measures and restrict gatherings. “There’s a huge problem regarding adequate staff, nurses as well as doctors,” Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the president of the South African Medical Association, told SABC News, the public broadcaster, on Sunday.
As the number of infections climbed, President Cyril Ramaphosa held an emergency meeting with the National Coronavirus Command Council and would be submitting their proposals to the country’s Cabinet, according to local news reports. Mr. Ramaphosa is expected to announce new measures soon.
Early in December, South Africa tried to curb the spread of infections in hot spots by imposing a curfew, banning the sale of alcohol on weekends and closing beaches. Masks were made mandatory at all gatherings.
Scientists from the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal discovered a variant of the virus that accounts for the vast majority of samples tested in the current wave. It has one change in common with a distinct variant recently discovered in Britain that has led to travel bans; scientists believe both new lineages may be more easily transmissible. So far there is no evidence that they are associated with more severe disease.
Doctors began noting an increased number of younger patients who had no vulnerabilities, or comorbidities, Zweli Mkhize, the minister of health, said in a statement announcing the discovery earlier this month. That may be at least in part related to large gatherings of young people, including student parties, that officials say have been amplifying the spread of the virus.
South Africa does not have access to any vaccines yet, but Mr. Ramaphosa has said that the country will have soon enough vaccines for 10 percent of the population. They will arrive via an agreement with Covax, an international body established to promote equitable access to vaccines. Unlike 92 low- and middle-income countries, which will be receiving support to make their purchases, as a higher-middle income country, South Africa will finance its doses.
In other developments around the world:
Indonesia will bar entry to international visitors for two weeks from New Year’s Day to stem the spread of new, potentially more contagious strains of the coronavirus, Reuters reported, with an exemption only for high-level government officials. The country barred travelers from Britain a few days ago, and tightened rules for those arriving from Europe and Australia, expanding on an earlier tourism ban.
South Korea has discovered three cases of the variant first detected in Britain, officials said on Monday. All were in members of a London-based family who arrived in the country on Dec. 22, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. All three have been in isolation since testing positive on arrival. South Korea, which is struggling to contain a third wave of infections, is among dozens of countries that have temporarily banned flights from Britain in response to the new variant. The country of about 50 million people reported 808 new cases on Monday, bringing the national total to 57,680, with 819 deaths.
Frontline workers in Sydney, Australia, will not be allowed to watch the New Year’s Eve firework display from the harbor as planned, Gladys Berejiklian, premier of the state of New South Wales, said Monday, citing a growing coronavirus outbreak in the city’s northern suburbs. “We’ll find another opportunity during the year to recognize what you’ve done,” Ms. Berejiklian said to the workers, about 5,000 of whom would have been invited. Other restrictions announced for Dec. 31 include lowering a limit on outdoor gatherings to 50 from 100 and barring people who live outside the central business district from entering unless they have a venue booking and an entry permit. The city reported five locally transmitted cases on Monday, bringing the total in the cluster to 126.