President Cyril Ramaphosa was consulting with the premiers of the nine provinces yesterday as part of the process of getting buy-in regarding how government should respond to the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic that is engulfing the country.
A virtual Cabinet meeting has been scheduled for today to deliberate on the feedback from Ramaphosa’s round of consultations, after which a public announcement is expected to be made.
A member of Ramaphosa’s executive said it was unlikely that the country would return to the hard lockdown imposed during the early days of the pandemic.
However, “it’s likely that tighter restrictions will be introduced in areas identified as hotspots”, said the insider.
These would probably include curfews, earlier closing times for restaurants, and limitations on attendance at public events such as funerals and religious services.
With daily infections now averaging more than 8 000 – an astronomic increase from a low of well under 1 000 in October – Health Minister Zweli Mkhize this week declared that South Africa had officially entered the second wave of the pandemic. Deaths have also increased steadily.
Speaking at a commemoration of Universal Health Coverage Day yesterday morning, Mkhize warned that a “heavy storm” was approaching the country.
“I appeal to the public, especially the youth, to be fully conscious of their agency and the role they must play to protect everyone from Covid-19,” he pleaded.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: GCIS
He said that, while government could mobilise its machinery to fight Covid-19, “this virus can only be defeated by each South African’s sense of duty and compassion”.
“It will not be possible to celebrate these holidays in the way we’re accustomed to. We must now understand that the frivolities usually associated with the festive season need to make way for things that matter: family and friends caring for one another,” he added.
BEACHES COULD BE CLOSED
The thorny issue during debates among members of the national coronavirus command council was how to manage the influx of crowds at beaches in coastal cities. Options tabled included shutting down the beaches completely or limiting the number of people allowed to access them.
“But if you limit the number of people, how will that be enforced? It will require a capacity that the police may not have,” said a person who is part of the command council, adding that until Ramaphosa had concluded consultations, “everything is still up in the air”.
Nevertheless, according to a senior government figure, the president was being lobbied to urgently announce the closure of beaches, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.
The Western Cape government, however, is against any such action on the province’s beaches.
“It’s true that the KwaZulu-Natal provincial command council, which constitutes the province’s cabinet members, has been strongly lobbying both President Cyril Ramaphosa and the national coronavirus command council to urgently announce the closure of all beaches in the province.
“[The lobbying by the province has] been an ongoing process, but with the numbers of infections drastically increasing in the past few days, the province has indicated the urgency of such an undertaking,” said the source, adding that the announcement could come as early as today or tomorrow.
“A delay in such an announcement would only be [caused by deciding] whether this should be done in the Western Cape as well. The Western Cape has been clear that it does not support further lockdown restrictions, but prefers the enforcement of existing regulations.”
HOW PROVINCES ARE FIGHTING THE SECOND WAVE
On Friday, Gauteng Premier David Makhura held a special meeting of the executive council to consider the way forward in handling Covid-19, among other matters.
The provincial health department’s spokesperson, Kwara Kekana, said the department was intensifying its contact tracing efforts as part of its resurgence mitigation effort. People arriving from so-called hotspots would be screened.
“All contacts will be followed up with rigidly for 14 days. Those who test positive will be followed up for 10 days,” he said.
KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala said on Friday that his government had not ruled out closing beaches as a way of curbing mass-infection situations.
His spokesperson, Lennox Mabaso, told City Press that the province would unveil its resurgence plan after Ramaphosa’s address to the nation.
“The president will make an announcement on Sunday [today] and we’ll clarify our position after that,” Mabaso said.
I think all forms of hard lockdowns cause far more problems than they solve.
Professor Francois Venter
Western Cape Premier Allan Winde reiterated this week that lockdowns were a “blunt tool that must be avoided at all costs”, as they were economically devastating.
Winde said the province’s plan for responding to the second wave had been submitted to Ramaphosa and Mkhize.
“In that plan, I specifically asked for assistance with our enforcement activities, with additional resources being supplied to hotspots for this purpose, a reconsideration of the number of people permitted to gather in hotspots – especially indoors, given that the virus spreads at gatherings and where there’s poor ventilation – and applying his mind to potential consequences for those who refuse to wear a cloth mask, such as a fine,” said Winde.
