South Africa's second wave of COVID-19 cases, which has already far outpaced its first, could be driven even higher by post-Christmas holiday homecoming and overcrowded funerals, the health minister said on Monday.
Africa's most industrialised nation has recorded 1.34 million cases of COVID-19 so far, and some 37,000 deaths. Daily new cases, which surged to a record high of 21,000 earlier this month, have since fallen to just over 12,000 a day -- around the level its first-wave peak back in July.
The pandemic and lockdowns to tackle it have damaged an economy that was already in recession and left millions dependent on food aid.
"We are worried that there will be a resurgence," Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said, in a televised address to media in KwaZulu-Natal province, where he was visiting hospitals.
The second wave has been driven by a new coronavirus variant first discovered in the Eastern Cape, called 501Y.V2 and believed to be more contagious than earlier versions.
"From the holidays, people are going to be moving back to Gauteng. (We fear) that's going to give us a huge resurgence," Mkhize said, referring to the province that includes the capital Pretoria and main commercial city Johannesburg.
South Africans tend to travel to the countryside and to beaches over Christmas, many not returning until mid-January.
He said President Cyril Ramaphosa's tougher lockdown restrictions, announced at the end of December and including an alcohol ban, had helped contain the spread. But he warned that funerals, which traditionally see big crowds, had become super-spreader events.
"We still get reports of ... funerals attended by a large number of people," instead of the 50 to which they are limited by COVID-19 regulations.
A brighter spot was the Western Cape, including Cape Town, where the first wave is thought to have started and which had seen numbers level for weeks.
"We are hoping that what we are seeing now is indications that it's going to start declining," Mkhize said.
He said the procurement of vaccines was going to plan.
South Africa plans to start vaccinating health workers next month, but analysts doubt it will be able to vaccinate significant numbers until much later in the year, given how slow it has been in signing deals to get doses.