With Covid-19 infections accelerating to 276,200 confirmed cases by the night of Sunday July 12, President Cyril Ramaphosa put the brakes on South Africa to stave off a runaway infection.
Booze sales are immediately banned, the curfew is back (from 9pm to 4am) and wearing masks is now mandatory.
“[I realise] this imposes unwelcome restrictions on peoples’ lives and mood,” said Ramaphosa as he let loose on careless citizens and residents.
“Some act without responsibility to respect and protect others. A number of people have taken to organising parties, having drinking sprees and walking in crowded spaces without masks. It is concerning that many are downplaying the seriousness of this virus,” said Ramaphosa.
“Seriously! [he said with incredulity to those who complained they did not have masks], even a T-shirt or a piece of clothing can be worn over your mouth.
“[There have been] several tragic instances where people organise social gatherings, including family gatherings or ‘after-tears’ [post-funeral gatherings], where people have contracted the virus and have died.”
Ramaphosa also revealed that the Covid-19 peak is going to hold South Africa in its grip for the rest of July and possibly all the way into September as different provinces peak at different times.
Why is the booze ban back? But taxis off the hook?
Bosses in the alcohol and related industries must have jumped out of their Sunday night seats as Ramaphosa announced an immediate ban on booze sales. Regulations have already been passed.
The alcohol industry has been on a corporate PR campaign placing ads and influencer campaigns to beg their customers to drink responsibly. It did not work.
“The resumption of alcohol sales has resulted in substantial pressure on [hospital] trauma units – [as a result of] accidents, [inter-personal] and other forms of [alcohol-related] trauma,” said Ramaphosa.
And the reason for the reimposition of a curfew is that “most of these and other traumas occur at night”.
The Medical Research Council’s Professor Charles Parry, who advises the government on the alcohol ban, said that an eight-week ban could decrease trauma admissions by 50,000 in South Africa, freeing up space for 12,900 Covid-19 patients in ICU (based on cost savings) or 18,000 patients in general care wards.
The taxi industry, which announced at the beginning of July that it would start a defiance campaign against the lockdown by filling up taxis to 100% (and not at the regulated 70%) has won the day. Local taxis can fill up at 100% but at long distances they can only load to 70%.
New regulations mean they must keep windows open and also manage compliance with mandatory mask-wearing.
This long-distance thumbs-up is a new concession to the industry too, as all other cross-provincial travel is still banned.
The winter of discontent just got more discontented as Eskom is also load shedding extensively – this soured the national mood as people were without power for much of the coldest weekend of the year.
People are dying – the storm is upon us
Government has taken steps to strengthen the lockdown rather than loosen it as deaths rise.
By Sunday, July 12, 4,079 people had died from Covid-19 and 1,000 of those had died just in the last week.
Three premiers have tested positive; AmaRharhabe Queen Noloyiso Sandile and North West MEC Gordon Kegakilwe both died in the past week.
While South Africa had delayed the surge for 120 days, infections are growing at over 12,000 a day (or 500 an hour) which can get us close to the worst-case scenario of modellers, said Ramaphosa.
If there is a glimmer of hope, then it is that SA’s case fatality rate – 1.5% – of Covid-19 is one of the lowest in the world, said Ramaphosa.
“This is compared to a global average case fatality rate of 4.4%,” said Ramaphosa. He emphasised, “The surge has arrived. The storm is upon us.”
Calling this the “gravest crisis in the history of our democracy”, Ramaphosa warned that: “the difficulties of the past few months are about to get significantly harder”, promising, “We will weather this storm. We will restore our country to health and prosperity.”
The measures put in place by Ramaphosa suggest Cabinet is panicking at the viral path but another line in his speech suggests a simpler answer. Modellers predict that South Africa may have between 40,000 and 50,000 deaths by the end of the year.
“We must make it our task to prove these projections wrong. We can and must change the cause of this pandemic in the country,” said Ramaphosa.
He acknowledged that “health facilities in several provinces are under intolerable strain – it is deeply worrying that we hear people are being turned away. We will strengthen the strategy to manage the peak.” There is also a shortage of 12,000 health workers.
Hospitals in Gauteng and Eastern Cape are taking the greatest strain and reports in the past week have revealed shortages of beds and that health worker infections are growing so high that they are compromising care.
Government is increasing general wards and critical care beds, freeing up ward capacity by delaying elective surgeries, increasing oxygen supplies (even if it means diverting supplies), and improving referrals from rural facilities to urban health centres.
One of the reasons hospitals are facing such problems is that testing is slow (due to international shortages of equipment and chemicals) as backlogs mean patients cannot be discharged or moved to the correct level of care. Ramaphosa said government was working on “reducing turnaround testing time to no more than 48 hours”.
People who refused to isolate were likely to face measures (including counselling and social worker assistance) to make them do so.
Auctions are back; parks reopen
While Ramaphosa shut down the booze industry, he has reopened the auction sector. And parks will reopen too, but not for gatherings (picnics, concerts, organised runs, walks etc).
But even though people are mixing and gathering, Ramaphosa said: “Family visits and other social activities are not allowed.”
While Ramaphosa’s previous addresses have been well received, the downcast early commentary suggested a much less popular landing of his sixth Covid-19 address.
Early commentary suggested that it lacked policy coherence, that the taxi industry was getting off easily and many people raised concerns about whether the lockdown period had been well-used if the health system was teetering so precariously.
In addition, South Africans have suffered a weekend of triple jeopardy: higher infections amidst a lockdown, intensifying load shedding and biting cold fronts that ripped across the country. DM