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World

South Africa Leads The African Continent In COVID-19 Cases

NOEL KING, HOST:

South Africa has the highest number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases on the African continent. The country is at the tail end of a three-week lockdown. But cases continue to rise. And at a single hospital in the city of Durban, dozens of health workers were infected with the virus. NPR's Eyder Peralta has been following this from his base in Nairobi. And he's on the line with me now. Hi, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: So give me a sense of the situation in South Africa overall. It's a big country. What's happening?

PERALTA: Yeah. So so far, the country has reported more than 1,800 cases and 18 deaths. But the big debate right now is whether this lockdown will end as scheduled on April 16. President Cyril Ramaphosa is under intense pressure to end it because people are hurting. This has halted the South African economy, which, by the way, was already in recession before this pandemic. And yesterday, during a press briefing, Ramaphosa defended the lockdown, saying it was the right thing to do. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: So the lockdown, by all intents and purposes, has been one of those important measures that we have used to save lives.

PERALTA: It's painful, but necessary, he says.

KING: Well, do we have a sense of whether the measures are working? Like, are they flattening the curve there?

PERALTA: So some of the early numbers we've gotten tell us that it has flattened the curve. South Africa has taken inspiration from China and South Korea. They locked down very early. They have conducted more than 60,000 tests. And they're aggressively contact-tracing and quarantining. But epidemiologists I've spoken to worry that these measures will not be enough. Cases are still rising.

And just recently, South Africa started testing people who were not travelers or contacts of people with the virus. And the worry is that we'll start to see clusters of cases in the high-density, poor townships. One epidemiologist I spoke to told me that South Africa should continue trying to contain the virus. But they should also be preparing to deal with an onslaught.

KING: Let me ask you about this hospital that you've been reporting on. Forty-eight health workers infected - what does that say, more broadly, about what's happening in hospitals in the country?

PERALTA: So unions for health workers say that their members were not given personal protective equipment. That's a claim that the government denies. But this one hospital in Durban is not taking any more patients because the outbreak has hit their staff hard. And this is a problem across the country.

One of the unions actually took the government to court over PPE concerns. And this really also points to one of the big worries on the continent, that there is not enough PPE to keep health workers safe, that they will get sick or they will just stop showing up to work, which will make this pandemic much worse out here.

KING: What's happening - and I know it's a big question because it's a big continent. But what is happening continent-wide?

PERALTA: Yeah. So, I mean, there's a lot, including cases in South Sudan and Somalia, two countries that are among the least equipped to handle an epidemic.

KING: Yeah.

PERALTA: But on a lighter note, Noel, there is one thing that we are all talking about. Yesterday, Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, came on TV. And he chastised his citizens for exercising outside during their lockdown. He said they could do that inside. And he promised a video tutorial today. And just so you get the picture, Museveni is 75. And he's usually hanging out on his farm with his longhorns. So we're all excited. Will this exercise video - will it involve Lycra, maybe an '80s headband? Whatever it is, I am here for it...

KING: And I expect you to forward it (laughter).

PERALTA: ...And I will be watching Ugandan state TV tonight. (Laughter) I will.

KING: NPR's Eyder Peralta. Thanks, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "KERALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.