Covid-19

Lockdown Level 3 for the whole country in drive to get devastated economy breathing again 

By Marianne Merten 25 May 2020
Caption
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: BABA JIYANE/GCIS)

All of South Africa moves to Covid-19 lockdown Level 3 on 1 June, including coronavirus hotspot metros such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela Bay, Buffalo City and eThekwini, although they were warned the government is keeping a close watch.

On Sunday, President Cyril Ramaposa made it clear it was always possible to reverse the easing of the lockdown back to Level 4 or even Level 5 if the spread of coronavirus is not contained. Hotspots, like the metros, are on two-week terms.

But given the economic devastation of the Covid-19 hard lockdown in Level 5 and Level 4, it was the pragmatic option to ease the whole country to Level 3. The metros are centres of economic productivity. 

Estimates, from economists, the National Treasury to the South African Reserve Bank and the International Monetary Fund, show between one to three million job losses and the contraction of an already ailing economy of between 5.8% to 6.1% due to the Covid-19 hard lockdown.

Tax collection boss Edward Kieswetter did not mince his words to lawmakers, telling them the Covid-19 hard lockdown would cost South Africa R285-billion.

But although the ban on cigarettes alone cost the national purse R664-million in lost sin taxes over 29 days in April, as parliamentarians have been told, this was a cost that was officially deemed acceptable. 

What Ramaphosa announced in his Sunday address to the nation was a significantly greater step in reopening economic activity than had been proposed in government’s risk-adjusted strategy document of 25 April.

All manufacturing, mining and construction can fully reopen from 1 June, alongside financial, professional and business services, including IT. Wholesale and retail trade will open, as will all spaza shops and informal traders.

Sectors previously opened, such as agriculture and food production, remain open. Restaurants, shisanyamas and such may open only for delivery, and now also collection of food.

Exercise is allowed anytime, anywhere – just not in groups. Domestic business air travel will be phased in. Announcements on this will be made as part of a swathe of details such as the conditions, times and days of sales of alcohol for home consumption

Crucially, the 8pm to 5am curfew that was introduced in lockdown Level 4 will also go. It was being challenged in court, as are details of the regulations for what has been described as one of the most draconian Covid-19 lockdowns worldwide.

But on Sunday, Ramaphosa maintained that government had wide support for the measures it had taken since declaring a national State of Disaster on 15 March following consultations with business, trade unions, opposition leaders, religious and traditional leaders and others.

“All agree that we acted appropriately and decisively to slow the spread of the virus. They are all united in their insistence that our central goal must be to save lives and protect livelihoods.”

DA interim leader John Steenhuisen said in a statement on Sunday there was no rational justification to extend the hard lockdown beyond the initial three weeks.

“While it is critical that we now save what can be saved in our economy, it must be said that by the time alert Level 3 comes into effect in a week’s time, it will be a full six weeks too late.”

The IFP’s Mkhuleko Hlengwa cautiously welcomed the reopening of the economy, but called for better civic education.

(W)e have not yet reached the eye of the storm and therefore we caution all South Africans not to think of the lockdown easing as a return to normalcy but rather the opposite, ramping up precautionary measures and staying safe.”

Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald said the reopening of the economy happened too slowly, with several irrational measures still in place.

“South Africa’s economy simply cannot afford a long and comprehensive lockdown and the government is taking too long to unlock it.

Labour federation Cosatu noted the downshifting of the lockdown to Level 3 with concern, saying that companies are failing to ensure employees’ health and safety, while many workers still ignored physical distancing and hygiene requirements.

We reiterate our position that it is critical to save both lives and livelihoods. It is critical for workers to get back to work to earn the money they need to take care of their families. But this must be done as carefully as possible,” said Cosatu in a statement which came out in support of its teachers’ affiliate Sadtu’s view that schools are not ready to reopen on 1 June.

On Sunday Ramaphosa put the onus on South Africans to determine how the Covid-19 pandemic will unfold in South Africa, emphasising, again, that people should regularly wash their hands and maintain physical distancing.

“As individuals, as families, as communities, it is you who will determine whether we experience the devastation that so many other countries have suffered, or whether we can spare our people, our society and our economy from the worst effects of this pandemic,” the president said. 

And while the rate of coronavirus infections is escalating, Ramaphosa said the “drastic containment measures” had put South Africa in a better position.

“As a result of the measures we imposed – and the sacrifices you made – we have managed to slow the rate of infection and prevent our health facilities from being overwhelmed.”

While Ramaphosa talked of coronavirus modeling, he steered away from numbers, unlike previous addresses to the nation where he talked of the need to save tens of thousands. 

But the numbers he did mention are telling.

Of the 842 Covid-19 patients in hospital, 128 are in intensive care units (ICUs). This is out of a total of 22,583 confirmed Covid-19 cases. A total of 429 people died.

Patient numbers are up since the Freedom Day weekend when 317 Covid-19 patients were in hospital, and 42 in ICUs, as South Africa had confirmed a total of 4,546 positive cases with the death toll at 87.

Tobacco industry challenges went up in smoke following concessions from the government on the continued manufacture and export of cigarettes and, according to some, the possibility of participating in drafting the regulations.

To prepare for the anticipated surge of patients – most models indicate the peak will come in late August into September – 20,000 hospital beds have been and continue to be repurposed as 27 field hospitals have been built. Volkswagen got a presidential mention here for building a field hospital of 4,000 beds in an unused factory in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro.

But the politics of the Covid-19 lockdown are never far away.

Ramaphosa sought to put out the fires of a rebuke and a call for an official investigation into Professor Glenda Gray, the Medical Research Council president who serves on the Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee, after she had publicly questioned some of the lockdown regulations. 

“We appreciate the diverse and sometimes challenging views of the scientists and health professionals in our country, which stimulate public debate and enrich our response,” said Ramaphosa after thanking the ministerial advisory committee.

The Covid-19 lockdown politics most sharply emerged over the cigarette ban.

It was widely anticipated after sustained lobbying led by Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who made her case for a tobacco ban to lockdown Level 1, not only to the National Coronavirus Command Council, but also to the ANC’s parliamentary caucus on Thursday, according to Bloomberg.

Tobacco industry challenges went up in smoke following concessions from the government on the continued manufacture and export of cigarettes and, according to some, the possibility of participating in drafting the regulations.

It remains to be seen whether on the back of the continued tobacco ban, the industry will now launch court action. 

That it would come down to a continued ban was signalled when the governing ANC issued a statement in support of Dlamini Zuma late on Saturday evening, on the eve of Ramaphosa’s address to the nation.

It is entirely unacceptable that there are evidently wedge drivers, who are in the service of certain businesses. They maliciously attack and undermine our leaders. This is particularly blatant with regards to the proposed continuing ban on the sale of cigarettes, tobacco-related products and alcohol. Those who do so show a callous lack of regard for the health of our citizens, and seem only interested in crass profiteering,” said the ANC, calling on Dlamini Zuma to “remain focused and to continue with the excellent work that she is doing as part of the collective”. 

The president, who has made social compacting a cornerstone of his administration, on Sunday called on everyone to do their bit.

“In meeting this grave challenge, we will move ahead as one people united in action and determined that we will surely overcome,” said Ramaphosa. “At this time, more than any other, we are reminded of the words of Madiba when he said: ‘It is now in your hands’.” DM

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