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South Africa starts first day of 21-day lockdown
March 28, 2020, 9:05 am

Covid-19 cases exceed 1,000, faster pace than Italy or China in first 20 days

Ramaphosa noted that these measures are vital to flatten the curve of the spread of COVID-19 [PREUSS]

President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered a national 21-day lockdown that started on 27 March as the containment measures announced by the South African government on 15 March had failed to “flatten the curve”, with South Africa reporting a larger number of cases than either Italy or China in the first 20 days since the first case was reported on 5 March. In contrast to the experience of both China and Italy, where most of the deaths took place in the age group older than 65 years, the first two deaths were both female, with one aged only 28 years young and the other 48 years young.

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. That is why South Africa held its first conference on how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic on 24 and 25 February, almost two weeks before the first case was reported.

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.

Source: NICD

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.

Nedbank chief economist Nicky Weimar said she had already expected the economy to remain in recession in the first quarter prior to outbreak of COVID19 and the national emergency/disaster declaration.

“The first quarter decline will now just be deeper and likely to extend into the early part of the second quarter.  Thereafter some improvement off a low base is still possible, if the world and South Africa manage to stop the spread of the pandemic and manage to treat the ill effectively. Prior to the pandemic, we had GDP growth of 0.7% for this year, then we revised it to 0.3% after China & Italy imposed their lockdowns.  We will now have to re-examine our forecasts, but the risk of the economy contracting over 2020 is very high,” Weimar said.

John Ashbourne from the UK-based Capital Economics said it was too early to tell what the economic impact on South Africa of the national emergency measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus would be, but noted that the Treasury had limited fiscal maneuvering space.

He also expected a Moody’s downgrade to junk status later in the year, but said it would have little impact.

“The economic and financial dislocation caused by the virus will be much more significant than a downgrade,” he said.

The government has announced several packages to help those impacted by the lockdown and many people anticipate that the lockdown may last longer than 21 days.

Most people have welcomed the lockdown as the government puts saving lives ahead of saving profits. An example of the collective response to the crisis is the R1 billion each that the Rupert and Oppenheimer families are contributing to a Solidarity Fund that will help small businesses and their employees riding out the lockdown, while many commercial banks have said they will provide “repayment holidays” to businesses and individuals, who will experience a large drop in revenue/income.

Another example of the collective response is the agreement negotiated in the National Bargaining Council for the Clothing Manufacturing Industry, which will ensure that workers are paid during the lockdown period. This agreement, which will be made possible with funds drawn from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), makes provision for the extension of the lockdown to a possible six weeks, with the UIF and clothing manufacturing companies  taking turns to pay workers’ weekly salaries.

Helmo Preuss in Makhanda, South Africa for The BRICS Post