President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Monday that South Africa’s large land border posts would be closed until 15 February for all but a few exceptions, in an effort to address extreme congestion and high infection risk as thousands of people tried to return after the festive season.
Retail sales of alcohol remain banned and Ramaphosa said an announcement on the reopening of the schools could be expected soon.
He addressed the nation as South Africa saw 190,000 new coronavirus infections and 4,600 deaths in the first 11 days of 2021.
“Nearly half a year has passed since I spoke to you about the coronavirus storm that was sweeping across our nation. I said that the coronavirus storm is far fiercer and more destructive than any we have known before. We are now in the centre of the storm. We do not know how much longer it will last or how much worse it will get. But we know what we need to do to weather the storm. We know what we need to do to protect ourselves and those around us,” he said.
“One of the challenges that we have as the festive season draws to a close is the huge congestion at many of our land border posts. This has exposed many people to infection as they wait to be processed and it has been difficult to ensure that the health requirements for entry into South Africa are met, with many people arriving without proof of Covid-19 tests,” Ramaphosa said in an address to the nation.
“To reduce congestion and the high risk of transmission, Cabinet has decided that the 20 land ports of entry that are currently open will be closed until the 15th of February for general entry and departure,” he announced.
These include the six busiest border posts: Beitbridge, Lebombo, Maseru Bridge, Oshoek, Ficksburg and Kopfontein.
He said exceptions would be made for the transportation of fuel, cargo and goods, emergency medical attention for a life-threatening condition, the return of South African nationals, permanent residents or persons with other valid visas, diplomats, the departure of foreign nationals and daily commuters from neighbouring countries who attend school in South Africa.
“The pandemic in our country is now at its most devastating,” Ramaphosa said.
“The number of new infections, hospital admissions and deaths is higher now than it has ever been since the first case was recorded in our country in March 2020.
“As a proportion of the population, the province with the highest average number of cases over the last seven days is KwaZulu-Natal, followed by Western Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga. New infections in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape have grown fast and have now far exceeded the peak during the first wave. Infections in Gauteng are growing exponentially and are expected to increase further as more residents of Gauteng return to the province following the festive break,” he said.
Emerging information suggests that this new variant does not cause more severe illness than the original variants. But it does put more pressure on the health system because the cases increase so rapidly and the hospitals get full more quickly.
In November 2020 scientists identified a new variant of the coronavirus in South Africa, known as 501.V2. Ramaphosa said because this variant of the virus spreads much faster than the earlier variants, many more people had become infected in a far shorter space of time.
“Emerging information suggests that this new variant does not cause more severe illness than the original variants. But it does put more pressure on the health system because the cases increase so rapidly and the hospitals get full more quickly,” Ramaphosa added.
He said they were “encouraged” that the rate of new infections in the Eastern Cape, while still high, is lower now than it was in the middle of December.
He added that in several parts of the country hospital admissions were much higher now, with more than 15,000 people hospitalised with Covid-19 than during the first wave of infections that hit South Africa in the winter of 2020.
Ramaphosa added that about a third of hospitalised patients needed oxygen. “Therefore, there is an intensive focus in our health facilities on increasing oxygen supply and activating field hospital beds.”
He again implored South Africans to wear masks in public spaces and to avoid closed areas, crowded places and close contact with others.
In what Ramaphosa termed the biggest logistical operation in South Africa’s history, he further explained how the government intends to embark on a massive programme to vaccinate enough people to achieve herd immunity.
Ramaphosa also again singled out funerals as superspreader events.
“Many of those who are passing away were infected at funerals… Funerals have become a death trap for many of our people,” he said.
“Providing a fitting send-off for a departed loved one is deeply ingrained in all of us. There are certain rituals that we perform in line with our respective cultures and traditions; not just at the funeral itself but in the days leading up to the burial. But these are all things we simply cannot do at this time. There will be a time when we can go to the home of the deceased to pay our respects, and to sympathise properly with our neighbours, friends and relatives. But for now, it is best and safer to stay at home.”
He said that, based on the recommendations of the National Coronavirus Command Council, the Cabinet had decided to keep South Africa on adjusted Alert Level 3 until the number of infections and rate of transmission had subsided to safe levels, adding that most of the measures that were announced on 28 December 2020 would therefore remain in place.
