By Jackson Mthembu
Yesterday, South Africa moved to level 3 of the National Coronavirus Alert System. This marked an important new phase in our country’s response to the coronavirus. Since the declaration of the national state of disaster by President Ramaphosa on 15 March, 2020, government has taken extraordinary actions to safeguard the lives of our citizens in the face of a global pandemic of unprecedented scale.
We have used this time to build the capacity of our health system, adding thousands of hospital beds and quarantine sites, securing adequate medical supplies and personal protective equipment, and putting training and protocols in place at all of our healthcare facilities to prepare for an increase and spike in infections.
As a result of these measures, South Africans are returning to work in a position of strength. We have succeeded both in flattening the curve and in “raising the line” of health system capacity. Our recovery rate remains above 50% and we have built sufficient hospital capacity to cope with the number of cases.
Government has since allowed most economic activity to resume at alert Level 3. However, restrictions on movement, gatherings and social activity remain in place, and South Africa’s borders remain closed, except for the transportation of goods and repatriation of citizens. These restrictions remain necessary to prevent the uncontrolled spread of the virus.
Alert Level 3 represents a continuation of the gradual and measured reopening of the economy from a lockdown. which has been a core tenet of South Africa’s response to Covid-19, following the advice of the World Health Organisation and the experts advising government.
As the director-general of the WHO advised recently: “A slow, steady, lifting of lockdowns is key to both stimulating economies, while also keeping a vigilant eye on the virus so that control measures can be quickly implemented if an upswing in cases is identified.”
We need to strike a careful balance as we move forward – if we open too quickly, too soon, or too abruptly, we risk a resurgence of the virus. However, if we do not allow greater activity to resume once the lockdown has served its purpose, we may cause unnecessary damage to the economy and to people’s livelihoods.
Alert Level 3 is designed to accommodate both of these objectives. Although it will revive many parts of the economy that have remained dormant during the lockdown, it will not yet allow a return to normal.
We will all need to remain in our homes except to travel to work, attend school, purchase goods and seek medical care. No crowds or gatherings except religious ones will be allowed, and only those with a permit may travel between provinces.
Government will continue to monitor the situation closely, including the effectiveness of targeted interventions in areas identified as hot spots. Modelling by the South African Covid-19 Modelling Consortium predicted that confirmed cases would reach 30,000 by the end of May, which has proved accurate to date.
The same projections indicate a continued increase in infection and death cases during the coming weeks, and that the pandemic will become worse before it gets better. If necessary, it remains possible to impose a higher alert in specific parts of the country to prevent a rapid increase in cases.
It is therefore crucial that all South Africans adhere to the restrictions that remain in place, and continue to take basic precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. These include the regular washing of hands, wearing a cloth face mask when in public, maintaining a safe distance from other people, and cleaning surfaces regularly.
Equally, the regular screening and referral for testing at places of work and institutions of learning remains in force. These precautions remain our best defence against the coronavirus, and are necessary to save lives.
As President Ramaphosa stated during his address on 24 May 2020: “As we enter the next phase of our struggle against the coronavirus, it is once again your actions that will determine the fate of our nation.”
We all need to play our part in the fight against the coronavirus. Government remains committed: to listen to the best evidence that is available, to defer to our world-leading health experts, and to do everything in our power to save lives.
Stay safe, and protect South Africa.
Jackson Mthembu is Minister in the Presidency