After nearly five months of lockdown, South Africa looks set to move to a less restrictive lockdown level.
The lockdown started in late March, and Covid-19 projections indicated that inaction could lead to thousands, if not millions, of people catching the disease. Level 5 was an almost complete lockdown on travel and economic activity. Restrictions in South Africa were among the harshest in the world.
The economy slowed down to a crawl. Estimates are that at least three million jobs were lost.
After five weeks, the lockdown was eased to level 4 for May. South Africa then moved to level 3 on June 1. People could go outside more freely, and businesses began opening their doors.
As a result, the grim projections have not come to pass, although more than 11 000 people have died and, with nearly 600 000 positive cases of Covid-19, South Africa has the fifth highest case load in the world.
President Cyril Ramaphosa will apparently meet the premiers of all nine provinces and the mayors of metropolitan areas on Saturday to brief them about the Covid-19 regulations. After that, he’s expected to address the public.
In the Western Cape, the provincial government is cautiously saying it might have gone through its peaks. The same scenario seems to be unfolding in Gauteng. But KwaZulu-Natal still expecting a spike in Covid-19 cases.
Reports in the media this past weekend predicted an earlier announcement regarding the regulations, but the Mail & Guardian understands that time is needed to finalise consultations, the changes required in legislation and to gazette them.
This move to relax restrictions comes as the health department gets ready to welcome the full World Health Organisation (WHO) surge team at an event today. Some team members arrived earlier this month and went into quarantine.
Dr Owen Kaluwa, the WHO representative in South Africa, said the team would comprise of 43 South African and international experts.
“As we talk about moving into level two, though it has not been announced yet, it is a positive thing that there is a reduction in the infection rate, but these are still very high numbers,” he said. “That means we have to continue intensifying our response to the pandemic. People must still avoid gathering, wear masks and wash hands. If we do not do this and relax because restrictions have, we will see spikes like in other countries.”
Kaluwa explained that the team — which has critical expertise in epidemiology, surveillance, case management, infection, prevention and control, procurement, as well as community mobilisation and health education — will also assist the government in analysing the data to find where there could be spikes and stay ahead of the coronavirus.
The team will be crucial in curbing infection flare-ups as the country relaxes regulations.
One of the changes to the regulations will relate to the sale of alcohol and tobacco products. These are currently banned. Ramaphosa discussed the pros and cons of the ban with various parties this week.
The level 2 guidelines, published when the country went to level 4, are vague about what the new phase of the lockdown will involve — and do not reference the sale of alcohol and tobacco products. But large public gatherings, including sporting and cultural events, and international and leisure ocean travel will still not be permitted.
The one thing that is certain is that it will remain mandatory to wear a mask.
In bolstering the case to lift the alcohol ban, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said this week that he was putting a case to Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize that the province was ready to move to level 2.
The National Liquor Traders Association, representing 34 500 taverns, said the best way to salvage the damage caused by the alcohol ban would be to lift it in September.
The ban on tobacco products has cost South Africa more than R4-billion in uncollected excise taxes. A member of a tobacco industry body has told the M&G that Ramaphosa will lift the cigarette ban, which has been in place for more than four months, when he moves the country to level 2. The individual said the announcement is “imminent”.
But the chairperson of the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association, Sinenhlanhla Mnguni, said on Thursday that no discussions had taken place between the tobacco industry and the government concerning the lifting of the ban of the sale of cigarettes and tobacco-related products.
“We do not know what the position going forward is going to be for us as an industry, but there will be challenges, one of which will be combating the illicit trade which has now fully entrenched itself into the South African market.”