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Officials in South Africa were trying to calm fears over the coronavirus outbreak after the country’s most-populated province said it was ready to bury more than a million people, AFP reports.

Excavators have this week sprung into action to dig long rows of graves in cemeteries throughout Gauteng, which includes the cities of Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria, for possible mass burials. After inspecting cemeteries in Pretoria, the provincial head of health, Bandile Masuku, said on Wednesday that Gauteng was preparing over 1.5m graves.

“All our municipalities have been putting up capacity and acquiring more in terms of the land that they’ll need for burial,” Masuku said.

His announcement triggered a wave of anxiety in the province, which has so far recorded 75,015 coronavirus cases and 478 deaths, overtaking the Western Cape province as the centre of the virus in South Africa.

A worker walks past freshly-dug graves at the Honingnestkrans cemetery, north of Pretoria, South Africa.

A worker walks past freshly-dug graves at the Honingnestkrans cemetery, north of Pretoria, South Africa. Photograph: Shiraaz Mohamed/AP

Authorities have since been scrambling to ease public fears that the province could see such an explosion in coronavirus-related deaths.

“The province does not have over a million already open, dug graves,” the provincial health department said in a statement released on Thursday.

“The [figure of] over a million graves refers to the collective capacity municipalities can take,” it said.

After the easing of a strict lockdown imposed in late March, the tally of coronavirus contaminations and deaths has begun to rise. More than 8,800 cases and 100 deaths were recorded on Wednesday. With more than 220,000 total infections and 3,600 deaths, South Africa is the most-affected country on the continent.

“The storm that we have consistently warned South Africans about is now arriving,” the health minister, Zweli Mkhize, told parliament on Wednesday.

“We are now at a point where it’s our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, close friends and comrades that are infected,” he said.

Despite field hospitals deployed by the military or NGOs, “bed capacity is still expected to be breached or overwhelmed in all the provinces”, Mkhize said.