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South Africa Has One Of The World's Largest Caseloads Despite A Slow Pandemic Start

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

When the coronavirus first struck South Africa, it was a model for its early response to the pandemic. The country locked down early, hired thousands of health workers and flattened the curve. But now South Africa is reporting half a million cases, becoming the country with the fifth-largest caseload in the world. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE BACKING UP)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Funerals in South Africa used to take place from Thursday through Sunday. Now machines are digging graves every day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There are funerals every day. And they're mostly weekends - Saturday, Sunday. It's too much. So it's bad, really.

PERALTA: That is one of the grave diggers, who did not give his name because he's not authorized to speak to the press.

Journalist Mathilde Boussion recorded this scene at one of the biggest cemeteries in Johannesburg, where the number of people buried has doubled between June and July. It means seven days a week, nonstop, family and friends gather to say goodbye.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: The South African government has argued that with 8,000 dead, its death rate is among the lowest in the world. But in July, the country consistently reported more than 10,000 cases a day. It blew past Italy, the U.K. and Mexico in confirmed cases.

I feel like the world is looking at that curve. And they're saying, oh, my God. It's another Brazil. It's another U.S. Is it an unfair comparison to say...

SALIM ABDOOL KARIM: Completely unfair, yeah.

PERALTA: On the phone is Salim Abdool Karim, the top scientist advising the government.

KARIM: In South Africa, government takes this very seriously.

PERALTA: He says, indeed, the true number of deaths in South Africa is likely double the official number. But it could have been so much worse. Karim argues that despite the fact that South Africa was already in a recession when the pandemic started, it implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. It allowed the government, he says, to build field hospitals and stock up on oxygen and medicine. Even now at the peak of the country's epidemic, hospitals are not overwhelmed.

KARIM: I don't want to romanticize that or overstate the level of preparedness because we made a lot of mistakes. But the preparations we did are enabling us to save lives.

PERALTA: One mistake, he says, is that they moved too slowly to start educating South Africans on what they could do to stop the spread.

KARIM: We didn't move fast enough to transition people from being anxious and scared to feeling like they had the power to control their risk.

PERALTA: Another total lockdown is off the table, so the only way to flatten this curve, he says, is for South Africans to change their behavior. He says he takes hope from the AIDS epidemic. It was when South Africans started seeing their families and neighbors die that they took precautions.

KARIM: It's now not somebody telling you what to do. It becomes personal. You've now - firsthand, you have seen this. You've seen its impact.

PERALTA: During the last few days, cases have started declining. He hopes it's a sign South Africans have begun to take the pandemic personally.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.