South Africa shutdown: Nation braces for impact as virus spreads, army and police move in and economy seizes up

2020-03-27 05:54
Members of the SA National Defence Force ahead of their deployment on Thursday night.

Members of the SA National Defence Force ahead of their deployment on Thursday night. (GCIS)

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The national lockdown will be the largest, most complicated and challenging national effort ever recorded in the country’s history, with the government having spent the last three days trying to enact various regulations which will in effect suspend South Africa’s way of life for three weeks.

The dramatic increase in velocity of confirmed cases of Covid-19 will restrict almost 57 million South Africans to their homes on Friday as the first of a 21-day national lockdown takes effect, with the police and the army enforcing strict limits on movement across the country.

DAY 1 | SA wakes up to a new reality as 21-day lockdown begins

In what is recognised as a global health crisis, the South African government has taken the dramatic step of shuttering most businesses in the country, confining almost everyone to their homes and shutting down all public transportation. All the country’s border posts are closed, international and domestic flights are grounded, and non-essential services stopped.

This will be the largest, most complicated and challenging national effort ever recorded in the country's history, with the government having spent the last three days trying to enact various regulations which will in effect suspend South Africa's way of life for three weeks.

The first confirmed infection of Covid-19 was reported on 5 March 2020, with a state of national disaster declared a week later. By 26 March (Thursday) there were 927 cases. This means the spread of the disease has brought the country to a virtual standstill within 22 days.

While uncertain South Africans prepare to enter the lockdown:

  • There are fears that the frail South African economy will be brought to its knees due to the arrest in economic activity and confidence;
  • The public and private healthcare sector is bracing for the impact of thousands of infected South Africans, while dealing with a shortage of critical equipment and beds;
  • Political life has all but been forced into the background, with Parliament in recess, the state capture commission halted and uncertainty around crucial ANC and DA conferences swirling; and
  • All sporting and cultural events have been cancelled, including soccer's premiership, Super Rugby, the Olympics, all cinemas, theatres and galleries, arts festivals and even television soaps.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday night told members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) that he expects the rate of infection of Covid-19 to top 1 500 within days, and that unfolding events aren't only unprecedented in democratic South Africa, but unprecedented in the history of the country.

Cyril Ramaphosa and Police Minister Bheki Cele
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Police Minister Bheki Cele on Thursday ahead of the president's address to members of the police. He told them to address people with respect, compassion and humility. (GCIS)

"People are fearful… they are concerned about their health and their livelihoods," he told soldiers at the Doornkop Military Base south of Johannesburg.

"This (to enforce a national lockdown) was a difficult decision to take, but it had to be made in order to save lives."

The SANDF will be deployed to support the police in enforcing the lockdown and will man roadblocks, conduct foot patrols and guard depots.

The DA's John Steenhuisen, leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, said in a statement he supported the efforts by Ramaphosa's government to curb the spread of the virus.

READ | Ramaphosa to cops: Treat people with respect, compassion and humility

"Locking down our country and deploying the SANDF is something no South African would ever want to see in peacetime, but given the severity of our challenge it is absolutely the right thing to do. The threat of this virus is akin to a wartime situation, and this requires of each of us to make sacrifices in our daily lives, and to some of the liberties of our democratic society," Steenhuisen said in a statement.

Zweli Mkhize, Minister of Health, told News24 on Wednesday he hopes South Africans understand the gravity of the situation, while Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, whose department is in charge of disaster response, said the country was in "a serious situation".

Zweli Mkhize

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, at a media briefing on Covid-19. Both are concerned about the dramatic spread of the virus. (GCIS)

Confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus whose existence was first reported in China in December last year, has more than doubled in less than four days, and has increased exponentially since 5 March.

The number of confirmed cases as of Thursday stood at 927, up from 709 on Wednesday, 554 on Tuesday and 402 on Monday, when Ramaphosa announced the lockdown.

There have however been no deaths.

An epidemiologist directly involved in the country's response efforts told News24 that the number of infections will continue to rise during the national lockdown, but that it will not be an indicator of the efficacy of the lockdown.

"Increases are to be expected at this stage," the scientist, who spoke on condition of anonymity said.

READ | SA healthcare staff concerned over 'intermittent' supply of masks

While the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NCID), under the leadership of Dr Kerrigan McCarthy, has been ramping up testing in recent weeks, there are real fears that both the public and private healthcare system could be overwhelmed if the spread of the virus is not halted.

The country does not possess enough critical care beds and ventilators should there be a large surge of infected people, while there is a shortage of critical medical equipment and disposables.

SA National Defence Force
The army will be deployed in support of the police during the 21-day national lockdown. (GCIS)

International best practice and the most recent scientific research dictates that an effective lockdown of large sections of the population is the best way to stop the spread of the virus, isolate those that have been affected and trace people who might be at risk.

With South Africans' health is the government's top priority, there are real fears that the disease and lockdown might cause deep damage to the economy. 

All hope is now lost that government will be able to stick to its already ambitious plans to curb its massive debt burden. It will lose billions in tax revenue during the lockdown, and it has no choice to borrow money to help save industries and jobs.

Its healthcare costs may spiral due to the coronavirus crisis.

Also, Eskom's financial situation will worsen as electricity demand dwindles and it loses income, while the lockdown might cause SAA's end. 

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