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South Africa’s coronavirus consensus begins to crumble

COVID-19 in Africa

South Africa’s coronavirus consensus begins to crumble

Against a blue sky South Africans wait for food supplies. A man in a blue t-shirt points the way

Although South Africa had the highest rates of both Covid-19 infections and deaths, swift consensus-forming and action by President Ramaphosa appears to have nipped the epidemic in the bud. But a blanket lockdown and heavy-handed enforcement is hitting ordinary people the hardest. How long will they accept it for? Mushtak Parker reports.

When historians look back and assess the Covid-19 mitigation response of governments around the world, then South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration will no doubt feature at the top end of the rankings.

He has won plaudits from political friends and foes at home and organisations such as UNAIDS and the WHO for the decisiveness and inclusiveness of his government’s measures to combat the health and socio-economic impact of the coronavirus (Covid-19). 

On 11 March, the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic and a week later Ramaphosa met leaders of the 14 parties represented in Parliament, building a cross-party consensus on fighting and containing the spread of the disease.

“All leaders agree that Covid-19 poses a real threat to the lives, livelihoods and prosperity of our people. Our country finds itself in an extreme situation that requires extraordinary measures. All state institutions will be mobilised, but if we are to succeed, every company, trade union, NGO, university, college, school, religious group and taxi association will need to play its part,” declared the President.

Five days earlier, on 5 March, the health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize confirmed the country’s first case of Covid-19, in Kwazulu-Natal province.

Ramaphosa immediately established a National Command Council chaired by himself “to coordinate all aspects of our extraordinary emergency response.” He also declared a National State of Disaster to “enable us to have a coordinated disaster management mechanism that will focus on preventing and reducing the outbreak of Covid-19.”

South Africa has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic while it is in recession. In March, Statistics South Africa confirmed that the country had slipped into its second recession in two years in the final quarter of 2019, when the economy shrank 1.4%, following a revised 0.8% contraction in Q3. GDP growth in 2019 registered 0.2% compared with 0.8% in 2018, making last year the annus horribilis for the South African economy.

Minister of Health Mkhize advised on 11 May that the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases had passed the 10,000 mark to reach 10,652, with a total of 356,067 tests conducted; and sadly, 206 Covid-related deaths.

Slowdown in rate of infection

In the fortnight up to 10 April, South Africa saw an unexpected slow-down in the daily rate of infections. Was President Ramaphosa justified in suggesting that this was due to the two-week lockdown, which was extended to the end of the month?

The lockdown started on 27 March, restricting all South Africans – apart from essential services workers – to their homes. Ramaphosa’s restrictions were aimed at containing the internal transmission of the pathogen and its wider societal, economic and health impact.

The measures announced by President Ramaphosa from 15 March were comprehensive. The government imposed travel bans on foreign nationals from high-risk countries; cancelled visas to visitors from those countries; banned South Africans from travelling to high-risk countries; required South Africans returning from high-risk countries to undergo testing and self-isolation; strengthened surveillance, screening and testing measures at the country’s 72 ports of entry (land, sea and air), closing 43; and stopped all government non-essential foreign and domestic travel.

The government encouraged social distancing by banning gatherings of over 100 people; cancelled mass celebrations; closed schools until after the Easter weekend; and required all businesses, industries, shopping malls and entertainment centres to intensify hygiene control.

It increased capacity at all designated hospitals and for contact tracing processes; partnered with the private sector to set up a national tracking, tracing and monitoring system for all people infected with Covid-19 and those they have been in contact with; and launched a communication campaign on good hygiene and effective prevention behaviour. “We are calling for a change of behaviour amongst all South Africans,” maintained Ramaphosa.

Government responds to economic downturn

The economic impact of Covid-19 includes a decline in exports, tourist arrivals, production, the viability of businesses, job retention and job creation. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s R500bn (US$26.91bn) stimulus package is complemented by a R300bn monetary package announced by the South African Reserve Bank, bringing the total economic response to R800bn.

The response included a R20bn boost for the health budget; and R50bn towards the relief of hunger and social distress. The measures include topping up several grants including child support and providing assistance for companies and workers through a set of tax reliefs and payment deferments.

There is also a R200bn loan guarantee scheme for firms and the phased re-opening of the economy, conditional on businesses installing a screening and testing system and providing a safe environment.

“Growth will not recover immediately. The longer it remains weak, the greater the risk of permanent destruction of economic capacity,” said Mboweni.

“This has serious implications for income of households and firms. Global weakness further compounds these growth effects, alongside the impact of a weaker currency and higher borrowing costs. Unsustainable state-owned enterprises are putting great pressure on the budget. While we are aware of the need for a short-run enormous intervention, we must ensure that our choices do not mortgage our future,” he added.

Heavy-handed approach?

Some have criticised the heavy-handed enforcement of the lockdown. Ramaphosa knows that it was unsustainable indefinitely, because “our people need to eat and to earn a living. Companies need to produce, trade and to generate revenue and keep their employees in employment.”

After 30 April, the country began a gradual and phased recovery of economic activity, balancing “the need to resume economic activity with the imperative to contain the virus and save lives.” Ramaphosa also urged citizens to “wear a face mask whenever you leave home”.

The all-party consensus started to crumble after the initial lockdown period had passed and been extended. The Democratic Alliance (DA) opposition, and various interest groups, want the lockdown relaxed immediately because it is deemed ineffective, especially in the townships and informal settlements, and is starving the Treasury of much-needed revenues.

They want greater involvement by the private sector in delivering economic recovery.  The economic cost of lockdown is estimated at between R13-R20bn a day; the tax shortfall at around R285bn; and job losses between 3-7m. But, the spectre of race always lurks in the psyche of South Africans. Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane caused a stir when she insisted on the use of Black Economic Empowerment as part of the criteria for allocating the government’s R200m emergency funding for the tourism sector.

The DA also objects to the continued ban on alcohol during the lockdown because of the tax loss to the Treasury. The idea behind the ban was to stop drink-driving, drunken fights and socialising and to free up vital hospital beds. 

South Africans have been told to prepare for living with the threat of Covid-19 for a year or longer, even as restrictions are being eased. Ramaphosa has promised to “introduce new measures to make contact tracing more effective. We will need to implement mass sanitisation of workplaces, public transport and other spaces.” 

A survey conducted by Victory Research in April showed that initially, 77% of South Africans supported Ramaphosa’s lockdown. However, less than 40% supported an extension of the lockdown past 30 April.

People are feeling the pinch as the lockdown affects them economically and over half of those surveyed said they could only pay for essentials for three weeks or less during lockdown. 

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