Throughout this devastating pandemic, the Western Cape government has focused on getting the balance right: trying to save both lives and livelihoods. We have done everything we can in the most difficult of circumstances to provide a world-class health response that delivers life-saving healthcare to every person who needs it when they need it.
During this time, we have also not been afraid to fight for jobs because having a job is not just a “nice-to-have”. For many people in the Western Cape, it is the difference between putting food on the table and starving.
In effect, we have been responding to two pandemics. One caused by the Covid-19 virus, and the other by growing poverty, unemployment and hunger. Our position remains that both need to be fought with passion and courage because both cost lives — now and in the future.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced additional restrictions for the Western Cape and South Africa last month, taking us to an adjusted alert Level 3, I supported the announcement as a necessary last resort. At the time, the Western Cape was experiencing a significant surge of new infections and hospitalisations, caused by this new highly transmissible variant of Covid-19.
To put it simply, because more people were being infected with Covid-19 at a faster rate, more people were arriving at our healthcare facilities over a shorter period of time. This surge put an enormous burden on our healthcare workers at a time when healthcare worker infections were on the increase at a faster rate.
The surge was also taking place during our festive season period, when more people come together to socialise with family and friends, and when more people arrive at our trauma units as a result of alcohol-related harms.
This was creating a perfect storm that at that moment shifted the balance we had fought hard for. We needed to get the balance right again by helping our healthcare system.
In supporting some of these restrictions (the Western Cape was against the beach ban from the start as it was not based on good scientific advice), we were clear that they needed to be reviewed after 14 days, and every seven days thereafter, based on evidence and data.
It has now been 21 days since that announcement was made and we have to reconsider our position based on the data and evidence available to us. In doing so, we need to ask ourselves: is the balance in saving both lives and livelihoods being achieved? The answer to this question is no.
Key job-creating sectors of our economy are buckling and shedding jobs at a time when we have passed our second wave peak and our platform is successfully responding to the pandemic.
Our health platform response demonstrates this:
- The Western Cape’s surge has ended, and our active cases are on the decline. There has been a 19% drop in Metro cases and an 18% decline in rural cases;
- Oxygen usage at our facilities has started to flatten and decline;
- Our test positivity rate has been on a sustained decline now for more than two weeks. This is a clear and robust measure that demonstrates that we are leaving our peak;
- Our reproductive number for infection is now below 1. This is another measure that demonstrates decline and that we are leaving our peak;
- The surge of hospitalisations has ended, and there is stabilisation. We continue to have capacity to respond and no person has been denied treatment at our facilities over this time; and
- The infection rate among healthcare workers has declined.
At the same time, the Western Cape has brought online capacity to ensure care for every person who needs it:
- All 200 beds at the Mitchells Plain Hospital of Hope field hospital have been commissioned. Not all of these beds have been used;
- Of the 136 additional beds that could have been brought online, should more be needed, we have only needed to bring 20 beds online because of the hospital stabilisation;
- Our additional supply of oxygen has meant that all our facilities have adequate oxygen, and one of the five tankers has been returned;
- We have sufficient PPE supplies for healthcare workers and other frontline staff; and
- We have now made offers to 529 healthcare workers to increase healthcare worker capacity and 81 have started already.
The evidence and data are clear that the Western Cape has passed its peak, and while there is pressure, we have adequate capacity and resources to provide care to every person who needs it.
On the other side of the equation, the data is clearly pointing to serious economic challenges in the Western Cape that are costing jobs and hurting the most vulnerable in our communities:
- The first two weeks of the latest alcohol ban is estimated to have cost the Western Cape economy R1-billion. This has impacted 1,893 direct jobs in the retail sector and 905 induced and indirect jobs across the value chain resulting in 2,798 jobs being compromised;
- If the ban is to continue for a full month, it will end up costing the Western Cape’s economy R2-billion. This would then impact 5,596 jobs;
- Nearly 30% of restaurants surveyed have closed temporarily or permanently, based on data from the Restaurant Association of South Africa. There is an inflection point where shortened operating hours do not make business sense to operate, resulting in workers losing their jobs;
- Wine grapes represent 50.3% of the 181,233ha under production in the Western Cape, and the replacement value of these wine grapes amount to R33.94-billion;
- The Western Cape’s Department of Agriculture estimates that 45,610 people work in the primary production side of the wine industry and it supports 228,053 people; and
- Based on our tourism multiplier model which has been used in the Western Cape’s research for many years, the continued beach ban is costing the sector over R120-million per month. Some 12.8% of the annual eight million visitors indicate beach visits as their top activity.
When this significant impact on jobs in the Western Cape is considered in relation to our latest health data it becomes clear that a change to existing restrictions is needed in the Western Cape. This needs to be done in a safe way, that does not undermine the health response, and which is based on common sense.
I have therefore written to the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, to request the following changes to restrictions in the Western Cape, as a matter of urgency:
- The ban on beaches and other public spaces must be lifted in our province. Open spaces with good ventilation are safer and they do not provide a high risk. Furthermore, the festive season is over and people are back at work;
- The curfew be changed to 11pm to 4am. The current curfew makes it impossible for restaurants to provide a dinner service and this sector is buckling as a result;
- A closing time for 10pm for establishments, that will allow for staff to get home before curfew begins;
- Alcohol sales be permitted offsite from Monday to Thursday, and not permitted on the weekend;
- Alcohol sales be permitted at wine farms on the weekend, as this is the time when most visitors come to wine farms. Such sales are critical for the survival of wine tourism in the Western Cape; and
- Onsite alcohol consumption be allowed. If restaurants cannot sell alcohol with dinner service, they will not remain profitable and will be forced to close. This will result in many job losses.
As is clear from the above, we are not requesting a complete lifting of all restrictions as it is important to get the balance right as we continue to exit our peak. In particular, the number of people being permitted to gather should not be relaxed at this point, as there is clear evidence that the greater the number of people gathering in an enclosed space, the greater the risk of infection.
We will continue to monitor our data on a weekly basis and should there be evidence to support additional restrictions being relaxed, we will do so without hesitation.
On alcohol, our government fully acknowledges that the restrictions helped reduce alcohol-related harms over the past two weeks. Over New Year’s Eve in particular, when we usually have full trauma wards, we had a relatively quiet evening. This did help our healthcare workers during an unprecedented surge caused by this new more infectious variant.
With that said, it is simply not possible to ban alcohol indefinitely. As set out above, the sector simply employs too many people and supports too many households for it to be shut down. It is also critical for our tourism and hospitality sector which employs hundreds of thousands of people in our province.
The Western Cape is continuing, as quickly as possible, with the amendment to the Western Cape Liquor Act, to address alcohol-related harms in a sustainable manner because it is clear our deadly relationship with alcohol needs to change urgently.
Finally, it is important that we do not let our foot off the pedal and that we continue to stay safe.
While we are seeing the Western Cape exit its peak, there are still many people who are infected. We, therefore, have to continue to change our behaviour until such time as the pandemic is over.
So please wear a clean cloth mask, covering your nose and mouth, when out in public or with people outside your household; keep your hands clean by washing them regularly and sanitising; avoid the three Cs — crowded places, confined space and close contact; avoid non-essential gatherings; and outdoors is always better and safer, so if you are seeing family members, keep it short, smaller, well-distanced and outside.
If we all keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, we can make sure the Western Cape moves forward again. DM