/ 22 March 2022

State of Disaster extension – ‘It’s an incompetency-fuelled power grab’

Presidentcyrilramaphosa Gcis

Medical experts and political and economic analysts have slammed the latest extension to the Covid-19 State of Disaster as a “power grab” by an “incompetent” government that wants to impose “absurd” new health regulations that will be fought in court.

Dr Lumkile Mondi, a lecturer in the School of Economics and Finance at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the latest extension of the State of Disaster to 15 April showed the government was out of touch with the latest research and development relating to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mondli said the government found it easy to kick the can to touch with negative consequences for businesses and households, which have not recovered since the State of Disaster lockdown was introduced in March 2020. He believes the extension was unnecessary and politically motivated.

“It is part of a failing state with an inability to plan long term because its own future is threatened because of its failures, corruption and infighting.  Hence, it is incentivised by short-termism because it is uncertain about its own future.”

“We know that many poor areas in SA were never in lockdown nor subject to the monitoring for compliance that the SOD imposed, signifying that many individuals have developed the antibodies necessary to fight Covid-19,” Mondi said.

He said the pandemic had cost the country two million jobs, pushing unemployment from about 28% in 2019 to 35% in 2022.

“The GDP growth potential of the SA economy has shrunk from 3.5% to about 2.8%.”

Shabir Madhi, the dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, confirmed that the population had developed natural immunity after 70% to 80% of people had been exposed to the virus. He argued that if the regulations had been effective to contain the virus this would not have occurred.

Instead, he described the extension as one of “complete incompetence and an inability to understand where we are with Covid-19”. 

He said the move had resulted in  “a perpetuation of regulations that are completely obsolete to the reality in regard to Covid-19”.

“We are no longer under code red. We have moved from a situation when the regulations were first put in place. Things have changed regarding our understanding of how the virus spreads, and we have immunity. It now poses no more of a threat than influenza and less of a threat than tuberculosis in terms of deaths” Madhi said.

He said about 58 000 people died from TB annually before the onset of Covid-19, but because management of the disease had been neglected over the past two years this was expected to increase.

“Government extending the State of Disaster is nothing more than a power grab. Rather than doing things pretending to prevent deaths from Covid-19, the government needs to focus on realigning the mismanagement of other diseases,” he said.

Madhi added that the government’s Medical Advisory Committee had advised the government in mid-February to abandon all lockdown regulations.

“The government is hiding behind a smokescreen of scientific advice,” Madhi said.

Last week, apparently in preparation to abandon the State of Disaster, the department of health gazetted a raft of new regulations on notifiable diseases under the National Health Act of 2003. Among these regulations, which do not have to be tabled in parliament as they are part of sub-regulations, is a requirement for mandatory medical examinations, isolation and treatment of people who contract notifiable medical conditions. Only people with internet access will have the option to self-isolate.

Other rules include:

  • Mandatory face masks at indoor gatherings and on public transport;
  • Employers must encourage staff to work from home;
  • A vaccine certificate, or a negative PCR test is needed to leave or enter South Africa;
  • Funeral attendance is limited to 100 in times of Covid. Only 50% of venue capacity may be filled at other events if guests are vaccinated. Without vaccination certificates attendance is restricted to 1 000 people indoors and 2 000 outdoors; and
  • The department of health may give advice on a lockdown, curfews, the sale of alcohol, sports, economic activity, public transport, religious and cultural practices, while other departments can introduce further restrictions.

Madhi said he believed the latest extension would be the last but described the new regulations as “absurd”.

“The government has this flight of fantasy that it can do what other countries can’t do. Covid-19 is not about preventing infections. It is about maximising protection against severe disease and death, but government failed. There is one activity the government needs to focus on and that is to get more than 90% of people above the age of 50 vaccinated,” he said. “I think these regulations will be challenged in court and government will look like the foolish clowns in the village because there is no scientific basis for it,” he said.

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said the extension was “quite worrying” and that the State of Disaster was expedient for President Cyril Ramaphosa to better manage the ANC, for example, the suspension of Ace Magashule, after his pre-pandemic power struggle.

“We know this is an administration that is struggling politically. It is also because of the State of Disaster that the ANC policy conference was not held, and now we are looking at the prospect of having the conference under the State of Disaster which works for Cyril Ramaphsa as he will sit comfortably as an executive president at a redacted conference,” he said.

“The State of Disaster helps him do what he would not be able to do under normal circumstances. His party has been undergoing such crises and has been able to push through some decisions,” he said.

He said the new regulations would be “looked on in suspicion” and tested in court.

Civil rights organisation AfriForum’s campaigns’ manager, Jacques Broodryk, said the group had started legal action to have the State of Disaster nullified in February and the government’s legal representatives had indicated they would oppose. 

“The government has no plans of ever giving up the powers they have grabbed under the guise of an emergency over the last two years. There is no reason to continue the state of disaster, unless you’re a power hungry politician or one of the countless corrupt individuals who are profiting from emergency procurement irregularities,” Broodryk said.

“I can’t see that government won’t try and renew the State of Disaster next month,” he said.

He added that the proposed regulations which would force people into quarantine camps for medical treatment were “ludicrous” and a violation of constitutional rights”.

“AfriForum has already won a court case against these types of regulations. If necessary we will fight this again. What makes this so dangerous is that these changes will effectively give government permanent ‘emergency powers’ to force people into quarantine camps or subject them to medical treatments against their will,” Broodryk said.