/ 15 March 2020

National Disaster declaration follows confirmation of internal transmission of covid-19

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Coronavirus has been declared as a state of disaster in South Africa. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

South Africa has shut its borders to travellers from high-risk countries and will close all schools from Wednesday as part of the package of measures announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday night to limit the spread of the Covid-19 disease, which is caused by the Sars-CoV-2 virus.

Gatherings of 100 people or more have been banned with immediate effect, while organisers of smaller events that cannot be postponed or cancelled have been encouraged to take increased precautions if they do go ahead.

Announcing that the number of people infected with the virus in South Africa had now risen to 61, Ramaphosa said it was “concerning” that internal transmission of the virus had now started.

Ramaphosa said that previously all of those people infected had returned from travelling to high-risk countries, including Italy, but that the virus was now spreading among the broader population.

Social distancing and the restriction of movement were now necessary, as was tracking and screening of all those people who had come into contact with the initial carriers of the virus.

Ramaphosa made the announcements after a lengthy Cabinet meeting and several hours of consultations with stakeholders, which delayed his scheduled briefing by more than three hours.

Ramaphosa said the country was facing a “grave emergency” but that swift, common action could limit the spread of the deadly virus.

He said the Cabinet had identified measures that had to be taken to offset the severe effects on the economy and on the productivity and viability of businesses, job retention and job creation.

“The package will consist of various fiscal and other measures and will be concluded in consultation with business, labour and others,” he said.

Schools will also be closed from Wednesday March 18 until after the Easter holidays, Ramaphosa said, with the mid-year break intended to be shortened by one week to make up for lost teaching time.

Discussions were still ongoing with universities and colleges, with a decision on their further operation imminent. 

Call for co-operation

Ramaphosa said that co-operation among all sectors of society was necessary if South African were to limit the effects of the outbreak in the longer term. “This epidemic will pass, but it is up to us to determine how long it will last, how damaging it will be, and how long it will take our economy and our country to recover,” he said.

Ramaphosa said the pandemic required “extraordinary responses”, which included declaring a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act. This allows the government to set up and co-ordinate disaster systems around the country, including setting up quarantine centres and taking steps to limit the movement of people.

The government, he said, would be putting together a series of measures to try to limit the effects of the outbreak on the economy. A “national command council” headed by the president will take the lead in the government’s response to the outbreak and will meet three times a week.

There will also be increased capacity at designated hospitals. There will also be further strengthening of existing contact-tracing processes, and the setting up of a national tracking and tracing system for all those infected and those people who’ve had contact with them.

Travel has been banned outright from high-risk countries, including Italy, China, Spain, the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. This takes effect from March 18, and visas from these countries have been revoked.
South African citizens have been advised not to travel to any of these countries, and to refrain from travelling abroad if possible.

Ramaphosa said all foreign nationals who had travelled to or through these countries in the past 20 days would be denied entry to South Africa. South Africans who had done so would be tested and be subjected to self-isolation or quarantined. Those people who had visited medium-risk countries, including Hong Kong, Portugal and Singapore, would also undergo high-intensity screening.

A total of 35 land ports of entry and six of the eight sea ports would be closed from Monday, while all non-essential government travel outside the country was banned immediately.

All visits to prisons have been banned for 30 days.

The president said that further details would be provided by the relevant ministers at a briefing on Monday morning.