Coronavirus

Health Minister cautiously optimistic about lockdown impact

By Estelle Ellis 1 April 2020

From left, Labour minister Thulas Nxesi, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula and Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize. (Photos: Gallo Images / Frennie Shivambu | Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius | Gallo Images / Brenton Geach) | Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)

On the fifth day of a national lockdown in South Africa, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize was cautiously optimistic that far-reaching measures implemented in terms of disaster legislation are having an impact in stopping the spread of the Covid-19 disease. In a separate briefing, the ministers for social development, labour, transport and international relations also unpacked changes and adjustments to disaster regulations and directives.

Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize said on Tuesday the country had significantly fewer infections than their original models of the coronavirus spreading indicated. “Lockdown is helpful,” he said.

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He said the latest number of positive cases in the country is 1,353 with an increase of 46 cases between Monday and Tuesday. He said they have done 42,000 tests on 39,500 patients — some had needed repeat testing.

The provincial breakdown, according to Mkhize, is 634 in Gauteng, 325 in the Western Cape, 179 in KwaZulu-Natal, 74 in the Free State, eight in North-West, 12 in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape, 14 in Limpopo and six in the Northern Cape. Ninety cases have not been allocated. 

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Mkhize said incomplete forms are slowing down contact tracing and they are working on a solution to stop this from happening.

He said laboratories remained under huge pressure and they were working hard to clean up backlogs.

“Some of the laboratories were not coping,” he said. “We moved some of the cases to the National Health Laboratory Services. We had cleared about 4,000 cases by the end of Friday,” he said. 

“We are watching to see that there is no backlog. We can have no lag,” he said.

“The rate of increase in the number of patients who are positive is not as high as initially anticipated. Our model is already showing that our numbers are lower than what we anticipated. We were thinking we would have 4,000 or 5,000 cases by now.”

He said he believed that timeous instructions to close the country’s airports had been a large factor in keeping the number of infections down.

Mkhize said the country has so far recorded five deaths from Covid-19 with the latest being that of John Hlangeni, 85, who was infected after attending a church gathering in Bloemfontein where several overseas guests who were infected with the virus were present. He said there had been one death in Gauteng. This patient, Mkhize said, had no history of international travel, but had been in Cape Town. He said there had been two deaths in KwaZulu-Natal where a 74-year old man from Ladysmith died and a 46-year-old woman from Umlazi, who suffered from chronic asthma and hypertension.

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Mkhize encouraged people to keep washing their hands and staying at home.

“The reduction in traffic from taxis and trains means many potential infections are avoided. It allows us some space to flatten the curve,” he said. 

Mkhize said he was concerned about the approaching winter months. He emphasised that they were working very hard to obtain enough personal protection equipment for medical personnel and were also preparing for a situation where they might need more hospital beds than currently available. 

Mkhize said the department had been confronted with a number of problems relating to cruise liners in the past few days.

In the case of the Queen Mary, the cruise liner set off from Australia with 1,226 people on board before restrictive regulations were introduced in South Africa. 

“By the time it reached our shores, we had emergency regulations in place and it wasn’t allowed to come in. It turned out that there were a number of passengers who had symptoms of Covid-19,” Mkhize said. He said 26 passengers were tested and all came up negative. He said the six South Africans on board were allowed to disembark and the ship was assisted with food. The South Africans will remain in quarantine for the next two weeks, Mkhize said.

He said there were two confirmed cases among passengers on two MSC cruises. One passenger was on a cruise that left on 28 February and returned on 2 March. The patient, from the Free State, later tested positive for the virus. Another one was on a cruise from 13-16 March.

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“We are looking for the passengers on these cruises and it will be good if they can help us with information,” he said.

Mkhize said that while 70% of positive cases were related to travel, he remained concerned over the local rate of infections.

“We must act strictly to reduce internal transmission. We are going to be picking up and escalating the testing and screening of patients. He said mobile testing vans will be sent to the provinces hardest hit by the virus: Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State.

Mkhize said they will also increase and even double their tracing teams. “We will use NGOs, health workers and nurses.” 

“We will be very targeted and go for the hotspots. We are plotting cases on a map. We can go into those areas and look for people with symptoms. This is a combat zone. We have had a reactive approach up to now. Now we want to become defensive,” he said.

He said they were also working around the clock to find a rapid test for the virus. 

“We must chart our own history in how we dealt with this thing. We must take all the lessons from the other countries. We will make a huge impact,” Mkhize said.

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Earlier on Tuesday Minister of Labour Thulas Nxesi announced a National Disaster Covid-19 benefit that the UIF has put in place as an instrument to mitigate the effects of worker layoffs during the lockdown. He said they were in advanced talks with the Banking Council to facilitate the payments.

“We are moving away from the traditional model of individual claims through Labour Centres – which would be simply overwhelmed. It would also turn Labour Centres into virus hubs as they would attract huge crowds,” he said.

He warned that the relief will be available for the month of April.

“Employers should have paid salaries for March.”

Nxesi said the department is starting to keep a record of employers who obtained fraudulent certificates to allow them to operate during lockdown.

“We will name and shame if the situation persists.”

He said the department had received hundreds of phone calls from workers reporting leave issues. He said employees reported being forced to take annual leave while others said that they were forced to take unpaid leave.

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“We do understand that in terms of the leave determination, employers can compel employees to take leave at any time as they deem fit. However, this is a unique situation that requires all of us to act in a manner that promotes social solidarity. As the department, we have issued a directive explaining the process to be followed and the kind of benefits employees will be entitled to under the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). 

“It is important though, that all parties understand that the UIF cannot deal with millions of individual claims – this would lead to delays in the processing of such claims. Rather we have put in place systems to pay out UIF benefits through companies, sectoral associations and bargaining councils. We are in the process of concluding such an agreement with the Textile Bargaining Council. We would also like to mention that discussions with the travel and tourism sector are underway,” he said.

He said that all UIF payouts would be strictly audited.

“This has led to some resistance from some employers. We all need to understand that these are public funds that by law have to be audited. We, therefore, shall insist on the implementation of proper governance in this regard. None of us have a choice in the matter,” Nxesi said.

He said UIF staff was available to assist in any way necessary and added that the department had established a call centre that would operate from Monday to Friday on 012 337 1997. He said they were considering extending the service to weekends. 

“We would like to express our sincere appreciation to the employers who have already demonstrated social responsibility and solidarity by not only paying workers in full during this lockdown, but also by making themselves available to assist us by acting as disbursing agents during this period,” Nxesi said.

He said that labour inspectors had found employers who were forcing their employees to work even though they are not an essential service.

“Employers are either unaware or choose to ignore the provisions of the national disaster legislation and regulations which only provide for essential services and production to continue at this time.”

Nxesi said this was a criminal offence, put employees at risk and went against the call to “stay at home.”

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He said employees who were forced to work at a business not providing an essential service must report the matter to the police and the Department of Labour. He said those reporting such practices would be protected as this was an unfair labour practice. 

He said labour inspectors were specifically following up in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape where a number of retail businesses and manufacturers had been closed down for failing to issue their staff with personal protective equipment and for not adhering to personal distancing.

The Minister of Small Business Development, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, said the online application for businesses who need debt relief and want to join the business growth scheme will be available from April 2. She said the online form is not yet ready. For now, people will have to use manual applications.

She said they were anticipating a turnaround time of seven working days at the most to process applications and five working days to disburse funds if approved. 

She also announced a support package for businesses in the informal sector which included a scheme aimed at spaza shop owners and also support packages for self-employed people and hawkers.

To qualify, she explained, spaza shop owners — and she included refugees and asylum seekers with valid papers — must own and manage their own shops, have a bank account and be registered for tax and the UIF. They must also have a permit to trade from the municipality and be willing to stock products made in South Africa. She said they would continue to support shops for the next 12 months.

Part of the conditions are that spaza shop owners must set up their establishments to allow for personal distancing and show that they can clean their counters after each customer is served. She said they will also not be allowed to serve poor-quality food and will not be allowed to sleep in their shops.

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Minister of Transport Fikile Mbalula said new rules for the taxi industry during lockdown will be announced on Wednesday.

He said while aviation in the country has slowed down considerably, flights will still be allowed for foreign nationals and South Africans requesting repatriation or evacuation under certain strict conditions. He said medical evacuations are also allowed, as are emergency landings and the transport of all air cargo. 

He said people could now apply for a permit to travel across provincial borders to attend a funeral, but no other travel between provinces is allowed.

Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor said the country had received significant commitments from Germany and China to assist in fighting the spread of the virus.

“We are also marshalling our own Africa emergency fund,” she said.

Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu said she took full responsibility for money running out in some centres during the social grant payouts that began on Monday.

She thanked South Africans who were helping the elderly and the disabled “without being organised by government”. She said the queues were long and people had not adhered to the rules of physical distancing on Monday, but on Tuesday, given wide support from the retail sector, both these aspects had improved significantly.

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Zulu said despite calls that Monday and Tuesday be reserved for the payment of old-age and disability grants, many came out to collect other grants.

She confirmed that three people died in the process of collecting their grants. The department would provide distress relief to their families.

Zulu said she was acutely aware that the lockdown was putting great strain on food security for many families.

“We are accrediting NPOs and NGOs who are supporting our communities,” she said. DM

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