The first case of coronavirus in South Africa was confirmed on 5 March. South Africa had been observing the spread of the virus in other parts of the world, and was prepared.
In the weeks that followed, we took swift and decisive action to control the epidemic. On 15 March, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the National State of Disaster, with restrictions imposed on gatherings, schools and travel. On 26 March, we entered a full national lockdown.
As the president said at the time:
“We will prioritise the lives and livelihoods of our people above all else, and will use all of the measures that are within our power to protect them from the economic consequences of this pandemic.
“In the days, weeks and months ahead our resolve, our resourcefulness and our unity as a nation will be tested as never before.”
Indeed, our resolve has been tested since then. The evidence is clear that the lockdown has worked, in large part because ordinary South Africans from all walks of life have understood its importance and obeyed its restrictions. The lockdown was never intended to eradicate the virus, but rather to flatten the curve and reduce the rate of transmission so that the country could provide care to those who need it.
While other countries have suffered an exponential and uncontrolled spike in infections, overwhelming even advanced health systems, we have managed to delay the spread of the virus.
One of our great advantages has been the depth of expertise that we have in our country, including the epidemiologists, doctors and public health experts who have worked with the government to craft our response. Throughout this crisis, the government has listened to the experts and the evidence with the deference they deserve.
But there is no doubt that the measures we have taken have required enormous sacrifices from all of us. After more than five weeks, our patience is wearing thin, and frustration is growing.
In the past few days, many have called for a more rapid opening of the economy, and for restrictions to be eased even further. Some have questioned whether the right to life should outweigh the right to a livelihood. Others still have sought to question the constitutionality and validity of the decisions being taken to protect them and the country as a whole.
Government has been resolute that there should be no trade-off between lives and livelihoods. This is why President Ramaphosa announced a historic economic relief package to provide over R800-billion in support to families and businesses across South Africa.
This is also why Cabinet has taken the decision to move the country to lockdown Level 4, which means that while the country remains in lockdown, millions of South Africans will be able to go to work under carefully controlled conditions. We are able to purchase more items that we need, including winter clothing, stationery and office equipment. We can order food for delivery to our homes. We can go outside and exercise as we wake up each morning.
These steps will ensure that as much normal activity can resume as possible, without risking a resurgence of the virus. If the rate of infection were to increase again – if we were to lose control of the epidemic – all of the sacrifices that we have made so far would be in vain, and the consequences for our economy would be even more severe.
This gradual approach to easing restrictions is at the heart of the risk-adjusted strategy announced by the president last week. It is informed by data, expert advice, and the best evidence that we have.
Above all, our imperative remains – and will always remain – to protect and safeguard the lives of the South African people.
The public debate regarding a number of the restrictions imposed at Level 4 reflects the vibrant and free democracy that we are.
However, the claim that these restrictions are arbitrary or capricious is without any basis. The regulations were drafted through a careful consultation process, and after lengthy and intensive discussion by Cabinet.
The prohibition of tobacco products is one example. The advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is that the use of tobacco products poses a serious risk of transmission, and may weaken those who are infected with the virus. These issues were raised by many stakeholders between the initial discussion by Cabinet and the final publication of the regulations.
On other issues, such as exercise, government’s wish to relax some restrictions has to be balanced against the ease with which this can be enforced. Limiting the time allowed for exercise allows the security forces to carry out their job more effectively, and reduces ambiguity. Many other countries, including Ireland, Spain, France and Italy, have imposed similar restrictions on exercise for the same reasons.
Whether you agree with these restrictions or not, they were not made arbitrarily, or without a collective decision by Cabinet. And they are certainly not designed to limit freedoms unnecessarily.
South Africa is a constitutional democracy, and has a government that is committed to act based on consultation and science.
As we go forward, we should recognise the need for South Africans to unite against a common invisible enemy. In the words of President Ramaphosa, unity is a process, it is never going to happen overnight.
We should not allow our disagreements on issues to outweigh our collective commitment to fighting this virus together, nor allow lone voices in the wilderness to define our collective struggle.
We should be proud of our response as a country so far, and cautious of the dangers that still lie ahead.
Navigating this global pandemic requires difficult choices to be made in a complex and fast-changing environment.
Not everyone will agree with each choice that we make. But, as the president has said, we will be guided by the best available evidence, every step of the way. DM