President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days from midnight on Thursday March 26 in a bid to halt the spread of the Covid-19 virus and “save the lives of hundreds of thousands of our people”.
Ramaphosa said that although the decision would negatively affect the economy, “the human cost of delaying this decision would be far greater”.
Emergency personnel, health workers, the army and police, and companies involved in production of food and medicine would be exempt from the lockdown, in terms of which “individuals will not be allowed to leave their home except under strictly controlled circumstances”. A full list of these exempt workers would be published later, he said.
Homeless people would be accommodated in temporary shelters until the lockdown ended, and quarantine facilities were being identified and set up around the country, Ramaphosa said.
Ramaphosa said millions of people had “understood the gravity of the situation we are in”.
Most people had accepted the restrictions placed on their freedoms, and every sector of society had been mobilised and had accepted the role it must play in dealing with the crisis.
Ramaphosa said South Africa faced difficult choices that were “absolutely necessary if our country is to emerge stronger from this disaster”.
Ramaphosa said the number of cases in South Africa would continue to increase and that decisive steps were necessary to contain the spread of the disease.
In two weeks Covid-19 has spread exponentially in South Africa, from one case to more than 400. This is on the same trajectory as some high risk countries Ramaphosa mentioned, including Iran and Italy.
A rapid rise in the number of cases would place the health system under unmanageable strain and it was essential that steps were taken to “flatten the curve” immediately.
“The next few days are crucial,” he said.
Ramaphosa noted the catch-22 that homeless people and people living in high-density areas find themselves in.
“Temporary shelters that meet hygiene standards will be identified for homeless people. Sites for quarantine will also be identified,” he said.
Last week Public Works Minister Patricia De Lille said state-owned buildings have already been identified to house people.
De Lille also said her department has identified potential quarantine sites at government buildings to handle a possible influx of people needing medical attention.
For the past two weeks, teams have been travelling around the country to assess and identify such properties and some of these have already been communicated to the minister of health. The government also reached out to the private sector to make buildings available for quarantine, De Lille said.
So far, dozens of national sites have been identified, with provincial governments and local municipalities tasked with identifying more.
De Lille said some of these sites would be made available to people living in informal settlements where suitable hygiene facilities are not available.
No panic buying
The president urged South Africans not to panic and not to rush to stores.
“There’s no need for stockpiling of any items. A safety net is being developed to support people in [the] informal sector whose businesses will suffer in this shutdown,” he said.
To alleviate congestion at social-grant paypoints, the president has instructed that people who receive old-age grants would be able to collect them on March 30 and 31; all other social grants will be paid from April 1.
Ramaphosa said funds from the Temporary Employee Relief Scheme will be used to ensure that workers are not laid off in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak and its economic effects.
This will enable companies to pay employees directly during the lockdown period, he said.
Any employee who falls ill due to exposure to the virus will be paid through the Compensation Fund. In the event that it is necessary, the government will also draw from the Unemployment Insurance Fund to provide a safety net to workers whose companies can not provide support to them.
Some of these measures were announced last week by Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi.
“We call on large businesses particularly to take care of their workers during this testing period,” Ramaphosa said on Monday night.
Schools and higher education closed
Schools and higher education institutions will not be opened as scheduled, after Ramaphosa announced that the lockdown will end on April 16.
Last week, Ramaphosa announced school closures as one of the measures to control the spread of the Covid-19. Schools were originally supposed to have shut down on Friday but were instead closed on March 18. This meant that learners lost 10 days of schooling, which would be made up by reducing the June holidays by seven days and the September holidays by three days. Ramaphosa had previously announced that schools would reopen on April 14, but that has now been extended.
Higher Education minister Blade Nzimande also announced an early recess for all higher education institutions in the country. He made this announcement when some universities had already shut their doors. Nzimande announced that the institutions will open on April 15, but Ramaphosa’s latest announcement means that this will be delayed.
DA leader John Steenhuisen said the party welcomed Ramaphosa’s announcement of the lockdown and SANDF deployment, saying the measures were “of critical importance” in stemming the spread of the virus.
Steenhuisen also welcomed the creation of the solidarity fund, which would play an important role in supporting the vulnerable in the wake of the crisis.
“The threat of this virus is akin to a wartime situation, and this requires of each of us to make sacrifices in our daily lives, and to some of the liberties of our democratic society,” he said.