With a 190 000 new cases and 4 600 deaths being registered in the first 11 days of this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country will stay in level 3 lockdown.
In his Monday night address to the nation Ramaphosa said that the night curfew stays, the alcohol sale ban remains and sports and religious gatherings are still not allowed.
The major announcement, however, was the closing of South African land borders, including the busiest ones affecting Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Only limited services will be offered at the borders, including transportation of cargo, emergency medical attention, the return of South African nationals and daily commuters from neighbouring countries attending school in South Africa.
Painting a picture of the deteriorating situation, Ramaphosa said new infections in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape have grown fast and have now far exceeded the peak during the first wave.
He added that infections in Gauteng were growing exponentially and are expected to increase as more residents return to the province following the festive break.
In several parts of the country, hospital admissions were also much higher now than during the first wave.
“There are currently over 15 000 people with Covid-19 in hospitals nationally, placing a considerable strain on health facilities, personnel and equipment. Around a third of all Covid-19 patients in hospitals are on oxygen”.
He said the massive increase in infections is largely driven by a variant of the coronavirus known as 501.v2, which was detected in South Africa in November. “We do know that this new variant of the virus spreads much faster than the earlier variants. This explains the fact that many more people have become infected in a far shorter space of time. Emerging information suggests that this new variant does not cause more severe illness than the original variants. But it does put more pressure on the health system because the cases increase so rapidly and the hospitals get full more quickly”.
The president enjoined citizens not to be rendered helpless by how widespread the virus was, but instead to do all the basics, such a sanitising and avoiding crowded spaces. He cautioned against attending funerals, labelling them super spreaders of the virus. “There are certain rituals that we perform in line with our respective cultures and traditions; not just at the funeral itself but in the days leading up to the burial. But these are all things we simply cannot do at this time. We are in the grip of a deadly pandemic and all these activities that would normally take place are just increasing our exposure to risk – for ourselves, for the bereaved family and for our own families at home. There will be a time when we can go to the home of the deceased to pay our respects, and to sympathise properly with our neighbours, friends and relatives. But for now, it is best and safer to stay at home”
Borders and schools
On the closing of borders, Ramaphosa said huge congestion in these areas was also helping spread the virus. “This has exposed many people to infection as they wait to be processed, and it has been difficult to ensure that the health requirements for entry into South Africa are met, with many people arriving without proof of Covid-19 tests. To reduce congestion and the high risk of transmission, Cabinet has decided that the 20 land ports of entry that are currently open will be closed until the February 15 for general entry and departure”.
He added that he understood the anxiety around the resumption of schools, and the that the command council would announce in due course what would happen.
On providing a vaccine, Ramaphosa said the target was to reach 40 million South Africans, which is considered to approximate herd immunity. While negotiations were still on-going, 20 million doses had been secured to be delivered mainly in the first half of the year.
“The second part of our strategy is to identify the priority groups that need to be vaccinated as we receive vaccine doses throughout the year. In phase one, with the first batch of vaccines, we will prioritise around 1.2 million front-line health workers. In phase two, when more vaccines arrive, we will prioritise essential workers such as teachers, police, municipal workers and other front-line personnel. We will also prioritise people in institutions like old age homes, shelters and prisons, people over 60 years of age and adults with co-morbidities. The total number we plan to reach in this phase is around 16 million people. In phase three, with increased manufacturer supplies, we will then vaccinate the adult population of approximately 22.5 million people,” said Ramaphosa.