President Cyril Ramaphosa has been criticised for introducing harsher regulations to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and free up resources to treat coronavirus patients at hospitals while allowing potentially high-risk economic and social activities to continue as the government battles to balance the need to save both lives and the economy.
On Sunday evening, Ramaphosa announced amendments to Level 3 of the lockdown, including the immediate ban on the sale of alcohol, a curfew from 9pm to 4am, and the introduction of criminal charges for public transport operators, building managers, employers, school principals and store owners who fail to ensure people wear masks.
Covid-19 has spread rapidly under Level 3 of the lockdown, implemented on 1 June, particularly in Gauteng and Eastern Cape. As of Sunday evening, 276,200 Covid-19 cases had been confirmed in the country, resulting in over 4,000 deaths.
In a press conference on Monday, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said the resumption of alcohol sales under Level 3 led to a decrease in adherence to physical distancing and hygiene guidelines and burdened trauma units.
“It means, in itself the way it socially brings people together it discourages people from using masks, social distancing, sanitising but more importantly, when people have taken liquor they get drunk, they indulge in irresponsible behaviour, some of them, some of them become violent, start fighting, killing each other or even at home they become violent,” she said.
“Those people have to be rushed to hospital, who are either injured in car accidents or people who are injured in the fights, they get taken to hospital and they become an emergency, which means then they are now taking space that should be used to look after people who are ill and people who have Covid.”
The curfew has been imposed as such behaviour often takes place at night. Workers who need to travel during the curfew will be required to carry a permit.
Associate Professor Benjamin TH Smart from the University of Johannesburg said the ban on alcohol sales was a sensible way to reduce admissions in hospital trauma units.
“Many South Africans will feel aggrieved on the grounds that they drink responsibly, but ultimately, the ban will save many lives, and those angry South Africans should be upset with the irresponsible drinkers and not the President,” he said.
Professor Alex van den Heever from the Wits School of Governance told Radio 702 that the ban could free up healthcare resources but its efficacy will depend on whether the public finds ways to circumvent the regulations through the illicit market, as has happened regarding the ban on tobacco sales.
“To the extent that the alcohol sort of prohibition, so to speak, can be maintained, at this point it will be beneficial but I would say it’s unlikely to last very long as an intervention,” said Van den Heever.
The National Liquor Traders Council, which represents over 50,000 taverns across the country, said the alcohol sales ban could “spell disaster” for township businesses and boost the illicit economy. It estimates that 10,000 taverns have closed during the lockdown and another 12,500 are vulnerable.
Justice Minister Ronald Lamola said the National Coronavirus Command Council based its decision on research. The Medical Research Council has estimated that banning the sale of alcohol for eight weeks could free up 12,900 beds for Covid-19 patients in ICU wards.
It’s estimated that in Gauteng alone, the health system will need to more than double the number of available beds to cope with the Covid-19 peak.
EFF spokesperson Vuyani Pambo criticised the government’s decision to resume alcohol sales on June 1. “All logic pointed out that to sell alcohol would have a negative effect on our fragile health sector, yet this was entirely ignored in the interests of profit.
“Ramaphosa continues to ignore basic logic and insists on maintaining an open economy and social activities despite the looming death toll and overwhelmed hospitals,” he said in a statement.
DA interim leader John Steenhuisen claimed the government had failed to prepare the health system for the expected demand. “Government’s reintroduction of an alcohol ban and a night-time curfew is simply to distract from the real issue: the utter failure to build treatment and testing capacity,” he said.
“Instead of effective testing regimes, quarantine facilities, hospital beds, oxygen and caregivers as infections spike, there is the usual corruption and scapegoating,” Steenhuisen continued.
“The argument that alcohol trauma is putting the system under pressure is simply an excuse and coverup for this failure.”
Dlamini Zuma emphasised the need to balance saving lives with saving livelihoods, avoiding overwhelming the healthcare system while ensuring people could still make a living, but the government continues to face criticism for apparent regulatory contradictions.
Van den Heever questioned why Ramaphosa didn’t act on “superspreader events” such as funerals, where 50 people are permitted, and religious gatherings, which could be regulated further without cost to the economy.
“I’m sure there will be frustration over apparent inconsistencies,” said Smart.
“For example, the continued ban on ‘family gatherings’ looks inconsistent with opening restaurants. It means that families can gather in restaurants (where risk of infection is higher) but not at home.
“Of course, there are economic reasons for keeping businesses open that I am fully on board with, but I think consistency (from a public health perspective) should be something the government strives for,” he added.
Dlamini Zuma said visiting family members remained prohibited as relatives let their guard down together and hug, and younger people risk exposing the at-risk elderly.
Lamola said, “In the house or in the family, it is an unregulated space where anything is happening.”
One of the most controversial regulations Ramaphosa announced relates to taxis. Taxis can now operate at 100% capacity on local routes and long-distance taxis have been allowed to resume operating at 70% capacity. All passengers must wear masks and windows must be opened for ventilation.
Dlamini Zuma said taxis are the backbone of the country’s public transportation system, but she said Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula would explain the rationale for the regulations when he briefs the media on Tuesday morning. DM