CORONAVIRUS PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS

Details scant as Ramaphosa announces tweaking of Level 4

By Ferial Haffajee 14 May 2020
Caption
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation on Wednesday 13 May 2020. (Photo: GCIS)

Although all of South Africa will remain under Level 4 lockdown until the end of May, a couple of regulations are set to change.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, responding to a groundswell of criticism that has soured the national mood as South Africa hits almost 50 days of lockdown, acknowledged shortcomings by his government and promised amends. In addition, the lockdown will be loosened by the end of May with a more immediate opening of exercise and e-commerce

“We are determined and committed that all decisions will be taken in good faith and reasonable and rational and based on empirical evidence,” said Ramaphosa as lawyers limber up for a challenge to the constitutional composition of the National Coronavirus Command Council which was not mentioned once in his fifth national address on May 13. In his previous addresses, the council has had a starring role as the progenitor of a set of tough regulations under the State of National Disaster South Africa is in.

For the first time, Ramaphosa addressed state and interpersonal violence that has ridden in the slipstream of the coronavirus SARS-Cov-2’s path through South Africa. 

“Men have declared war on the women of South Africa,” said Ramaphosa as he noted increased levels of gender-based violence since the lockdown started and said that restrictions would be amended to ensure women did not become prisoners in their homes with abusive partners. 

“Implementation has been slow and enforcement has been inconsistent and too harsh,” said Ramaphosa. Eleven people died at the hands of police between March 27 and May 5, according to the police watchdog, IPID, which has also reported 376 investigations into police abuse over the same period. 

Ramaphosa responded to the growing view that the system of epidemic management (modelling, scenarios, testing numbers etc) has become opaque: “[We want to] transparently be able to impart information to the people of this country,” said the visibly exhausted president who sighed often and spoke with clearly strained vocal cords. 

While Ramaphosa has faced criticism from most leading commentators, a University of Johannesburg/HSRC report published on April 20 found that 73% of those polled believed he was doing a good job. (The police approval rate was 43% and local councillors scored only 25%).

This is Daily Maverick’s account of the Good, Bad and Ugly of Ramaphosa’s fifth address. 

The Good 

The lockdown has worked, said Ramaphosa as he reeled off a set of statistics to drive home his point. 

“Without the lockdown, at least 80,000 South Africans would have been infected and the death toll would be eight times higher.” He also paid condolences to the families of the 219 people who had died by May 13. At this point in their pandemics, Ramaphosa said, the US had recorded 22,000 deaths and the UK 19,000 deaths. 

“The purpose of the lockdown was to delay the spread of the virus and delay infections. We have been successful,” said Ramaphosa, registering the first sigh of many throughout his address.

He announced a more important statistic: the positivity rate had remained low and stable at 181 people/per million (compared with the US, UK, Spain, Italy and Singapore which had each notched up a positivity rate of between 2,400 and 4,600/million people at this point in their pandemics).

Fieldworkers had screened nine million people (15.7% of the population) and conducted nearly 370,000 tests by May 13. 

“It is the most public health mobilisation in the history of our country,” said Ramaphosa. A targeted door-to-door screening and testing campaign in hotspots is being white-boarded for the next phase.

This allowed him to announce a relaxation of the lockdown level from 4 to 3 in most of SA except the hotspots (see map) by the end of May. Before then, more parts of retail will be opened (it is the biggest employer), e-commerce restrictions are likely to be removed and there will be reduced restrictions on exercise. 

The Bad 

“If we lift the lockdown too abruptly and too quickly, we risk an unmanageable surge in infections,” said Ramaphosa. The president said that the lockdown had allowed the health system to get prepped for the surge: there are now an additional 25,000 hospital beds allocated and protective PPE gear is warehoused, although it is not yet sufficient. 

Responding to the flood of criticism about the pace and scale at which the economy had been opened, Ramaphosa said, “Some people have questioned whether our approach is at [the] expense of livelihood. Our strategic approach is [still] to save lives and preserve livelihoods.” He added that a third phase of the economic stimulus and relief package will be announced in weeks. The current package is estimated at 10% of GDP at R500-billion. 

It felt as if Ramaphosa had brought forward his announcement, and detail was thin on the ground. Negotiations have clearly started to determine what will be included in Level 3; earlier sketches by the Presidency and the National Coronavirus Command Council (a Cabinet sub-committee) showed that tobacco and alcohol sales will be permitted in this phase. Alcohol will only be available at off-sales and for limited periods in the week.

Education remains a big question mark and Ramaphosa provided no clarity on how schools and universities will start to return. This is one of the hot button issues that South Africans are most concerned about.  

While Level 3 provides for the return of some domestic air travel, Ramaphosa provided no indication of whether borders will be reopened for travel. Officially, Level 3 is defined as a period of “Moderate virus spread, with moderate [health system] readiness.” 

The Ugly (or realistic) 

Perhaps “ugly” is the wrong word here. Ramaphosa in his letter on Monday 11 said there is no going back to “normal” in 2020, a theme he returned to in his fourth address. 

“This new phase will require each of us to change our own behaviour in profound ways. There needs to be a fundamental shift in our thinking and in our way of life. The virus will still be present among us for a long time to come. Coronavirus will continue to be a global health threat for some time to come. The fight must be part of our daily lives.”

The hotspots are mostly cities, with Cape Town and Johannesburg, the two economic drivers, firmly in the Covid-19 red zones. If enhanced restrictions continue here and in other cities, it could mean that the rekindling of the economy could be slower, to the detriment of millions of workers and the six in 10 small and medium-sized enterprises regarded as being fragile and near-collapse. 

According to an early draft of how the levels will work: “The transition between levels of alert does not have to be linear. Levels may be skipped, and it may be necessary to return to a higher level based on epidemiological trends.” 

Even at Level 3, there are still severe restrictions on rights: no gatherings are likely to be permitted and places of gathering (including churches, restaurants and organised sports) are likely not to be allowed until much further in the epidemic’s ride through South Africa. Most Covid-19 scientists believe the peak is only likely in September. DM

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