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South Africa’s Omicron experience is hugely reassuring: cases peaked and tumbled in six weeks, illness was mild, hospitalization a fraction of earlier waves but mask-wearing remains mandatory and India’s massive political rallies are “definitely playing with fire”.

Karan Thapar

In an interview that will lift some of the panic in India about the third wave of Covid-19, fuelled by the Omicron variant, which is developing fast and furiously, the Chairperson of the South African Medical Association has said that her country’s experience suggests Omicron is vastly different to earlier variants of Coronavirus and nowhere near as troubling either in terms of the disease it causes or the impact on hospitalization, including ICUs and requirements for ventilators.

In a 22-minute interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire, Dr. Angelique Coetzee began by pointing out that in just two weeks, ending January 2, the 7-day average of daily cases in South Africa has more than halved. It was 19,400 on December 20, 14,391 on December 27 and just 8,414 on January the 2nd. Dr. Coetzee pointed out that this sharp decrease in both cases and hospitalization reflects the picture right across South Africa. It’s not limited to any one region such as Gauteng, where it all started.

This means that in just six weeks since November the 18th, when the first clinical diagnosis of Omicron was made, South Africa witnessed a furious escalation in cases and an equally fast tumbling down. It was, in other words, a dramatic rise and fall. (Incidentally, South Africa notified Omicron to the WHO on November 24. The first clinical diagnosis was made on November 18).

Although Dr. Coetzee did not have nationwide percentages of people infected who were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms or were seriously ill and needed hospitalization, she referred to her own surgery and personal experience to indicate that a mere fraction of patients she saw needed hospitalization. Of the 114 patients at her surgery only 3 were admitted to hospital. None of them required ventilation. Two were severely overweight with diabetes.

Dr. Coetzee also pointed out that the average stay in hospitals in South Africa during the Omicron wave was 2-3 days compared to 2-3 weeks under Beta and Delta.

Dr. Coetzee said many of the people in hospital in South Africa were incidentally discovered to be infected. In other words, they were admitted for other reasons but found to have Covid when tested out of caution on arrival.

Asked what percentage of people who became seriously ill with Omicron were unvaccinated, single-jabbed and double-jabbed, Dr. Coetzee said that 88% of people in ICUs in South Africa were unvaccinated.

Dr. Coetzee also pointed out that the death rate during the Omicron wave is a fraction of what it was earlier under Delta and Beta. The figures are in the interview.

Finally, Dr. Coetzee said that even though South Africa was past its worst, mask-wearing remains mandatory and that requirement has not been lifted. She said it was incumbent on the government to continue to ensure ventilation in public sector facilities and to also ensure that social distancing was maintained.

Finally, asked specifically about India’s massive political rallies, where hundreds of thousands gather outdoors, without social distancing and masks, Dr. Coetzee said this is “definitely playing with fire”. These will be super-spreader events, she said.

The above is a paraphrased precis of Dr. Angelique Coetzee’s interview to Karan Thapar for The Wire. Though recounted from memory it is not inaccurate. However, there is a lot more in the interview than has been covered by this precis. You must, therefore, see the interview to fully understand and appreciate why South Africa’s Omicron experience is hugely reassuring for India, where the third wave has just started and is increasing furiously.

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