A Covid-19 disaster is threatening the small kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa after revelations that the government released people who had tested positive for the virus from early quarantine.
Government sources said this week that they had been sending Covid-19 patients home since last June over cost concerns.
It comes as the country, the last in Africa to record a case of the virus, saw a sharp increase in cases in recent weeks after large numbers of workers traveled home from South Africa for the Christmas holidays.
According to the latest figures from the National Covid-19 Secretariat (Nacosec), Lesotho had 4,137 cases as of Wednesday, up from 2,137 on December 1. The country has a population of around 2 million.
Moeketsi Majoro, the prime minister, has responded by imposing a curfew at 8pm, closing bars and clubs, banning sports and closing schools.
It came as South African immigration officials estimated that, as of Monday, more than 100 travelers a day from Lesotho were testing positive at border points.
The homeland affairs department said those who tested positive for the virus were turned away, except for South African nationals, who were in quarantine.
Of the roughly 130,000 people who have entered Lesotho from South Africa since the beginning of December, only 20% had clearance certificates from Covid and only about 39,000 were tested for the virus. Thousands more people are believed to have crossed the border illegally, unable to pay for the 800 rand (£ 38) Covid-19 test, and seven bodies were recovered from the Mohokare River in the last week of December. Police say there are still others missing.
On Wednesday, the police in South Africa stopped several minibuses transporting Basotho people without Covid-19 authorization certificates.
A Lesotho government source told Guardian authorities that they had stopped quarantining travelers because most of those sent to the facility showed no symptoms. He said it was decided that seriously ill patients would be sent to the hospital. However, hospitals are also overwhelmed.
“We eliminated the quarantine facilities in June because most of the people sent there were not even showing signs, thus putting pressure on our already reduced budget. It was decided that only those who were seriously ill would be sent to the hospital, ”said the source.
Nacosec’s risk communications manager, Baroane Phenethi, said that new quarantine facilities are now being identified.
“We never anticipate an increase. We are trying to identify quarantine facilities for those who are asymptomatic. Those who are visibly ill would be sent to hospitals, ”Phenethi said.
He warned of more deaths in the coming weeks. The Lesotho authorities have been overwhelmed by massive cross-border traffic with South Africa, where cases have also increased exponentially during the festive period.
“We anticipate an increase in cases and even deaths. Cases are increasing because people crossed [into Lesotho from South Africa] across illegal borders and are only being tested now when they return to South Africa. What’s worse is that the new variant of Covid-19 is more severe than the one we had during the first wave, ”Phenethi said.
Last week, the government said it would ensure that at least 200 people a day are tested for Covid-19 in each of the country’s 10 districts. Motlatsi Maqelepo, the Health Minister, said this would ensure 2,000 results a day.
However, a visit to the Maseru testing center at Makoanyane Primary School in Ha Leqele this week revealed that fewer than 100 people were being tested each day.
A health worker who wished to remain anonymous said the dire situation was getting worse. “The system is overwhelmed and cannot cope with the huge numbers. Of course, the minister said that 2000 daily results would be available, but that is ambitious.
“We have a colleague here at Queen Mamohato Memorial Hospital who was tested in December and the results were expected the next day. He received confirmation that he had Covid-19 after hospital authorities begged the lab to speed up the process on January 2. He died two days later.
“The situation is bad and we cannot cope.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism