Social distancing: what South Africa’s government wants you to avoid, and what is safe to do

 ·17 Mar 2020

Since declaring the coronovirus a national disaster in South Africa, the messaging from government and leaders at large has been to encourage social distancing.

As part of the move to curb the spread of the virus, president Cyril Ramaphosa announced that gatherings of over 100 people in the country would be banned, causing some mild panic among the populace.

It also raised questions among communities and families – can spiritual services still be attended? Can people still go out for dinner to restaurants? What about work?

In legal terms, the prohibition of gatherings does not apply to workplaces, but instead refers to gatherings under the Regulation of Gatherings Act, which looks at the assembly of people for a common purpose.

This related to events, sporting activities, conferences and the like. Things like schools, universities and churches are not regulated by the Act, but leaders of these institutions are making their own declarations in the spirit of social distancing.

Social distancing

Social distancing is a social concept, not a hard-line regulation with enforced rules. It’s a broad measure to slow down the spread of infections, which will help officials curb transmission. This leaves it open to interpretation for individuals to assess the risks associated with any activity they choose to do.

The Department of Health has provided its own guidelines for what to avoid, or be cautious around where possible – but none of these recommendations are currently enforced.

It’s up to individuals and communities to opt-in to the concepts to best serve their families and wider communities.

It is in-line with the ideals of social distancing that many businesses have opted to let their employees work from home, where possible.

Some social spaces, such as theatres have also temporarily closed to avoid having large groups of people in one place, while others, like gyms, are ramping up santisation measures to help with business continuity.

Schools have closed early, and universities have suspended contact lectures – all in a bid to reduce the spread of the virus.

Currently, no laws or regulations in place forcing individuals and family units into isolation. The guidelines published by the health department are recommendations, and are highly encouraged.

According to finance minister Tito Mboweni, businesses should try their best to take precautions instead of shutting down to protect economic activity.

Minister of finance, Tito Mboweni called on South Africans not to panic so as to keep the economy moving.

Meanwhile, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor said that the government’s aim is not to move in and physically break up gatherings.

Instead, the restriction of gatherings is a call to all stakeholders in the country – from business, community and spiritual leaders, to every citizen, to take the matter seriously and protect themselves and their communities from contracting and spreading the virus.

“Countries have taken measures around mass gatherings and restricting numbers…we are appealing to the public to be the ones who respond to assisting our country not to have a spread.”

“We know the spread is due to human contact, and whatever can be done to limit spread of this epidemic, let us do it,” Pandor said.

“We don’t wish, at any point, to be calling out anyone to enforce mass separations. All of us can act, and there’s no mal-intention from government. I believe our communities can respond when they know there is a crisis mounting – and we expect that response from all South Africans.”

State of emergency

Until government institutes further directives, or declares a state of emergency which may come with further enforceable restrictions, social distancing is highly encouraged.

According to health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, a state of emergency could not be ruled out, but would only be declared as an absolute last resort.

A state of emergency would be about tightening enforcement so that certain conduct is restricted and to make sure the government closes any loopholes that would make the virus spread, he said.

A state of emergency can be enforced under Section 34 of the Constitution as a last measure and could only be declared when the security of the country was threatened by war, invasion, general insurrection, and disorder during a national disaster to restore peace and order.

The justice ministry warned that under a state of disaster, South African citizens should be aware that government is empowered to infringe on some basic rights (such as freedom of movement), and under a state of emergency, these powers are extended.

Read: Mass quarantines, emergency funding, and avoiding panic buying – here’s South Africa’s coronavirus disaster plan

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