He said most indoor and outdoor gatherings would not be permitted. This includes social gatherings, religious gatherings, political events, traditional council meetings and gatherings at sports grounds.
Health services in several parts of the country reported that the prohibition of alcohol sales had significantly reduced the number of trauma cases seen in our hospitals over the New Year period. It is vital that we continue to protect our health services at this crucial time.
“As before, this does not include funerals and other limited exceptions as detailed in the regulations, such as restaurants, museums and gyms.”
Other restrictions that remain in place are a limit of 50 people attending funerals, a curfew from 9pm to 5am and the ban on alcohol sales from retail outlets and the on-site consumption of alcohol.
“Health services in several parts of the country reported that the prohibition of alcohol sales had significantly reduced the number of trauma cases seen in our hospitals over the New Year period. It is vital that we continue to protect our health services at this crucial time.”
He added that all beaches, dams, lakes, rivers, public parks and public swimming pools in hotspot areas would be closed to the public and only parks and gardens with access control and entry limitations would remain open.
He also expressed his gratitude towards the religious community, saying that at “a time when people need both material and spiritual comfort, it is indeed unfortunate that the restrictions on religious and other gatherings have to remain”.
Ramaphosa said South Africa’s vaccination programme aimed to reach 40 million people as this is what they were advised would be needed for the country to obtain herd immunity.
“This will be the largest and most complex logistical undertaking in our country’s history. It will be far more extensive than our HIV treatment programme or even our national, provincial and local elections in terms of the number of people who have to be reached within a short space of time. It will require the active involvement of all spheres of government, all sectors of society and all citizens and residents of our country.”
He said South Africa expected to receive enough vaccine doses for 10% of the population through the World Health Organisation’s Covax programme, while further doses would be procured through the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team and through direct negotiations with vaccine developers and manufacturers.
“Given the massive global demand for vaccines and the vastly greater purchasing power of wealthier countries, we are exploring all avenues to get as many vaccine doses as soon as possible.
“While there are several promising negotiations with a number of different manufacturers that still need to be concluded, we have to date secured 20 million doses to be delivered mainly in the first half of the year.”
He reiterated that the 1.2 million frontline health workers would receive the first batch of vaccines, followed by essential workers such as teachers, police, municipal workers and other frontline personnel.
Further priority will be given to people in old age homes, shelters and prisons, people over 60 years of age and adults with comorbidities. It is planned to reach around 16 million people in this phase.
Yet vaccines have been used to eradicate diseases such as smallpox and polio. Children get vaccinated routinely against many diseases such as mumps, measles rubella, and travellers are often vaccinated against diseases like yellow fever.
“In Phase 3, with increased manufacturer supplies, we will then vaccinate the remaining adult population of approximately 22.5 million people,” he added.
Ramaphosa said an inclusive partnership had been formed between government, medical schemes and the private sector to support the acquisition, funding and distribution of vaccines.
“We see a vital role for organised labour, traditional leaders and the religious community in the dissemination of accurate information on vaccines and in ensuring optimal participation in the vaccine programme. We welcome the contributions made by civil society, academics and others towards the development of an effective national strategy, even when such contributions have been critical of government. We are integrating the full resources and capacity of our country into a single effort directed at making vaccines available.”
He said there was still much disinformation and many conspiracy theories being spread about the Covid-19 vaccines.
“Yet vaccines have been used to eradicate diseases such as smallpox and polio. Children get vaccinated routinely against many diseases such as mumps, measles rubella, and travellers are often vaccinated against diseases like yellow fever.”
Ramaphosa added that he himself was vaccinated against yellow fever a few months ago.
“Every vaccine that will be used in our programme will have to be approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority, which applies stringent scientific standards to ensure the safety and efficacy of any drug or treatment.”
He added that South Africa must not lose sight of the “need to act urgently and decisively to end the violence that men perpetrate against women and children”.
He said plans to implement social and behavioural change interventions were taking shape and these included a collaboration with several civil society formations to sensitise taxi drivers and taxi marshals on gender awareness, gender norms, toxic masculinity and gender-based violence in an effort to change behaviour.
He added that faith-based organisations were carving out a new role for religious leaders to assist survivors of gender-based violence from the time they report the incident until they are referred for further service, and faith activists were being trained to support women through the court process. DM/MC
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