State of war: Ramaphosa takes command of Covid-19 response as national disaster is declared


President Cyril Ramaphosa last night invoked sweeping emergency powers as he announced a range of extraordinary interventions by his government to try and curb the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

Declaring the outbreak of Covid-19 a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act, he said South Africa has the "knowledge, means and resources" to defeat the virus.

"We must appreciate the extent of the threat that this disease presents, we must accept the anxiety that it causes, but we cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by fear and panic," he said.

On a day of high tension, Cabinet met at the Union Buildings in Pretoria to consider various options to address the global pandemic and to maintain order and calm across the country, while nations across the world are battling a growing number of infections.

In Italy, one of the epicentres of the virus, the death toll shot up 25% between Saturday and Sunday, with 368 people dying in 24 hours.

The World Health Organisation on Sunday night confirmed that there were more than 153 000 confirmed infections in 146 countries. These have resulted in more than 5 700 deaths.

The United States declared a state of emergency on Friday.

During a nationally televised address, Ramaphosa told South Africans that he will personally chair a government command council which will spearhead the response to the crisis. It will meet three times per week, consist of the inter-ministerial committee dealing with the coronavirus outbreak and will "coordinate all aspects of our extraordinary emergency response".

Some of the major decisions taken by Cabinet include:

·         A ban on travel from various countries, including Britain, China and the United States;

·         The closing of 35 land ports of entry, as well as two of the country's eight seaports;

·         A ban on gatherings of 100 people or more;

·         Introduction of tracking, tracing and monitoring systems; and

·         The consideration of a fiscal relief package to minimise damage to the economy.

Leader of the opposition in the National Assembly John Steenhuisen (DA) welcomed Ramaphosa's announcement and said politics should be put aside if the virus is to be contained.

He said the DA "will be tracking and closely monitoring the implementation of the president's announcements both in our own governments as well as those elsewhere in the country, while doing everything in our power to mitigate the effects of these measures on the country's already strained economy and public healthcare system".

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While various businesses and small enterprises were preparing to engage employees and workers on Monday to ensure safety, hygiene and remote working possibilities, the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town have decided to suspend classes. Wits will be closed on Monday, while UCT announced it will break early for the end of the first semester.

The Disaster Management Act gives the National Disaster Centre – located in Bryntirion, metres away from the Union Buildings on Meintjeskop in Pretoria – broad powers to mitigate the effects of any disaster.

According to the act it allows government to intervene as it sees fit, including the regulation of information pertaining to the disaster. It also provides for the release of government resources, including emergency funds, stores, equipment and vehicles.

Government can also manage and restrict the movement of people and goods, move and evacuate citizens and regulate the sale of alcohol if necessary. It is also empowered to institute "other steps that may be necessary to prevent an escalation of the disaster, or to alleviate, contain and minimise the effects of the disaster".

cyril ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation on Sunday evening. He declared the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus a national disaster, invoking the Disaster Management Act. (AFP)

Ramaphosa said the declaration of a national disaster "will enable us to have an integrated and coordinated disaster management mechanism that will focus on preventing and reducing the outbreak of this virus".

"We will also be able to set up emergency, rapid and effective response systems to mitigate the severity of its impact."

A clearly fatigued and sombre Ramaphosa attempted to rally South Africans, saying that he has confidence in the nation to overcome the threat of the virus.

"While we are facing a medical emergency far graver than we have experienced in recent times, we are not helpless. We have the knowledge, the means and the resources to fight this disease.

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"If we act swiftly with purpose and collectively we can limit the effects of the coronavirus on our people and our country… We are responding as a united nation to a common threat. This national emergency demands cooperation, collaboration and common action.

"More than that it requires solidarity, understanding and compassion. Those who have resources, those who are healthy, need to assist those who are in need and who are vulnerable," he said.

All ministers involved in Ramaphosa's response plan to the virus will brief the media at 10:00 on Monday about specific interventions. This will presumably include more details about the various travel bans, as well as efforts to protect the economy.

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