After President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of the risk-adjusted strategy of moving South Africa to level three of lockdown, the explosion of Covid-19 cases was expected.
But the exponential growth is being particularly felt in provinces that had to contend with a only handful of cases for the past two months. The Northern Cape — South Africa’s largest province by geographical area, but smallest by population — saw its caseload more than double in the first week of level three, from 43 cases to 102.
As of Wednesday night, the number of cases in the province stood at 125, with one death. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, Premier Zamani Saul resigned himself to the fact that the province’s case numbers would increase. Through no fault of his citizens, he added, but from the partial opening of interprovincial movement.
“It’s quite clear: the more the lockdown regulations are relaxed, the more we will see a spike in the level of transmission here,” he said. Saul is particularly worried about municipalities bordering neighbouring provinces — small towns like Colesberg and Petrusville in the Pixley Ka Seme district municipality border the Free State and the Eastern Cape.
The Eastern Cape is a Covid-19 hotspot, with 7 154 cases as of Wednesday. To the west of the province, the Namakwa district — with towns like Springbok and Calvinia, which branch off from the N7 highway running from Cape Town in the Western Cape — is also under constant scrutiny from the Northern Cape.
“I don’t know what’s the solution. We have roadblocks [to screen people for symptoms], and it is quite clear that those roadblocks aren’t very effective … We’re worried about the people coming from Cape Town. Our patient-zero case, in the Francis Baard municipality, was people who went to a churchservice in Bloemfontein. And [together] with the Eastern Cape, they account for a number of cases in our province,” the premier said.
Saul suggested that provinces and districts with high rates of transmission should remain at higher levels of lockdown to protect their neighbours. The Western Cape is of particular concern. With 36 021 cases as of Wednesday, it is the epicentre of the outbreak in South Africa, accounting for as much as 65% of Covid-19 cases nationally.
There is regular movement of road freight, public transport and migrant workers on the N7 highway along the west coast, the N1 inland, and the N12, which passes towns like Victoria West and De Aar, through to Kimberley. Saul said these routes brought the virus to his province. “Areas of high levels of transmission, based on a case-by-case study, must have higher levels of lockdown. The Northern Cape can easily go to level two. We are in a much better place than any other province in the country,” he said.
The province, with a population of 1.2-million people — about 2.2% of South Africa’s total population — has now had to prepare for an increase in Covid-19 cases.
“We are preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. We have field hospitals with 2 000 beds dedicated to Covid-19 around the province, including extra ICU [intensive care unit] beds.
“And while the number of cases doesn’t place much of a burden on our public health system currently, we are preparing for the wave. It’s like we’re preparing for war here, but we hope it won’t reach that level,” Saul said.
Major industries like mining have been put on high alert, not only because of workers’ health and safety, but also because of their economic effects on
the rest of South Africa.
The province accounts for 85% of the country’s iron-ore mining and, as been the site of increased exploration for copper, cobalt, and manganese deposits in the past five years or so. In recent weeks there have been reports of cases in and around mining towns like Kathu in the Gamagara municipality, about 300km northwest of Kimberley.
“When mines were operating at half capacity, we had no cases of any outbreaks. Even with the increased capacity of mines, our mines have such stricter health protocols, even maybe stricter than some of our public-health facilities. That really is assisting us to help keep our numbers down,” said Saul.
But the province has shown some successes in mitigating the spread of the virus, despite the increase in numbers over the past two weeks. De Aar in the Emthanjeni municipality, Hantam municipality, and Sutherland’s Karoo Hoogland municipality have seen single-digit cases for several weeks.
This has been ascribed to a 500-member team of contact tracers that have crisscrossed the 372 889km2 province when new cases have been identified.
“As soon as there’s a positive case, we release those tracers to pick up each and every individual that has been in contact with a positive case. That has been working. People have been going into self-isolation, and if they are unable to, we quarantine them,” the premier said.