In an address to the nation on Wednesday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that “most of the country” would be placed under alert level three at the end of May. However, certain metros — where the vast majority of infections have occurred — will remain at level four.
In the coming days he said further announcements and changes to level-four restrictions, to allow more activity in retail, e-commerce and outdoor exercise, would be detailed.
Those could pose problems for the Western Cape province, and specifically Cape Town, which has been described as the epicentre of the outbreak in South Africa, accounting for about half of confirmed cases in the country.
As of May 13, the Western Cape leads the country with the highest numbers of cases, with a total of 6 713, according to data from the Western Cape Department of Health. Gauteng has seen the second-highest number of infections, with 2 014 confirmed cases.
To date, the City of Johannesburg accounts for 1 106 cases. The City of Cape Town is so far the worst-affected metro, with 6 154 cases. The densely populated urban areas of Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain have 927 and 649 cases, respectively.
“As I said before, some areas of the country may be designated at a particular alert level, while others will be designated at another level … for now, infections are concentrated in a few metros and districts across the country. It is important that we retain restrictions in those areas, and restrict travel out of these areas to other parts of the country,” Ramaphosa said.
This would stick in the craw of the Western Cape government, the only province governed by the national opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.
The official opposition had been championing a plan to reopen the economy more quickly, while taking calculated risks in dealing with the virus.
Ramaphosa’s planned face-to-face meeting this week with Western Cape Premier Alan Winde had to be cancelled after Winde announced he is undergoing voluntary quarantine after coming into close contact with eNCA journalist Lungile Tom, who died after testing positive for Covid-19 this week.
The president said the country should be ready for an increase in the rate of infections as people gradually return to work.
Ramaphosa outlined the success of the almost seven-week lockdown instituted to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, Covid-19. He described South Africa’s intervention as a success, but noted that the ongoing spread of the disease continues to exert a great toll on the country.
“This coronavirus is taking a heavy toll not only on the health of our people, but also their ability to earn a living, to feed themselves and their families, to learn, to develop, but also to enjoy the basic freedoms we daily take for granted,” he said.
South Africa has been successful in how it has responded and dealt with the coronavirus, Ramaphosa reiterated, but added that a rapid loosening of the lockdown would be disastrous.
He noted that without the lockdown, health facilities would have been overwhelmed and thousands of South Africans would have died.
“The death toll could have been eight times higher,” he said, adding that as many as 80 000 South Africans could have been infected by now had it not been for government’s stringent measures.
So far, 219 South Africans have died from complications related to Covid-19. By contrast, at a similar stage, countries like the United States had recorded 22 000 deaths, and the United Kingdom 19 000 deaths.
“We should never forget that the purpose of the lockdown was to delay the spread of virus and prevent a huge surge of infections,” Ramaphosa said.
By delaying the spread of disease, he said the country had been able to strengthen the capacity of the health system and put in place programmes to better manage infections.
That capacity includes nearly 25 000 additional beds for quarantine, substantial quantities of personal protective equipment for health workers, medical equipment and other supplies. The government had also been able to expand the screening and testing programme. To date, field workers have screened more than nine million people and conducted 370 000 coronavirus tests.
But Ramaphosa warned that the virus is yet to be vanquished.
“This new phase will require each of us to change our own behaviour in profound ways,” he said adding that it would necessitate a fundamental shift in our way of thinking and way of life. “Though lockdown has slowed the rate of transmission, the virus is very much present and will remain so for a long time to come,” he said.
Ramaphosa also tacitly admitted to instances in which his government and the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) have faltered over the past two months, promising to make amends.
Toing and froing on policies and regulations by Cabinet ministers has caused uncertainty for the public and business.
Many smokers are still smarting from an about-turn when Ramaphosa last addressed the nation. He had said that cigarette sales would be allowed during level four. This was overturned by what was described as a “collective decision” of the NCCC not to allow cigarettes.
Police and military abuse of civilians — including the deaths of several people, allegedly at the hands of security personnel — have also plagued what Ramaphosa had initially called a “mercy mission” when the security services were deployed to help deal with the pandemic.
And with the public growing tired and losing patience, the president assured citizens that his government was doing all it could to keep South Africans safe in trying times.
“Where we have disappointed, we will continue to make amends. I have said we are traversing uncharted territory. None of us have been through what we are going through now in our history. We will make mistakes, but I can assure you we will always seek to correct those mistakes,” he said.
Watch the president’s address again: