In the nine weeks of South Africa’s lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the Karoo town of Beaufort West has been largely sheltered from the storm
The largest town in the Central Karoo District, it’s a hub for transport and travel between the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape, as well as a link to Johannesburg along the N1 highway.
In the more than two months of the lockdown, the town had only two confirmed cases. One of the people infected is considered recovered and no longer infectious.
Now the local government is anxious about what effect opening the economy could have on the movement of goods and people through the area, and are concerned about whether local health services will be ready should the number of cases increase exponentially.
“I’m very worried,” said mayor Noël Constable. He’s acutely aware of the financial effect the lockdown has had on the town and its people, but simultaneously believes a coronavirus outbreak would devastate the area.
The largely agricultural economy benefits from the town’s status as a rest stop for truckers, buses, taxis, and road trippers. And the nine weeks of lockdown have meant that, like the rest of the country, restaurants, coffee shops and takeaway outlets have been closed.
“We are on the borders of the Free State and the Eastern Cape, so we may have some challenges with the taxi industry. We’ll see a lot more people moving through here,” Constable said.
Beaufort West got its the first case of coronavirus late into the lockdown. For the first seven weeks, town officials monitored the situation and were pleased with the lockdown. They noted that the police and traffic-enforcement monitoring of road traffic was having a positive effect. This was until South Africa moved from level five to level four in the government’s risk-adjusted strategy.
The first confirmed cases in the town was of a local man who returned home during the seven-day grace period at the beginning of May, which allowed people to return home if they were stranded.
Constable said this one case shook the community, who thought themselves insulated from the pandemic and adhered only marginally to the lockdown.
“From our side, we’ve done everything to communicate the message. We’ve gone around with loud hailers, it’s on our social media, we’ve sent out text messages, but for people, they said they are not in the city, they’re not in like Khayelitsha [in Cape Town], so it won’t affect them. So when we had our first case reported, many asked ‘What is the municipality doing?’. They were so afraid. But it’s not our responsibility to keep people safe, because they need to stay at home.
Despite the warnings, Constable is panicking. He’s not sure whether the town’s only hospital and a handful of clinics would be able to handle an influx of patients. So far the provincial health department’s focus has been on hotspots in the City of Cape Town and the Cape Winelands district municipality.
“If we have a lot of cases, Beaufort West will not be ready. We don’t have quarantine sites here. If something big happens, we are in trouble. So far the provincial government has only looked at Cape Town and other towns, even though Beaufort West is a sensitive and central place when it comes to the transportation of people. This virus will be a massive burden on us,” he said.
But despite Constable’s fears, he supports the announcement that churches and places of worship will be allowed to reopen under level three of lockdown regulations.
When lockdown restrictions were at level five, Constable called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to allow people in small towns to observe communal prayer under strict regulation because of the low number of cases. “If children can go back to school, if people can move around in level three, if we can have funerals, then churches can do the same … People need that place to commune with each other and communicate. I’m happy that churches will now be able to do that,” the mayor said.
The Western Cape government said it is prepared for the spread of the virus and the inevitable increase in the number of infected people.
“The scientific reason for the lockdown, and which has been made clear by experts, was to buy us time to prepare for the peak that will inevitably come. The virus cannot be stopped and will continue to spread throughout the country. We have been working around the clock to make sure that we are prepared and that every resident that requires healthcare gets it when they need it,” said Premier Alan Winde in a statement last week.
“The Western Cape [has] 2162 general care beds and 150 ICU [intensive care unit] beds in central and regional hospitals across the province. We have opened 18 testing and triage centres (12 are already operational) to provide additional support at these facilities. We also have 3888 community health workers across our province, with a further 464 due to start work soon,” Winde added.