A Covid-19 coronavirus recovery rate that is moving close to 80%; reduced hospital admissions; a lower infection rate; and the need to resuscitate a struggling economy are some of the main reasons that President Cyril Ramaphosa announced sweeping changes to the lockdown regulations last night.
Ramaphosa announced that Cabinet had made a decision to move to alert level 2, which takes effect from midnight tomorrow.
Both the alcohol ban and the ban on tobacco products have been lifted. Ramaphosa was specific that alcohol sales in venues will be limited to a yet to be stipulated number of people, while bottle stores will only be allowed to operate from 9am to 5pm from Monday to Thursday.
All interprovincial travel as well as social visits will also be allowed. The state of disaster has, however, been extended to September 15 and the 10pm to 4am curfew has been retained.
Restrictions that will remain in place are that gatherings of more than 50 people will not be allowed, including in churches and at funerals, and spectators will still not be allowed to fill the stands at stadiums to watch any sports.
Ramaphosa warned South Africans to remain alert to avert a resurgence of the virus.
“We cannot become complacent or abandon the health precautions that we know we need to take. Even the slightest lapse in our alertness at this moment could lead to a resurgence in infections at a rate and on a scale far greater than what we have seen so far,” the president said.
The lifting of the alcohol ban, relaxation of travel restrictions and a general opening up of the tourism sector are among the key changes effected to kick-start the economy.
Sources who took part in marathon meetings throughout the week, including the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), told City Press that lifting restrictions was mostly aimed at providing reprieve to industries such as the restaurants, hospitality, tourism, transport and aviation, which have continued to suffer under lockdown level 3. Premiers and health MECs were also consulted.
Participants in the national command council discussions said there was little disagreement this time around on the way forward.
“The recovery rates are very high and the rate of infections have slowed down,” said one.
And insider said that, with recoveries at almost 80% and the mortality rate low, “the economy has to get back to work”.
Although there were fears about a new surge – as happened when the country moved from level 5 to level 4 lockdown – an argument was also made that “the facilities would still be able to cope, so healthcare capacity is phenomenal”.
TRAVEL AND ALCOHOL
People are now allowed to travel for leisure, but under strict restrictions and at only at 50% capacity to allow for social distancing.
“All health protocols would still apply, including social distancing, wearing of masks and regular hand washing.”
On concerns that lifting the alcohol ban might lead to the casualty wards being overwhelmed and an increase road accidents, the national command council had left it to an interministerial committee to determine regulations in terms of days and hours of opening.
“Remember, the alcohol industry was not fighting for full-blown opening and did not have a problem with restrictions. They only had problems with a complete ban,” said a source.
Insiders said the proposals from the Forum of SA Directors-General during the national command council meeting were more conservative than those from the representatives of the department of health.
The directors-general wanted a two-week delay in reopening, but the health department disagreed. The directors-general also said inter-provincial movement must still be prohibited, but the health department again had a different view.
International travels will still not be permitted until level 1 of the national lockdown, especially as the northern hemisphere, including Europe, the UK and the US, where many tourists to South Africa come from, was heading into winter. South Africa appeared to have fared better during the winter period and even flu infections were lower.
Rail operations would be reopened, “but there must be compliance with the health protocols”.
CORRUPTION A BIG ISSUE
Covid-19 looting was a hot debate in Cabinet and in the national command council. President Cyril Ramaphosa wants “major milestones” soon, including from the collaboration work already being done by law enforcement agencies.
A highly placed individual said the interministerial committee led by Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola was also pushed to expedite its work. The intention was to go for the big fish – politicians – instead of just focusing only on government officials.
“The outcry is that officials get arrested, but the politicians or their associates or relatives are let off the hook and often they are the people behind the looting.”
A large part of the investigation would be to follow the money and look at the hidden links between politicians, their associates and former associates with the companies and individuals that have benefited from the looting spree.
“We are talking about giving the National Prosecuting Authority the same sting that the former Scorpions had,” said a source.
ECONOMIC RECOVERY IS PARAMOUNT
The Nedlac meeting also focused on a forward looking economic recovery strategy. In their presentation, the organised labour constituency – Cosatu, the National Council of Trade Unions and the Federation of Unions of SA – said the economy was in a recession and had been prior to the pandemic. With unemployment now most likely to push past 50%, about 11 million South Africans would be without employment, the union federations said.
“There is a real danger that the economy will go into a depression,” reads the 12-page presentation.
The federations said that, even though Ramaphosa had spoken forcefully about a bold economic stimulus at Nedlac and the Alliance Political Council, nothing had been forthcoming.
They bemoaned the supplementary budget presented by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni last month, saying it further compounded the country’s challenges. They argued that by cutting R1.7 billion from the department of trade, industry and competition’s industrial financing and related programmes, the budget “threatens thousands of badly needed manufacturing jobs”.
Cuts of R1 billion from the department of tourism and R2.2 billion from Prasa badly impacted them.
“In the midst of thousands of workers queuing at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration to save their jobs, Treasury slashed the commission’s budget by R55 million,” said the federation unions.
Cosatu’s parliamentary coordinator, Matthew Parks, said there was consensus that government “could not afford to delay its response to the economic crisis a day longer”, hence the agreement on the lifting of a majority of restrictions and the need for a “forward-looking economic plan.”
A Nedlac delegate told City Press that there were strong calls for government to act decisively against Covid-19-related corruption.
OPTIMISM ON DECLINE
Have we reached the peak or are we past it? Are we testing enough people? Is there a backlog in testing? Are people just not presenting at healthcare facilities?
These are some questions that have been circulating as Health Minister Zweli Mkhize noted this week that the country’s daily infection cases were in the region of just over 3 000, down from more than 13 000 recently.
However, on Friday, the cases increased by 6 286 as the number of tests conducted increased to 35 614 after being less than 20 000 for most of the week. The recovery rate stood at 79% – with 461 734 people having recovered.
Professor Adrian Puren, divisional head for the Centres of Vaccine and Immunology, Respiratory and Meningeal and Enteric Diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said the variability in testing numbers made it harder to interpret the trend of the pandemic.
“It may well be that we haven’t reached the peak yet, probably because we’re not testing everyone or not testing to the extent we need to test to get a good sense of what the epidemic is looking like,” he said.
He stated, however, that “the percentage positivity rate ... has certainly declined”.
“It used to be just under 25%, and now it is around 17%. So for us to get good sense of what the epidemic is looking like, it’s recommended to get a positivity rate of between 5% and 10%, so that’s one clue.”
He added that the decline in the daily hospitalisation rates at both public and private hospitals over the past two to three weeks also offered another data clue that “we are reaching peak, but not out of the woods yet”.
DEATH RATE POSER
The SA Medical Research Council’s (SAMRC) Burden of Disease Research Unit’s weekly report stated that, based on data from the department of home affairs death rate reports, there were hopeful signs of the epidemic having reached its peak in all provinces by the end of last month.
The weekly number of deaths of people of all ages from all causes had continued to drop since the week starting on July 15.
However, excess natural deaths increased to 33 478 versus the confirmed Covid-19 deaths of 8 884 (by July 28), which suggested that some Covid-19 deaths that happened in communities were not reported.
This could be due to Covid-19, but related were deaths not being reported as such, or people were dying from the virus before they got to a health care facility, the SAMRC said. Excess deaths are the number of observed deaths that are higher that what would be expected.