Editor’s Note: Raymond Joseph (@rayjoe) is a freelance journalist living and working in Cape Town. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
As an acute asthma sufferer, who is also on medication to control hypertension, I have been ultra-careful since Covid-19 first hit South Africa early last year.
I’m also among those fortunate who have been able to continue to earn a living working from home. I seldom go out, unlike the hundreds of thousands of South African taxi and other public transport users who face a heightened risk of contracting the virus.
But early in June, I had no choice: I needed to interview several people for a corruption investigation that I was working on, and my sources would only speak to me in person.
I felt the risk was low as I’d been vaccinated with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccination six weeks earlier – enough time to build up immunity to the virus. Nevertheless, I set out well-prepared with a small bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket. I also wore two tight-fitting masks, each with additional, replaceable filter material inserted in a special pocket, as I normally do on the rare occasions when I go out in public.
At a time when the Delta variant is surging across the globe, someone like me who is vaccinated may be lulled into a false sense of safety, but in South Africa, where vaccinations rates have largely lagged, the threat remains quite high – and until vaccinations rates increase – extra precautions are needed.
Arriving for my meeting in Hout Bay Harbour in Cape Town, I found myself in a small room with two other people, neither of them wearing a mask. I was able to position myself about 2 meters – more than 6 feet – from them but, as the interview began, several other people, none of them wearing masks, entered the room.
Feeling very uncomfortable I asked, after less than five minutes, if we could continue outside. But it was too late. In those few minutes, despite all my precautions, I now believe I had been infected.
About two weeks later I developed a barking, dry cough and sore throat, and I was sneezing non-stop. I was also breathing with difficulty – but, because of the vaccination and all my precautions, I convinced myself that it was a bout of flu and decided that all I needed was paracetamol and bed rest.
By the following day, my body was aching as if I’d gone through a few rounds with a professional boxer, and I was literally gasping for breath. My doctor, after a phone consultation, said I should go for a Covid test. He also prescribed cortisone and a very strong antibiotic.
The test was quick and easy, and early the next morning my doctor called to say that I had tested positive. He prescribed additional medication and a variety of vitamins to boost my immune system. He also suggested I purchase an inexpensive battery-operated pulse oximeter to monitor my blood oxygen levels.
Should my breathing get worse, or if my oxygen levels dropped below 94, I should go directly to my closest emergency room as I may need oxygen, or even hospital admission, he said.
Almost miraculously, by the next morning my oxygen levels had improved, and I was able to breathe more easily. I was still feeling unwell, but there was a marked improvement in my condition. I’m now almost fully recovered, although I’m still left with some lingering after-effects of Covid, including fatigue and muddled thinking if I overexert myself.
Nevertheless, I had dodged a bullet with my name on it thanks to the fact that I had been vaccinated. I joined a growing number of people who were infected with Covid-19 despite having been vaccinated. In fact, my doctor said that I was the third of his patients who had been vaccinated and later had tested positive: I and another person had contracted “mild” Covid, and a third who was hospitalized briefly and has since made a full recovery. My doctor believes that the vaccine protected us from the worst of the virus and hastened our recovery.
Once I was feeling better, I posted on Facebook about my experience, intending it as a warning to friends not to let their guards down and to carry on wearing masks even if they have been vaccinated.
What followed surprised me: while many people wished me well, others – either anti-vaxxers or the vaccination hesitant – took my experience as proof that Covid vaccinations don’t work, rather than having minimized my illness and helped speed up my recovery.
Others messaged me off of Facebook and suggested I take ivermectin – a drug often used to treat parasites – which they claimed they, or others they knew of, had used to “sort out” Covid, despite the fact that there is no proof yet that it has any benefit against the virus.
Did I get the Delta variant? It’s hard to say for sure, but the highly contagious variant, which has now been detected in at least 85 countries, is rapidly becoming dominant in many parts of the world, including in the United States, where, as of July 3, it was responsible for 51.7% of all new cases of Covid-19, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In South Africa, the official death toll from Covid-19 is now more than 63,000.
By July 7, the Gauteng province accounted for 34.5% of South Africa’s total recorded 2,112,336 infections. Delta is now the dominant strain in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, north and east of Cape Town, where I live, and is increasing rapidly in other regions of the country. The Western Cape, the province in which Cape Town is situated, is now “firmly in a third wave,” according to Premier Alan Winde.
This deadly third wave has left health services buckling and has led to a new level four lockdown, which includes a total ban on the sale of alcohol, a prohibition of all social, political and religious gatherings, a ban on leisure travel to and from Gauteng and a 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew. It has also seen hospitals in Gauteng rapidly filling up. By the week of July 4, over 90% of private and public hospital beds were full.
On Sunday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an address to the nation that 4,200 people had died from Covid in the past two weeks and warned that by next week “daily hospital levels are likely to reach the peaks of the first and second waves.” He also announced the extension of most of South Africa’s level four lockdown for a further two weeks.
The South African government has faced growing criticism over a lack of preparedness to handle a wave driven by the highly infectious Delta variant. But some experts say it was scientists who got it wrong for not foreseeing that Delta could become the dominant strain.
The South African government has also faced been criticized for its slow vaccine rollout compared to neighboring Botswana and Zimbabwe. An analysis of data by the Daily Maverick shows that by the end of May, only 2.5 vaccines had been delivered per 100 people on the continent. A dismal number to say the least. And still, compared to the rest of the continent, South Africa’s vaccination rate was lower than its neighbors’ rate.
“Whereas South Africa has delivered only 1.6 vaccines per 100 people, Namibia has delivered twice this rate, and Botswana and Zimbabwe more than three times this rate. South Africa accounts for 43% of confirmed Covid-19 deaths but only 3% of vaccinations in Africa,” reported the Daily Maverick.
As of July 9, the vaccination rate in South Africa had improved to seven vaccinations per 100 people, according to a CNN barometer tracking worldwide vaccinations. Nevertheless, it still lags behind Botswana – 11 per 100 – and cash strapped Zimbabwe – nine per 100.
The South African health authorities first began with vaccinating health workers, then people over 60, followed by those aged 50 to 59. Acting Health Minister MmaMoloko Kubayi announced on July 9 that it would soon include people in the 35 to 49 age group.
Ramaphosa also told South Africans Sunday that more than 17 million J&J doses would be delivered to Africa starting in late July and that the company had made a commitment for vaccines to be produced under license in South Africa.
But it is too late to help with the third wave of Covid infections, hospitalizations and deaths that has South Africa by the throat.
At a press conference in late June, World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said that “We need a sprint, not a saunter, to rapidly protect those facing the biggest risks. Cases are outpacing vaccinations, leaving more and more dangerously exposed.”
This is partially because of vaccine inequality. An Oxfam analysis last September found that “wealthy nations representing just 13% of the world’s population have already cornered more than half (51%) of the promised doses of leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates,” then still in phase 3 clinical trials.
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Without a doubt, the key to saving more South Africans – and other Africans – from dying from this deadly virus is getting vaccines to the people at a faster rate. And the US and countries with surplus should send their excess vaccine, as President Joe Biden announced he is doing to Indonesia, also in the throes of a Covid surge.
For me, having previously reported and read widely on Covid, I believed this before, but after my own experience, I’m even more certain.