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Mixed reaction to extension of South Africa’s lockdown
April 10, 2020, 5:06 pm

The lockdown has been extended to the end of April from 16 April.

Mobile clinics were testing people with symptoms in both the poor and richer areas

President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered an extension to the national 21-day lockdown that started on 27 March despite the fact that the containment measures first announced by the South African government on 15 March, a mere 10 days after the first coronavirus case had been reported, had been able to “flatten the curve”.

In his televised address to the nation on 9 April, Ramaphosa said it was “too early to make a definite analysis”, but he said that since the lockdown had been introduced the daily rate of increase in infections had dropped by a tenth from around 40% to around 4%.

South Africa has recorded 1,934 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus, including 18 deaths, but this is way less than the experts The BRICS Post talked to at the  first South African conference on how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic on 24 and 25 February, almost two weeks before the first case was reported.

Then the range of forecasts was for between 10,000 with containment and 40,000 without containment within 30 days of the first case.

South Africa has been far more aggressive in its containment policies as it has a large population of people living with HIV (PLWH) and tuberculosis (TB), whose immune system is compromised and so are 20 times more likely to die than healthy people based on South Africa’s experience with the 2009 H1N1 virus.

The large number of TB cases on the other hand may have given most of the population a degree of immunity as the BCG vaccine administered at birth to combat TB may provide some protection in the same way that smallpox and polio vaccines have done in the past. This BCG immunity is not unique to South Africa as other countries such as Portugal that have national immunisation policy against TB have similar low rates of infection.

Dr Kerrigan McCarthy of the Division of Public Health, Surveillance and Response from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said the South African government had pro-actively prepared for a possible outbreak. She said a national response team had been convened on 24 January, the day after Chinese health authorities placed the city of Wuhan, which is where the virus originated, under quarantine. This was six days before the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the virus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

On that day, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize declared a Public Health Emergency in South Africa and activated the Emergency Operations Centre. The Incident Management Team was then constituted the following day and has met daily since then.

The national lockdown means that most economic activities cease except those related to public health, food, water, sanitation and electricity. That is why the deep level gold and platinum mines are not operating, but the coal mines supplying coal to Eskom, the national electricity utility, are working.

Residents can go to food stores and pharmacies, but when they do so, they need to meet social distancing protocols, which is why public transport, that is normally jam packed, is running at very much reduced capacities.

Non-food stores are closed, while all restaurants, bars and cinemas are closed, as are schools, churches and universities.  Something that seems to be unique to South Africa is that sales of cigarettes and alcohol have been banned.

The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI) praised the extension, but was awaiting further details on what industries would be exempted as the lockdown is eased in a phased and staggered way. They suggested that a start could be made with the fast food industry as that could demonstrate high levels of social distancing and health control.

“South Africa had entered a technical recession before the start of this health pandemic. In the period since then we have also been downgraded to junk by the ratings agencies.  Even without this pandemic, our economy would have faced significant problems in the areas of macro economy performance and prospects, with negative GDP growth, a worsening exchange rate, adverse rising inflation and interest rates, plus a potential exploding unemployment crisis that can trigger social and political instability,” SACCI said.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) said more evidence was needed to ensure that South Africans would have jobs to return to once the pandemic was over and they believe that it is not a binary choice between lives and jobs.

“The absence of empirical data and modelling makes it very difficult to simply agree that a lockdown extension may be an effective means to curb the spread of Covid-19. The resulting economic fallout now means that it is not only lives which are threatened by the virus, but livelihoods by our economic and financial collapse as a result of further lockdown regulations,” the DA said.

It is to gather this empirical data that the government has expanded its testing and in Makhanda mobile clinics were testing people with symptoms in both the poor and richer areas.

It takes some five days to get the results, but there were multiple forms that had to be filled out so that if a test came back positive, then the contacts that the infected person had with could be easily traced.

Helmo Preuss in Makhanda, South Africa for The BRICS Post