EMERGENCY!

2020-03-16 15:22

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President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national disaster as Covid-19 cases rose to 61 in South Africa amid concerns of the first local transmission.

As South Africa heads into a lock-down, Ramaphosa laid out Cabinet’s “urgent and drastic measures” in the wake of the worldwide spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ramaphosa, speaking from the Union Buildings in Pretoria, however, with the exception of defining times for the closure of schools, has given no definitive timeline for the continuation of these measures.

Earlier yesterday, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize had announced that the total cases were 51, while Ramaphosa confirmed 61, indicating a sharp increase in the number of people testing positive. There have been no related deaths as yet, and all cases, until yesterday, were imported by people who had travelled to “hot-spot countries”.

In declaring the emergency, Ramaphosa said the pandemic was the “greatest ‘Thuma Mina’ moment for our country”.

“This epidemic will pass. It is up to us to determine how long it will last and how damaging it will be, and how long it will take our economy and country to recover. If we act now, and decisively, I am sure we can overcome it. We have never been defeated when we act in a united way,” said Ramaphosa.

He declared a travel ban on countries considered to be high risk from Wednesday. The ban currently affects foreign nationals from Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and China.

Government has cancelled visas to visitors from those countries as from yesterday, while previously granted visas were revoked.

South African citizens are advised to refrain from all forms of travel to or through the European Union, United States, United Kingdom and other identified high-risk countries such as China, Iran and South Korea with immediate effect.

“We have plans to strengthen screening and testing measures at international airports. Previously granted visas will also be revoked,” he said.

The president said 35 of SA’s 72 ports of entry would be closed.

South African citizens returning from high-risk areas would need to self-quarantine.

Those from medium-risk countries would be subjected to testing.

Government discouraged all domestic public travel, including on planes, trains, buses and taxis.

“The current circumstances require extraordinary measures. Gatherings of more than 100 people will be prohibited. Large government gatherings will be cancelled.

“Effective immediately, all non-essential travel for all spheres of government outside the country is prohibited. Where small gatherings are unavoidable, organisers will have to ensure stringent measures,” he said.

The president said all schools will close from Wednesday until after the Easter weekend. Higher education facilities would also be impacted, with further announcements to follow after further consultations with the tertiary sector.

Visits to all correctional services facilities are suspended for 30 days.

Ramaphosa called on shopping centres and other venues to improve their hygiene controls. He said hand-shaking should be discouraged, with elbow touching encouraged.

All businesses would need to ensure they intensified measures regarding hygiene control. “We will increase the capacity of hospitals” and introduce a refined monitoring system for the disease along with a mass campaign to further educate the public about how to contain the disease.

Funding would be made available to reinforce the systems being introduced.

Ramaphosa called for the regular washing of hands, coughing into a tissue or a flexed elbow, and avoiding people with cold or flu-like symptoms. He called for a change of behaviour, and limited contact with other people.

A national command council on the crisis will be chaired by Ramaphosa to deal with all aspects of the emergency response and will meet three times a week. It would include the inter-ministerial committee, as well as other stakeholders.

“We must accept the anxiety this virus causes, but we must fight panic and fake news. We cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by fear and panic. We must stop spreading unverified and fake news. While we are facing a medical emergency far graver than we have experienced in recent times, we are not helpless. We have the expertise, means and knowledge to fight this disease. We also have partners, various countries and institutions, working with us. If we act swiftly we can limit the effects of the disease.”

He said the virus had the potential “to bring us closer together … even though we are limiting contact … we must work together and collaborate … it requires solidarity and compassion. Those who have resources must assist those who are vulnerable and in need.”

He called on all sectors of society to play their part.

Reacting to the president’s declaration, Melanie Veness, the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg and Midlands Chamber of Business, said while the measures introduced were likely to have a negative impact on our already-struggling economy, they were “absolutely necessary”.

“The speed of infection as seen in other countries is terrifying, we can’t afford to allow that to happen here — how would our health sector cope? We must commend the president for government’s proactive approach and the manner in which this very real threat is being dealt with. It’s up to every one of us to limit exposure and to take action to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus,” Veness said last night.

Inkatha Freedom Party spokesperson MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa said they welcomed the “swift, bold and decisive action taken in safe-guarding South Africans from infection” but believes that the president did not adequately address the impact these measures would have in terms of government’s ability to continue delivering services such as clean drinking water, improving water-infrastructure and sanitation conditions in township and rural areas in the country.

“The extraordinary measures are an indication of the seriousness in which all South Africans should take in curbing the spread of the coronavirus,” said Hlengwa.

• Events such as the Decorex decor exhibition in Durban and PMB’s Music In The Hills were cancelled after the president’s speech. Other events, such as the Comrades Marathon and Splashy Fen, will make announcements this week.

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