With the coronavirus pandemic declared a state of disaster in South Africa, government will now look at how to address the crisis as it anticipates the virus will spread to more vulnerable communities.
President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday (15 March) declared the coronavirus epidemic a state of disaster, and put in place a series of restrictions to try to reduce the impact of the virus on the population.
Among the restrictions are the closing of ports and prohibition of gatherings of more than 100 people.
The restrictions are being applied to hopefully reduce the spread of the virus, but government said it has a plan in place – reviewed constantly as things change on the ground – to deal with the disaster if and when it spreads to the population.
Various government departments including the minsisters of health, higher education, basic education, defence, home affairs, and finance have come together to provide and update on what is being done during the disaster.
Some important takeaways include:
- Quarantine is being made a priority, with municipalities looking for possible locations;
- Emergency funding has been made available;
- The school year will be reworked to minimise the impact on the curriculum;
- Universities are not shutting down, but contact lectures are being suspended;
- Stock and supply chains are being secured to prevent panic buying;
- Taxis across the country will go through sanitisation processes;
- Government travel has been suspended;
- Extra officials from closed border posts will be sent to back up the ports of entry that remain open;
- Port restrictions are only for people, not products, and will not block commercial operations;
- The strongest measures allowed by the law are being put in place to prevent further disaster – citizens need to be aware that some of their rights will be infringed;
- A state of emergency may be declared.
The country is now at a high risk for internal transmission, said health minister Zweli Mkhize, particularly at taxi ranks and bus depots – and quarantine facilities will become a priority.
Mkhize said that currently all of the confirmed cases are those who are in the position to be able to afford trips to Italy, Switzerland and the USA.
Because of this, it has been easy to isolate them and quarantine them in their homes.
However, once the virus starts spreading through taxis and to informal settlements, the dynamic will change.
Government is now looking at setting up possible quarantine facilities to cater to those who may have come into contact with the virus, but cannot be isolated.
This will mean that people might have to be removed from their homes, Mkhize said.
In terms of treatment:
- The health department is in discussion with the private sector to make facilities available.
- All military hospitals will have isolation areas – a directive has been sent out.
Finance minister Tito Mboweni said that there are several financial arrangements being made to deal with the crisis.
A structural arrangement has been made between Treasury and the Department of Health, which is being coordinated by the MECs in various provinces. This is to ensure that any financial implications are organised and not hap-hazard.
There are funds available immediately through the national disaster fund, but as the situation develops, further funding will need to be set aside.
This will be done through reducing programmes within government – across all departments – and redirected to handling the crisis.
Mboweni did not want to say how much was available to avoid “prices changing”. However, he stressed the government was not in the position of not being able to procure needed facilities.
Don’t panic buy
The Department of Economic Development said is working to minimise the impact on the economy, and to make provision for expected economic downturn.
This includes working to secure supplies of public hygiene and medical stocks (hand sanatisers, masks, and other protective kits).
Minister Ebrahim Patel said that there is a focus on critical industries – healthcare, food and beverage, and the retail sector – to ensure that their supply chains are secured and that imports and exports are maintained.
Notably, he said that South Africans need to avoid panic buying, as it just creates further anxiety, adding that the country has enough local production and capability to keep stocks up.
Universities are not closing yet
Government will meet with the tertiary education sector on Tuesday (16 March) to agree on a way forward.
Currently, contact lectures are being suspended, which is something being called for across the country.
However, there is no shutdown as yet, due to logistics of residence students, as well as a number of pros and cons associated with such a move. The University of Cape Town is the only institute to push a shutdown by bringing the Easter break forward.
Graduation ceremonies, sports events and other major gatherings will be called off, in line with the president’s declaration.
Schools are losing 10 days
Schools will be closed from Wednesday, 18 March, and will remain closed until after the Easter weekend. To compensate, the mid-year school holidays will be shortened by a week.
The Department of Basic Education has shifted days around before and after the coming holidays to ensure that school kids only lose 10 days.
To make up for lost time, school days may be made longer once children return – and if the school shutdown is extended, the school year may also be extended.
Learners are being encouraged to do school work at home, with teachers being asked to provide extra work, and to hand over text books usually kept at school.
Visa-free no more
Home sffairs minister, Aaron Motsoealedi said that in line with the president’s declaration, visas to high-risk countries will be revoked.
However, he noted that Iran and China were the only countries listed that needed visas, with Italy, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom having visa-free travel.
This countries will have to apply for visas, now that the ban is in place.
So far, 8,339 visa applications from China have been revoked, and 429 visas from Iran have been revoked.
State of emergency
A state of emergency may be declared – but this will be an absolute last resort.
The justice department said that the strongest measures, allowed by disaster laws, are being put in place to curb the spread of the virus.
It said that South Africans need to be made aware that some of their rights will be infringed, but all is being done in terms of the constitution, led by the guidance of the Department of Health.