The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in South Africa had jumped to 554 by Tuesday morning, up from 402 the previous day, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced during a briefing on the national lockdown that will begin on Friday morning.
Mkhize, flanked by Cabinet members, was speaking at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation in Tshwane after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the previous evening that most South Africans would have to stay home during the lockdown, which will last at least 21 days, aimed at preventing the spread of the virus before it overwhelms the health system.
Ministers assured the country that workers in sectors performing essential services would be exempt from the lockdown. Ramaphosa said healthcare workers, emergency personnel, security service employees, and necessary employees in the food and agriculture, banking, power, water and telecommunications sectors would continue working.
Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel expanded the list. He said workers providing essential care for the elderly and sick, salary and human resources staff, emergency veterinarian services, core government employees and the media would continue working.
Ministers cautioned the public against panic buying and stockpiling supplies.
“The country has sufficient food supplies. Panic buying will only cause disruption and inconvenience in the food system,” said Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza.
Patel added: “We appeal to our people to remain calm. We have supply lines. The whole of the food production, from agriculture to the factories, to the transport system to the supermarkets will all be exempt from the lockdown so we can ensure the smooth supply of food. The only problem comes when people rush to the shops to stock up because then there are temporary shortages.”
He said people should try to limit visits to shopping centres and go only to buy food and basic goods.
Didiza said R1.2-billion had been set aside to ensure food production continued and the Land Bank has R100-million to assist farmers who have loans from the institution and whose businesses are in distress.
Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi said workers who become ill while continuing to work can take their sick or annual leave and could claim from the Compensation Fund. His department is negotiating conditions for a new type of special leave at Nedlac, he said.
Nxesi said the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) will compensate workers with existing benefits for illness, reduced work time and unemployment and the government is also seeking to provide compensation through a new national disaster benefit scheme. He would not mention figures so as not to raise expectations.
While workers in the formal sector who are affected by the lockdown can claim from the UIF, those in the informal sector cannot.
“Unfortunately, from our side we can’t be able to deal with this matter because it’s beyond this particular legislation,” said Nxesi.
Small Business Development Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said informal businesses and employees in the sector would not be covered by assistance packages that have been put in place but, as Ramaphosa announced on Monday, a safety net is being developed to support such workers.
Ntshavheni dispelled rumours that only companies that are at least 50% black-owned would receive support from the government as the Covid-19 outbreak continues to weaken the country’s already beleaguered economy.
She said small, medium and micro-sized enterprises (SMMEs) in distress would be supported through the SMME Relief Finance Scheme and Small Enterprise Finance Agency (Sefa).
She said her department was pushing for a 14-day turnaround time from the moment qualifying businesses lodge applications for support.
The government’s new Solidarity Fund, established for businesses and individuals to donate to, to support government efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19, currently has R150-million in seed funding, comprising R100-million from Treasury and R50-million from the National Lottery. Patel said businesses have already reached out to donate further.
The trade, industry and competition minister warned businesses against raising their prices on essential goods and said 11 companies are already being investigated after consumers lodged complaints on a government hotline.
The government published regulations last week regarding the Competition Act allowing private healthcare workers to collaborate to fight Covid-19 and Patel said similar regulations would be published for the banks and shopping centres.
Banks, he said, would be able to co-ordinate payment holidays and debt relief programmes for businesses in distress, limit asset possession and provide additional credit lines. Malls can also co-ordinate to suspend rent payments, provide rental discounts and limit evictions.
“Simply put, this is a vicious cycle and without quickly, fully identifying confirmed cases and their contacts, the spread of the virus will keep rising,” said Mkhize.
He said screening and testing for Covid-19 would focus on densely populated areas during the lockdown to curtail further local transmissions. He said 12,815 tests had been conducted, the majority, around 10,000, in private laboratories.
“How long will the outbreak last? I don’t think anybody can ever tell us that the pattern for every country is not the same and all of us are still learning,” said the health minister.
“Once our whole programme tightens up strongly and we expect that probably if there should be a change, we should probably start seeing it not next week but probably towards the end of the second week or maybe the third week.” DM