Twenty-six years into South Africa’s still fragile democracy, a global health crisis breaks out, causing mayhem and uncertainty. Millions are infected and many more affected, leading to a staggering loss of life and untold economic and social disruptions.

Known as Covid-19, the highly contagious and potentially severe disease is a new strain of coronavirus, part of the family of viruses that causes respiratory illness, including the common cold. The symptoms associated with Covid-19 vary, but the most common are flu-like symptoms, including fever, a dry cough and tiredness, as well as headaches, aches and pains, and loss of smell or taste.

After the first reported cases of the virus in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, Covid-19 quickly spreads across the world. In March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declares it a pandemic: a global epidemic.

Worldwide, but significantly in South Africa, Covid-19 presents unprecedented challenges to the health system, food security, the economy, education, tourism, and the social and psychological welfare of many people.

The first South African case of Covid-19 was reported on 5 March 2020. Ten days later, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster. A 21-day national lockdown was implemented on 27 March, intended to curb the spread of the virus and allow time to organise medical and social infrastructure to limit the virus’s impact. Hours after the lockdown began, the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, announced the country’s first Covid-19 deaths, and revealed that confirmed cases had surpassed 1 000.

Although there was widespread unease at the lockdown’s severe restrictions it did seem to bear a measure of success, flattening the curve and keeping the death rate low.

At the end of the first wave, restrictions were eased, resulting in an increase in local transmissions. On 9 December, the Health Minister announced that the country had entered a second wave. Later that month, South African scientists announced the detection of a new, faster-spreading variant of the virus, 501Y.V2. A sharp spike in new infections followed, and by the end of the month the country reached the sombre milestone of 1 million cumulative cases. On 3 March 2021, South Africa had over 1.5 million cumulative coronavirus infections and 50 366 reported deaths.

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