Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize has outlined elements of South Africa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the nationwide lockdown has successfully pushed back the peak in infections to July.

In a digital interview for the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 Africa Media Briefing on Thursday, the Health Minister said government’s forecasts initially showed that South Africa would encounter a much higher infection rate than the country’s hospitals could endure.

“Our forecast indicated that the numbers we might be getting will be much more than the current health capacity, and therefore, we took a view that we need to take containment measures to flatten the curve,” Mkhize said.

“We took an approach that there should be a proactive approach to go out and find out the positive cases before they reach our hospitals and deal with them in time so that we don’t have to wait for the avalanche to descend on our health facilities.”

In its response, government has trained health workers to screen and test individuals at a community level.

“Government trained a lot of the health workers, primed them and prepared them to go out. We have deployed over 60,000 field workers who we call community health workers. These have been reinforced by various other non-governmental organisations to help us augment the process on the ground,” Mkhize said.

This has resulted in about six million people being screened for symptoms of the virus thus far.

“The infection has shifted from being imported cases to being largely internal transmissions. A massive testing programme has netted about 195,000 tests on individuals of which about 5,000 are positive.”

This puts South Africa’s rate of COVID-19 positivity between 2.5% and 3%.

Mkhize also described elements of the national lockdown which he believes helped slow the rate of infection.

“We put out a lockdown which basically assisted quite a bit. The lockdown was to stop international travels; ports of entries were closed; and large gatherings, sporting events, large meetings of more than 100 were stopped. We instituted basic cough hygiene, the use of masks and social distancing all over the country and encouraged people to stay at home,” he said.

“The first five weeks have proven to have assisted to deflect the exponential rise in the curve… we have seen a slightly different trajectory that has pushed the peak of the epidemic to around July

“This is going to be related to how we ease off the lockdown to take into account food security issues and the economic recovery.”