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True Death Toll In South Africa May Be Closer To Double The Deaths Its Reported

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

South Africa has officially reported 53,000 deaths from COVID-19, but scientists believe the real death toll might easily surpass 100,000. It is a tragedy that has seemingly touched every South African and has left many questioning everything from their God to their own logic. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The Reverend Morailane Majoe leads me into his temple in Soweto, one of the big townships in South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

PERALTA: This past year has been incredibly trying. At times, religious services have been banned. Now they are limited. And then there are the deaths.

MORAILANE MAJOE: The other challenge is funerals because here in Soweto, almost every week, we are burying people.

PERALTA: This Methodist church used to hold funerals only on weekends, but at the peak of the pandemic, Majoe was holding funerals almost every day. He says his parishioners came here seeking answers. And amid all of this death, all he could tell them was to hold on.

MAJOE: They mustn't blame God. In trials and tribulations, God will always be with us, especially if you have faith.

PERALTA: Does it not shake your own faith to see this?

MAJOE: It does. It does. Yes. Yes. Yes. But at the same time, I've got to be strong.

PERALTA: South Africa has been one of the hardest hit countries in the world. The first COVID wave was bad, but the second was fueled by a more contagious variant.

Mia Malan is the editor-in-chief of the health publication Bhekisisa. She says at the end of last year, many South Africans didn't think COVID could kill many of them. But as the deaths mounted during the second wave, it seemed everyone knew someone who had been affected. Suddenly, she says...

MIA MALAN: It is something that kills people close to you. And that is a very emotional and personal thing.

PERALTA: And it messes with your judgement. It even happened to her. Malan spends her days poring over scientific research, talking to scientists. And one day, her friend ended up in the ICU. The family called Malan to say that they wanted to give her ivermectin, an antiparasitic.

MALAN: If someone asks me - just, like, it's not a friend - I would say, obviously, you're not going to use it. There's no evidence that this will work, right? And I was like, I don't know what you should do because there's nothing else.

PERALTA: For a moment, faced with death, everything she knew about the science about how ivermectin doesn't work on the coronavirus sort of evaporated.

MALAN: How do you tell a person who has - there's nothing that could work to not try the one last thing that they could.

PERALTA: In the end, they didn't give that medicine to her, but these agonizing decisions are ones many South Africans now have to make every day, especially because the government is predicting a potentially deadlier third wave.

For older South Africans, the closest parallel to what the country is going through today is the AIDS epidemic. Monageng Legae, who runs the Sopema funeral home, says even that wasn't this bad. He walks me through the mortuary, where one body is being prepared for burial. In one corner, dozens of new coffins are stacked on top of each other. He walks out to the garden in the rain, where a wall has been torn down to make space for a huge, refrigerated container.

MONAGENG LEGAE: If there's one thing that we opened this business for, it's to bury more. But the way that we were burying, it became scary. It became scary to the level that one thought that you might be next.

PERALTA: It was overwhelming. One family lost the father one day, the mother the next and then one of the kids. And Legae says he didn't know what to tell the rest of the family.

LEGAE: You can't begin to say, I know what you're going through. You don't.

PERALTA: But there is one thing he says that he kept coming back to - a philosophy taught to him by his ancestors.

LEGAE: You know, in South Africa, there's a saying that we say. (Non-English language spoken) - a person is a person among other people. So you are not an island.

PERALTA: It's the Ubuntu philosophy; I am because we are. The only way for one to survive hardship is for everyone to share the hardship.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAROLIN NO SONG, "CRYSTAL BALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.