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South African authorities are on “high alert” after three travellers, who came from India via Doha to Durban’s King Shaka International Airport, tested positive for Covid-19. Fortunately, the trio were not carriers of the B.1.617 variant that’s wreaking havoc in India right now. 

Two of the travellers were asymptomatic and are in isolation; the other is in isolation at a health facility. At the same time, crew members from an Indian bulk carrier cargo vessel docked at the port of Durban are being isolated after one of their number died. 

Health minister Zweli Mkhize confirmed on Wednesday that the double mutant variant has NOT been detected in South Africa. Phew! 

But just in case, the department of health is seeking advice from the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on how it can appropriately prevent the B.1.167 variant from entering South Africa. This is what we know so far: 

▪️ There are no direct flights from India. This, however, does not mean that Indian nationals cannot enter South Africa – travellers could come here via other countries, like the United Arab Emirates for example. 

▪️ Ports of entry are a major concern and are being dealt with urgently, Mkhize said. “Stringent containment procedures” are used to minimise the importation of Covid-19. 

▪️ Authorities are also on high alert over variants of concern from other countries. 

▪️ Some members of the MAC are calling for tighter travel restrictions from India, especially ahead of a possible third wave in South Africa, News24 reported. 

Although things have been pretty calm here, the health department has warned that there has been a significant increase in cases, especially in Gauteng, which could result in a third wave. And although Mkhize said South Africa is capable of dealing with the burden of new, harmful variants, it’s important to note how things are devastatingly panning out in India, whose government took its eye off the ball when their first wave wasn’t as bad as they feared.

What can we learn from India 

A few months ago, things were under control in India, but the virus was still around. Restrictions were eased but people became complacent. Non-pharmaceutical interventions were ignored and life went on as if normal. Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a massive election rally and religious festivals were attended by scores of people. It was the perfect recipe for disaster. The new variant was first detected in October but with India’s density, things eventually spiraled out of control. 

The double mutant variant, as scientists are calling it, contains genetic mutations found in two other variants of Covid-19. One part of the mutation makes it easy to transmit and the other makes it resistant to vaccines, but the evidence is not conclusive. The variant has also been detected in the UK. India’s dense population of 1.4 billion people makes it harder to control the spread of the virus. 

As we reported last week, at least 300 000 new infections are reported daily, the country is running out of oxygen supply, hospital beds and drugs. Hospitals are packed to capacity that people who desperately need help are being turned away. Scores of people are laying on the streets hoping to be helped and many of them end up taking their last breaths right there. 

The last rites of individuals are not even performed fully, as the New York Times’s New Delhi bureau chief describes: 

“Crematories are so full of bodies, it’s as if a war just happened. Fires burn around the clock. Many places are holding mass cremations, dozens at a time, and at night, in certain areas of New Delhi, the sky glows. Sickness and death are everywhere”

Obviously we don’t want to see this happening in South Africa and because new variants can emerge, as it already happened here, we need to take care. Mkhize has asked the nation to remain calm and adhere to health protocols, adding that measures will be taken to ensure we prevent importation while also maintaining economic activity. 

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 15 April 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates