The national Covid-19 lockdown enforced over the last month is likely to have delayed the peak infection rate until September, but continuing to implement the harshest regulations would not have significantly helped the fight against the virus going forward, said Health Minister Zweli Mkhize in an online briefing on Tuesday evening (28 April).
The country is set to move from Level 5 to Level 4 of its coronavirus lockdown on Friday 1 May, with an expected 1.5 million people set to return to work. Mkhize said the decision, which still imposes many restrictions on daily life, was supported by modelling projections from a “consortium” of analysts.
“We are quite pleased with what has happened,” said Mkhize on the lockdown implemented over the last month.
The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in South Africa increased by 203 to 4,996 on Tuesday while three more deaths were recorded, taking the total number of fatalities to 93. Western Cape, with 1,870 confirmed cases, continues to be the epicentre of the virus, followed by Gauteng with 1,377 cases.
Mkhize said the lockdown had slowed the spread of the virus and avoided an “explosion” of Covid-19 cases. It bought time to prepare the health system to respond and allowed people to adapt to hygiene and physical distancing guidelines.
“The phased ease of the lockdown is to make sure that we change our behaviour,” he said.
Mkhize said the easing of lockdown regulations had a “very sound scientific basis”. There are a number of publicly available projections, but the minister said the government’s analysis showed there was little benefit in continuing with Level 5 of the lockdown.
“After five weeks, there was not a need for additional support for the lockdown. The model that was used had actually concluded that we need to start managing the lockdown as we move forward rather than continuing with it as it was,” said the minister.
He warned that heavier restrictions could be reimposed in areas where the virus continued to spread rapidly. Health MECs from Western Cape and Eastern Cape, where the number of cases has spiked recently, provided examples of what might be some of the challenges going forward.
Western Cape Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo said “bushfires” leading to the spread of the virus had emerged in supermarkets, factories, police stations and prisons. This spike had come from people accessing essential services, she said, and as more people return to work it would be crucial for employers to follow health guidelines.
Eastern Cape Health MEC Sindiswa Gomba said the virus had spread in the province because people had disregarded regulations, particularly around funerals.
Mkhize said it was difficult to predict the trajectory of the spread of Covid-19 as lockdown regulations are eased, but tougher measures could be implemented in hot spots where communities don’t adhere to the regulations.
“We don’t have a magic figure that we are looking at. We’re going to keep watching on the trends and then decide if there’s any extra intervention that is needed,” said the minister.
Announcing the easing of lockdown restrictions last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the nationwide lockdown was “probably the most effective means to contain the spread of the coronavirus” but it could not be sustained.
Mkhize said issues of food security and balancing the economy had to be prioritised alongside health concerns.
“All of these together are factors that come in in the context of how do we make sure that we contain the pandemic but at the same time make sure that people can continue to lead the kind of life that is sustainable,” said the minister.
The initial spread of the virus came from people who had been infected while travelling overseas and the government feared that it could spread beyond control through community transmissions if it wasn’t carefully controlled.
Mkhize suggested that fears of a rapid spread in communities had not been realised as the rates for positive tests between those who take themselves to hospital for testing and those who are referred for testing by community healthcare workers screening people across the country were similar.
“In other words, there’s a constant spread of infection across the two groups. It, therefore, says to us we have not seen what we would have also thought would be a problem of a rapid explosion, a rapid rise in the way that it had done in the beginning of the outbreak.” DM