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South Africa moves to Level 2 lockdown
May 31, 2021, 10:28 am

Move is in response to third wave of Covid-19 cases

The government has been criticized for its slow economic response

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on May 30 in his televised address to the nation that South Africa would move to a Level 2 (out of 5 levels) on May 31 after being at Level 1 since late February 2021.

Although Ramaphosa had been praised for his swift action to contain the spread of the virus with his first address on March 15, a mere 10 days after the first coronavirus case had been reported, the government had been criticized for its slow response on the economic side and its haphazard rollout of vaccines as the government did not move early enough to secure adequate supplies because other nations hoarded vaccines or prevented exports of vaccines.

The net result is that South Africa holds up the table of G-20 countries when it comes to the percentage of the population vaccinated. This has meant that the Medical Research Council (MRC) said South Africa has one of the world’s worst death tolls from Covid-19 relative to its population size. Per its findings, the age-standardized excess death rate per 100,000 population stands at 258 for the past year, placing South Africa in the top five countries for which the metric was assessed. This mirrors the 1918/1920 Spanish Flu epidemic when South Africa had the fifth highest death toll in the world from the influenza epidemic.

The Economist magazine recently used South Africa as an example of why deaths from Covid-19 are under-reported. It said:

“Official figures say there have been 55,000 Covid deaths in South Africa since March 27th last year. That puts the country’s death rate at 92.7 per 100 000 people, the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. It is also a significant underestimate—as, it seems safe to infer, are all the other African data on the disease. Over the year to May 8th the country recorded 158,499 excess deaths—that is, deaths above the number that would be expected on past trends, given demographic changes. Public-health officials feel confident that 85-95% of those deaths were caused by sars-cov-2, the covid-19 virus, almost three times the official number. The discrepancy is the result of the fact that, for a death to be registered as caused by covid-19, the deceased needs to have had a covid test and been recorded as having died from the disease.”

Although the first 2020 lockdown succeeded in cutting the daily covid cases from 243 on 27 March to only 17 the following day and then kept the daily number below 100 until 17 April during the Level 5 lockdown, there was a trend upwards as restrictions were eased to revive the economy and in the first wave the daily case number peaked at 13 944 on 24 July. A second wave however started to show up in the daily cases once many South Africans went on their annual summer holidays starting on 16 December, the Day of Reconciliation.

On December 1, when many schools closed for the holidays, the daily case number was only 2,864, but year-end office parties and end-of-school raves resulted in risky behavior and there was an almost seven-fold increase to 14,796 on Christmas Day, the same day that the world-wide total exceeded 80 million.

A move to Level 3 lockdown in January 2021 and warmer weather then cut the daily cases to only 437 on April 6 from a peak of 21,980 on January 8. The onset of colder weather in May however saw a rise in cases and on 29 May they stood at 4,519.

Under Level 2 a nationwide curfew will be in effect from 11pm to 4am apart from permitted workers. Nonessential shops, bars and restaurants must close at 10pm. Nightclubs will not be allowed to operate and there are restrictions on large gatherings such as funerals. Unlike previous lockdowns, this time there was no alcohol ban. It remains compulsory to wear masks in public places and failure to comply will be an offence liable to a fine or imprisonment not exceeding six months.

Siviwe Gwarube, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) Shadow Minister of Health, said the focus should be on procuring the Covid-19 vaccine as restrictions were only short-term solutions.

“South Africans do not need stricter lockdowns, they need vaccines. The announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa that South Africa will move to adjusted level 2 lockdown comes as little surprise as at least four of the nine provinces have entered the 3rd wave of infections. The reality is that this was inevitable with the sluggish rollout of the vaccine,” Gwarube said.

While the restriction on large gatherings is welcome, vaccines are needed urgently to stem the bleeding of the South African economy.

“Furthermore, Ramaphosa has once again demonstrated his inability to take action against those in his own cabinet and in the ANC accused of corruption. The only acceptable announcement this evening would have been that the President has instructed Minister Zweli Mkhize to step down until the finalization of the Special Investigative Unit (SIU) investigation looking into his role in the awarding of a multi-million-rand contract to a company ran by close associates of the minister,” Gwarube added.

But she went on to say that Ramaphosa failed to take this bold stance. Instead, he completely ignored this massive issue showing how his commitment to fighting corruption is just empty words, Gwarube said.

The South African economy suffered a 7.0 per cent contraction in 2020 when measured from the production side as several sectors such as construction, transport, tourism and the hospitality sectors practically closed down during the Level 5 restrictions and have only recently opened up, but are still operating well below pre-pandemic levels.

The demand side fared relatively better and final sales, that is GDP excluding the change in inventories, only dropped by 4.5 per cent. The resultant drawdown in inventories due to the restrictions on the production side meant that the inventory to GDP ratio fell to a record low of 8.2 per cent in the fourth quarter 2020 from 15.8 per cent in 2007. The need to replenish these inventories is one of the reasons why the South African Reserve Bank expects growth of 4.2 per cent this year.

South Africa’s economy was helped by a boom in exports in part due to China’s recovery as well as a policy decision by the Chinese authorities to lessen their dependence on Australian imports, so Brazilian and South African iron ore producers benefited from this trade diversion. This export boom has continued into 2021 and the foreign trade surplus soared to a record ZAR 52.8 billion ($3.84 billion) in March 2021 from a ZAR 31.2 billion ($2.26 billion) surplus in February.

Helmo Preuss in Makhanda, South Africa for The BRICS Post