Disaster declared as South Africa shuts down to fight Covid-19

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Rapport / Deon Raath)

‘It is true that we are facing a grave emergency, but if we act together, if we act decisively I am sure we will overcome,’ said President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday night.

As the number of South Africans who tested positive for Covid-19 rose to 61 on Sunday 15 March and the country saw its first cases of locally transmitted infections, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster in the country and imposed a travel ban on Italy, Iran, South Korea, Germany, Spain, the UK, the US and China as from 18 March.

Ramaphosa explained the travel ban was part of the government’s plan to combat the disease that has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation. 

The ban includes that all visas previously issued to foreign visitors will be cancelled. He added that foreigners who have visited high-risk countries in the past 21 days will also be refused visas. 

“Given the scale and speed with which the virus is spreading, no country is immune or will be spared its impact,” Ramaphosa said, adding that it was the gravest threat that South Africa has faced since the dawn of democracy. 

“Fellow South African, this is the most definitive Thuma Mina moment for our country. I have great trust that our people will respond positively to this common call for action. 

“This epidemic will pass, but it is up to us to determine how long it will last, how damaging it will be and how fast we will recover. It is true that we are facing a grave emergency, but if we act together, if we act decisively I am sure we will overcome. We have never been defeated by anyone event if we are united. United we are strong and divided we are weak and can be defeated,” Ramaphosa said.

He also announced that all visits to prisons are being suspended and that schools will close on Wednesday 18 March and will remain closed until after the Easter weekend. He said the minister of higher education, science and innovation was consulting with vice-chancellors of universities and colleges across the country and will soon be announcing measures for this sector. 

Ramaphosa added that a “comprehensive package of interventions” will be announced soon to mitigate the impact of the epidemic on the economy. 

“In addition to the impact that this pandemic will have on the health and well-being of our people, and the impact it will have on the day-to-day life of our society, Covid-19 will also have a significant and potentially lasting impact on our economy.  

“In the last few weeks, we have seen a dramatic decline in economic activity in our major trading partners, a sudden drop in international tourism and severe instability across all global markets. The anticipated effects of the decline in exports and tourist arrivals will be exacerbated by both an increase in infections and the measures we are required to take to contain the spread of the disease.” 

He explained that declaring a national state of disaster will enable SA to put a disaster management mechanism in place to focus on preventing the spread of the virus and to mitigate the severity of its impact. Ramaphosa will head up the response team. 

Ramaphosa strongly advised South Africans to refrain from travel to the European Union, the UK the US and other high-risk countries, including China, Iran and South Korea. He added that travel alerts will be regularly issued as the situation evolves. He said South Africans returning from high-risk countries will be placed in self-isolation or in quarantine. 

Ramaphosa added that returning South Africans who had visited countries that carry medium risk, like Portugal, Hong Kong and Singapore, will be expected to submit themselves to high-intensity screening. 

“All travellers will be expected to present themselves for testing.” 

Ramaphosa also said that testing at SA’s three big international airports, King Shaka International Airport in Durban, OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and Cape Town International Airport will be strengthened. 

Thirty-five of the 53 land ports (border posts) have been closed from Monday 16 March. Two of the eight seaports will be closed for passengers and crew changes.

All non-essential international travel has been prohibited for government officials and Ramaphosa added that all non-essential domestic travel, by air, rail, taxis and buses is being discouraged. 

The president also announced that gatherings of more than 100 people will be prohibited and this, he said, means that Human Rights Day celebrations, coming up on Saturday, and other large government events will be cancelled. 

He said where small gatherings are unavoidable, organisers will be required to implement extra hygiene measures. 

He called on all other economic sectors to implement hygiene control. 

Ramaphosa promised that testing and surveillance will be strengthened and that quarantine sites will be established in each metro. 

He also announced a public/private partnership to strengthen contact tracing where a patient tests positive. 

He added that the government will undertake a mass communication campaign to promote good hygiene practices. 

He called on all South Africans to change their behaviour and practise better hygiene habits, such as washing hands frequently with soap and water or hand sanitisers, covering their nose and mouth when they cough or sneeze and avoiding close contact with anyone exhibiting cold or flu symptoms. 

“We are not helpless. We have the knowledge and the expertise amongst us, the means and the resources to fight this disease.” 

He called for solidarity, understanding and compassion. 

“All the institutions of the state will be mobilised to lead this effort, but, if we are to succeed, every company, trade union, NGO, university, college, school, religious group and taxi association will need to play its part. 

“We thank those people who suspected they may have been exposed to the virus for coming forward to be tested and for taking measures – such as self-isolation – to prevent further transmission. 

“We thank the medical teams around the country who are leading our response and are putting the well-being of others ahead of the risks they face themselves.” 

Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu said the numbers mentioned in Ramaphosa’s speech came from the Health Department. 

However, earlier on Sunday, the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, announced that the total number of cases in South Africa was at 51 and that there still were no local infections. The number of cases was 13 than the previous day.

There were seven new cases in Gauteng, five in the Western Cape and one in KwaZulu-Natal. 

Mkhize added that they are aware that a Wits medical student had tested positive for Covid-19. 

“This test was conducted by a private laboratory. As previously announced by the minister of health, on receiving positive results from a private laboratory, the NICD will conduct a retest in order to confirm and validate the results before they are released. As we speak, the NICD is conducting a confirmatory test of this specimen. Once the result is available, a formal announcement will be made,” he said. At this stage, this case is not counted as one of the 51 cases.

All patients who tested positive had travel histories and had returned to South Africa from Iran, the UK, Austria, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany. DM


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