South Africa on Saturday surpassed 500,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, representing more than 50% of all reported coronavirus infections in Africa's 54 countries.
Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize announced 10,107 new cases Saturday night, bringing the country's cumulative total to 503,290, including 8,153 deaths.
South Africa, with a population of about 58 million, has the fifth-highest number of cases in the world, behind the U.S., Brazil, Russia and India, all countries with significantly higher populations, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts say the true toll of the pandemic worldwide is much higher than confirmed cases, due to limited testing and other reasons.
“Half a million is a significant milestone, because it shows we’ve entered a stage of rapid increases. We may reach 1 million cases very quickly,” said Denis Chopera, a virologist based in Durban. “What we know for sure is that the figures are an underestimate and that this virus will be with us for a long time to come."
South Africa's Gauteng province — which includes Johannesburg, the country's largest city and Pretoria, the capital — is the country's epicenter with more than 35% of its confirmed cases. Local hospitals have been struggling to cope, and health experts say the country could reach the peak of its outbreak in late August or early September.
Cape Town, a city beloved by international tourists at the country's southern tip, was the first epicenter and reached its peak last month, according to health experts.
South Africa will have multiple peaks across the country, each challenging its different provincial health care systems, said Chopera, executive manager of the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence.
“The Western Cape had the first peak and did relatively well. Gauteng is the epicenter now and appears to be coping so far,” he said. "Other provinces, like the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, do not have reputations for well-organized health care systems. They may have serious problems."
South Africa imposed a strict lockdown in April and May that succeeded in slowing the spread of the virus but caused such economic damage that the country began a gradual reopening in June.
South Africa was already in recession before the coronavirus hit and its unemployment stands at 30%. President Cyril Ramaphosa's government has extended grants to the country's poorest, increased supplies to hospitals and recently accepted a $4.3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Corruption in the country’s pandemic response is a growing problem. On Thursday the top health official in Gauteng province was forced to step down over corruption allegations related to government contracts for COVID-19 personal protective equipment.
Ramaphosa has warned that now, more than ever, South Africa’s persistent problem with widespread graft is endangering people’s lives.