Eastern Cape provincial government spokesperson Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha said the premier, Oscar Mabuyane, had written to national government asking it to endorse the decision it had made to close beaches and recreational parks throughout the province.
“The premier had a meeting with the mayors of coastal areas, as beaches are seen as potential high-risk areas for the spread of the virus,” said Sicwetsha.
Eastern Cape department of health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said that even though health facilities in the province were not yet full, a situation could develop where no beds would be available if people did not adhere to regulations.
“The more we disregard the regulations, the bigger the crisis in which we’re going to find ourselves. This thing starts with communities. Hospitals are there to manage cases, but if those cases come in in high numbers, there’s going to be a problem,” warned Kupelo.
North West said it was working on a plan for handling the return to the province of people from elsewhere in the country, including places regarded as hotspots, after the festive season.
“We’re working closely with all relevant stakeholders, especially the mines and big industries, schools, institutions of higher learning and industries, which are the main high-risk areas. In the mining sector, each mine has developed and shared holiday plans and return-to-work plans with our department,” said North West health spokesperson Tebogo Lekgethwane.
CONTROLLING SUPERSPREADER EVENTS
Medical research experts and doctors working closely in the country’s Covid-19 response effort were unanimous that another hard lockdown was not the answer.
The emphasis must be on controlling and managing potential superspreader events as much as possible
Professor Adrian Puren
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases’ Professor Adrian Puren told City Press that the World Health Organisation did not recommend hard lockdowns as a way of dealing with the second wave, but preferred a more “nuanced approach”.
He said what would be critical was “a good understanding of what’s leading to increased transmissions and how to control them”.
“The emphasis must be on controlling and managing potential superspreader events as much as possible, and also re-emphasising the necessity of non-pharmaceutical interventions,” said Puren.
BAN EVENTS AT POORLY VENTILATED INDOOR VENUES
Wits University professor of vaccinology, Shabir Madhi, noted that 80% of all new infections in the US, the current global epicentre of the pandemic, could be traced back to superspreader events.
An immediate ban of poorly ventilated indoor events was necessary, regardless of whether the occupancy was reduced by 50% or 20%.
“If we want to bring this resurgence under control and minimise the rapid escalation of cases, there must be an immediate ban on mass gatherings in indoor spaces, period,” said Madhi.
“We find ourselves in the midst of a second wave that seems determined to dwarf the first one.”
Dr Aslam Dasoo, one of the convenors of the Progressive Health Forum – an advocacy network of influential clinicians and health activists – said targeted interventions in hotspots needed to be meaningful and include the necessary infrastructure and support mechanisms.
“Another thing we need to do is go on a new tack of communication. This corporate style of communication isn’t working. What we should be doing, for example, is harnessing the power of the teachers’ unions because they live in the communities and people trust them. They should be enlisted in the direct effort to stop the spread. The traditional leaders of our communities should be enlisted too – especially in hotspots,” said Dasoo.
“What’s interesting is the pattern of this resurgence, which is related in large measure to superspreader events, hence the action taken in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality. But I think government will be tentative in what it does, given the pushback in its last interventions [the hard lockdown] – and with good reason, because of the economic backlash that caused.
“However, the need for interventions to take place is absolutely clear.”
Dr Angelique Coetzee, the chairperson of the SA Medical Association, said every citizen needed to take responsibility for their own behaviour and adhere to non-pharmaceutical interventions (hand-sanitising, social distancing and mask-wearing).
“You can’t expect government to do that for you. The restrictions in place must be enforced, and the national and provincial health departments need to have contingency plans in place to fill critical gaps in the staffing posts,” she said.
Professor Francois Venter, an expert in infectious diseases and director of the Ezintsha research group at Wits University, said government had “squandered” public trust with incoherent messaging and restrictions in relation to the numbers of people allowed in churches and taxis.
He added that it would be hard to regain that trust as superspreader events such as festivals, parties and mass gatherings took place.
“Decent, clear communication would be a start [this time around] in regaining trust. I think all forms of hard lockdowns cause far more problems than they solve. There are creative ways of doing this – but government spends more time making silly laws and pronouncements than explaining why the basics are important,” he said. –Additional reporting by Lubabalo Ngcukana and Poloko Tau