Lockdown extension only pushes virus’ peak forward, says expert

Zandspruit informal settlement in western Johannesburg. Residents of Zandspruit say they can’t conform to the national lockdown rules of staying indoors because their shacks are too small and each home has about five people in it PHOTO: rosetta msimango
Zandspruit informal settlement in western Johannesburg. Residents of Zandspruit say they can’t conform to the national lockdown rules of staying indoors because their shacks are too small and each home has about five people in it PHOTO: rosetta msimango

As SA grapples with coronavirus, some provinces want the national shutdown to continue but an expert says this only pushes virus’ peak forward

South Africans are only just starting the extended phase of the national lockdown, but there are already questions whether the extra two weeks will be enough to bring the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus under control.

Last week President Cyril Ramaphosa extended the initial 21-day lockdown by another two weeks until the end of this month, but some provinces that are feeling the brunt of the pandemic have not ruled out another extension.

The Gauteng provincial government was among those to advocate the extension of the lockdown, however, health MEC Bandile Masuku says the additional 14 days might still not be enough to get the virus under control.

Gauteng has been the epicentre of the virus infections in the country, with more than 1 000 cases recorded.

Masuku said: “We were among the people who advocated the extension of the lockdown because of the numbers of infections that were getting out of hand and the increase was becoming more exponential.

The lockdown period might not be sufficient

“The lockdown period might not be sufficient, but we will have to adjust some of the regulations,” Masuku said.

Initially, government was working on “a trial and error basis” but the MEC said the first 21 days had taught them key lessons and their response to the deadly virus had “improved tremendously”.

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This week will see the Gauteng executive looking at the economic impact the nationwide lockdown has had on the province.

The decision to pursue an even longer lockdown period would be dependent on whether South Africa’s ailing economy would survive such an extension.

The prospect of a longer shutdown might mean that government would have to introduce a basic income grant for ordinary people during the longer period, officials told City Press

Earlier in the week, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma spoke about the gradual easing of the rules once the lockdown officially ended.

However, Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane has called for a complete shutdown of the province, which if implemented would see even stricter regulations than the ongoing lockdown.

Mabuyane spoke to City Press as the numbers of new infections in the Eastern Cape have grown at an alarming rate – from the first case on March 21 to 246 on Friday, according to the latest statistics.

Mabuyane said they feared reversing the gains of the current lockdown by abruptly ending it.

“We have made a couple of proposals [to national government] as the Eastern Cape, looking at the situation and understanding that we were delayed as a province, we are catching up seriously and every day our numbers are growing.

“Clearly, when the lockdown period comes to an end in two weeks’ time we will be almost approaching our peak. So, we might be unintentionally reversing all that we have been doing by abruptly stopping,” he said.

Mabuyane said they were also mindful that the economy was hurting as a result of the lockdown.

He said that, as a province, they were of the view that in the next two weeks there should be a complete shutdown of the province to see what impact this would have.

The premier said at the moment the spreading of the virus could not be stopped “because people are all over” and the regulations were not effective.

“As long as people going for groceries are not expected to have permits [infections will continue to spread], because everyone is in town.

“Under current regulations people come into town in the morning until 9am. Then as soon as they finish doing groceries they cannot go home because there is no [public] transport after 9am and they have to wait until late. So, in a way we are organising people into towns to spread the virus because they are coming in their numbers and they don’t have to have a permit,” Mabuyane said.

Mpumalanga Premier Refilwe Mtshweni-Tshipane’s spokesperson, Sibongile Mkani-Mpolweni, said: “The province will take its cue from the president [Cyril Ramaphosa]. The premier is pleased with the low number of infection cases, which are 23.”

The North West government, which has 24 cases, said it was not under immense pressure like Gauteng and other provinces that have recorded high Covid-19 infections. It was not at a point where it would consider keeping some lockdown regulations in place.

For Shabir Madhi, a vaccinology professor at Wits University, because of the-under detection of cases caused by a lack of testing at scale, the country didn’t have the full picture of what kind of transmission was happening.

“We should have been testing roughly 10 000 to 15 000 people a day from the time the lockdown started, not two-and-half weeks after.

“What happened in the first two weeks of lockdown, you can even look at the numbers that were sent by the national department of health, was that testing actually decreased compared to the time before the lockdown.”

effectiveness of the national lockdown in South Africa is undermined by the realities of our local context

Madhi said that the entire purpose of the national lockdown was to identify people infected with the disease and to put them in isolation, as well as quarantine their households.

A spin-off of that would then have been the reduction of community transmissions because people would not have been coming into contact with each other, he said.

“But in the South African context, we still had people roaming the streets, queueing in supermarkets and for their Sassa [SA Social Security Agency] grants. So the effectiveness of the national lockdown in South Africa is undermined by the realities of our local context,” Madhi added.

Another factor was the turnaround time of the tests and the results.

Once a symptomatic patient was identified and a swab was taken, Madhi said, it was taking too long to get the results back – up to three days.

On the issue of extending the lockdown, he said: “There’s modelling that’s been done which basically shows that all we’re doing is moving the peak period [of infection forward] by extending the lockdown.

“We [in South Africa] extended [the lockdown] for two weeks; all it means is that the total number of people who are going to get infected, hospitalised and die remains unchanged. With the lockdown the way it is and not testing at scale, [what it means] is that it moves the epidemic curve to two weeks later.”

A senior government official said it was difficult to tell whether the lockdown would be extended.

“People may say let us have a ‘lockdown lite’ in which you open up certain sectors of the economy. There are different possibilities, including relaxing tough requirements of the lockdown and opening certain companies and certain sectors of the economy.”

For example, the official said, certain shops and malls could open at certain times so that there is no congestion in public spaces.

“Already in the townships people are not respecting the lockdown, so you do not want to start a mass defiance. You want to manage it in such a way that it’s guided properly and government still maintains legitimacy. You do not want to plant a seed of discontent and you are not able to manage it and people just tell you to go to hell.”

– Additional reporting by Setumo Stone, Sizwe Sama Yende and Poloko Tau

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