Covid-19 is spreading in South Africa at an exponential rate. Because this does not suit the official narrative, or our common interest in lifting the alcohol and cigarette ban, information given about the rate of spread has been deliberately confusing. But here are the facts.

Last week Health Minister Zweli Mkhize described a ‘plateau we are observing’ in newly confirmed Covid-19 cases. This claim has been widely repeated, prompting hope that lockdown will finally be lifted.

South Africans overwhelmingly want the lockdown to end, so many are eager to believe any potential good news about passing the peak that might cause the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) to rethink its ‘irrational’ regulations.

But wishful thinking should not trick South Africans into believing the spread of Covid-19 is slowing. The ‘plateau’ is an illusion.

The dip in new cases since 19 July matches all too neatly a dip in new tests since the same date. Unfortunately, this fact drastically undermines any claim that the spread is slowing in South Africa.

As United States President Donald Trump said, ‘with smaller testing we would show fewer cases‘. Someone in the NCCC seems to have been listening.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) indicates whether tests were ‘passive’, basically meaning sick people go to get tested, or whether they are the consequence of ‘community screening’, where cases are actively sought in the wider population.

In the graph above, you can see that from a peak of 11 000 community outreach tests per day on 24 July, the number dropped to just over 2 000 on Tuesday 11 August.

Less active testing produces fewer confirmed cases, creating the impression of a ‘plateau’. But halting community testing does not mean the NCCC halted the community spread of Covid-19.

Some of the most dramatic reductions in testing have occurred in Gauteng, a province where Dr Mkhize suggested that the numbers infected may have peaked already. According to NICD data, in the first full week of July 500 tests were done in Gauteng per 100 000 of the population, which came down to 340 tests per 100 000 by the end of July, after which there is no reliable data.

So the sharpest decline in provincial testing coincided with a relative decline in new cases. Again this is not a ‘good news’ reason to suppose Gauteng has peaked.

The positive rate measures the portion of tests conducted that come out positive. In Gauteng, this climbed from 24% in late June to 31% in late July.

In the above graph, you can see the positive rate of tests nationally. In April, this was around 2.5%, climbing to around 7% in May. By 4 July, the positive rate climbed above 20%, and by 14 July it soared past the 25% mark, around which it has remained ever since. That means one in every four tests conducted comes out positive.

As Razina Munshi observed in Business Day, a high positive rate ‘may mean a country is only testing its sickest patients, who seek medical attention, and isn’t casting a wide enough net to know how much of the virus is spreading within its communities’.

According to the World Health Organisation’s original stance, a positive rate of 5% is the acceptable ceiling for viable analysis of viral community spread, but it has since broadened this to ‘a positive rate of around 3-12% as a general benchmark for adequate testing’.

At more than double the 12% benchmark positive rate, our testing is simply too inadequate to give substantial meaning to the ‘plateau’ in new cases. But that is not where the problems with Dr Mkhize’s ‘observed plateau’ end.

The national rate of death further indicates that the virus continues to spread aggressively.

The final point to consider is that the Western Cape really has been shown to have peaked, on all the measures so far considered, including testing rates, case rates, positive rates and death rates.

Because the Western Cape really has peaked, if the national averages started to ‘plateau’ that would be consistent with exponential spread continuing elsewhere, with the Western Cape dip cancelling out the national incline to some extent.

Everyone wants to believe that Covid-19 has peaked nationally, but the data do not back that wish up.

We should not have to pretend to believe the NCCC’s half-truths in order to call for lockdown to end. Lockdown must end, not because ‘it worked’, but precisely because it has not worked and continues to do more harm than good.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. “We should not have to pretend to believe the NCCC’s half-truths in order to call for lockdown to end. Lockdown must end, not because ‘it worked’, but precisely because it has not worked and continues to do more harm than good.”

    Beautifully put. But I do think that the focus on ‘cases’ is misplaced. What is happening with the deaths? That’s the key figure. And where has ‘flu gone this year? News24 published an “article” saying we won’t have a ‘flu season this year for the first time in 36 years. I say “article” because it really wasn’t anything of substance – one of the poorest pieces of “journalism” to date. No facts, no balance, no analysis. It would be really informative if the IRR could look into this in great depth?

    I enjoy the IRR and the Daily Friend and the articles you publish. And thank you for allowing the general public to comment on your articles – it is often very enlightening when reading the reactions.

    • Thank you for the suggestion Pieter Roussouw. I frequently look at worldometers, an excellent source.

      I think OurWorldInData is more helpful in one regard. WorldOMeters indicates 572 deaths on July 22, a dramatic peak after which deaths are bound to seem like they are slowing. But this is more likely to be a recording error than an accurate reflection of what really happened. Hence I use OurWorldInData’s smoothed daily death rate which indicates death rate at its highest this week.

  2. Nothing the ANC government has done in its 30 years of plundering the countries resources for self enrichment has been beneficial to anyone outside of their chosen cabal. I certainly cannot recall anything that does not fit the above bill with clear blue water ‘s space.

    Nothing the ANC government has said during this same period has been believable and certainly most of what has been said has over time proved to be lies, deceit, fallacy, racially bias, aggressive and wishful thinking. with a good amount of it bordering on actual treason against the citizens en large.

    The entire narrative and action has been one of self service and aggrandizement of personality and the rewriting of a quite abysmal history, intent and purpose of organization one that daily appears to behave more akin that of a gangsters mob.

    NOTHING THEY EITHER SAY OR DO CAN OR SHOULD BE TAKEN AT FACE VALUE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. IT IS ALL CIRCUMSPECT.

    • You forget that what the ANC has been doing significantly benefits China and Russia. Never mind the few Indians who managed to wax palms here and there.

  3. Number of cases is meaningless, number of deaths is important. This is coming down. Number of cases in hospital is also key, and coming down. We have 4000 employees, our own testing program we have not reduced testing, and our positive cases have come down to 30% of the peak 3 weeks ago. The peak has passed. And yes, there have been no other diseases for 5 months, funny that….

  4. Thank you for your article Gabriel,

    I concur with your last paragraph.

    While your points about ‘decreased cases’ and testing and a national case number not useful as a guide for specific provinces are true, there is no evidence to suggest that the spread is still exponential anywhere in SA.

    Granted, cases are still increasing, but not exponentially. This can be gleaned by looking at actual deaths and hospital utilization.

    My take on the data is that Gauteng and the Western Cape have peaked at the level of deaths and ICU beds. I’m sure this will be a contentious idea, but my thoughts are that one should take advantage of this and encourage the spread of the Coronavirus amongst the younger population to the extent that our healthcare services are not overwhelmed.

    To your point of the NCCC providing ‘half truths’; who knows what their competence level and motivations are, but think for a minute that they are using NICD information that is still modeling 10x the amount of deaths now, than what is actually occurring.

    Useful link: https://www.pandata.org.za/

    • Bob Schuiling thank you.

      Unfortunately if you look at PANDA’s live data on the first page you will see their estimated “rolling death rate”, D0, is above 1. When the rate is above 1 that means exponential growth. On OurWorldInData the conclusion is similar, albeit smoother.

      Your idea about voluntary spread among youth is interesting. This might be what is de facto happening already, especially since transport went to 100% capacity.

  5. How many Pinocchios do we give Zweli Mkhize and the so-called department of health for this one? The idiots governing SA love their statistics so much that they remind me of the pigs from Animal Farm.

  6. Is spreading fast? Compared to what exactly?
    Is it not the number of tests that have increased?
    Has COVID-19 Testing Made the Problem Worse?

    Of course if you believe the numbers you are fed by the ANC, then you must be right. We will ignore the facts that the tests are not diagnostic in any event. Facts are very inconvenient.

    • The ‘problem’ for one, lies in the rt-PCR testing. Research the fact that NO ‘novel’ coronaviris has been proven (purified & isolated), subsequently bringing into question the existence of a disease called ‘covid19’.
      Official govrnmnt stats (2015-2017) reflects annual deaths due to ‘respiratory diseases’ at 40K-45K. Has anyone died from/because of ‘covid’? How do these supposed ‘covid’ deaths then tie in with the annual deaths from respiratory diseases?

  7. Anybody who believes that Government have been forthcoming with information on COVID is trying to fool themselves. There are no such thing as an honest government anywhere in the world. For the good of the “people” who is us.

    • Unfortunately most governments cannot be trusted. This is because the procedures we use for selecting possible candidates for government are defective in that they do not automatically eliminate those who are self-serving as opposed to other serving.

  8. All of this really means nothing, with due respect. At time of lockdown, we were told (a) hundreds of thousands will die and (b) because of this, we wil be under house arrest – but only for 2 weeks, so that the hospitals can prepare for the 100’s of 1000’s that were soon going to die.
    Well, point a never materialised (and all know that it will not materialise), and point b is now stretching to 5 months. And THAT is the point(s) that should be held up in front of our communist overlords’ and voters’ noses.

      • As a long term “climate denier” (a.k.a. ‘sceptic’) I am well aware of the problems with models. It has moved from “We’re all gonna die of heat in 20 (or 30, or 50) years!” to “We’re all gonna die of the virus next week!”. The screaming from the mainstream media is similar, and so are the government attitudes (it seems like the ONLY solution to “climate change” or “Covid” disaster is a 100% Socialist world government!). Sometimes I wonder if Donald Trump isn’t the ONLY realist politician in the West!

  9. Pure nonsensical reasoning, Gabriel, what is more important , life or livelihood?At least equally important to save the latter. Stop your doom prophecies. Sounds like you are on the side of that kopdoekteef, ndz.

  10. Since this disease has a significant portion of asymptomatic carriers, it simply does not matter what the daily rate is. What matters is the case fatality rate, which for South Africa is pushing 2% at this stage. So we barely have an epidemic. And when the summer comes, the Covid thing will most likely frizzle away very quickly.

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