Economists on the future of lockdown in South Africa

 ·13 Jan 2022

The South African government will face significant hurdles should it plan to introduce tighter lockdown restrictions going forward, say economists at investment bank BNP Paribas.

In a research note on Thursday (13 January), the bank said that the emergence of the Omicron variant in late 2021 saw a steeper rise in South Africa’s number of new infections than during the previous three Covid waves.

However, while the transmissibility of the virus is seemingly much stronger than other variants, the severity of the illness looks to be milder, limiting the mortality rate, which is down more than 80% from prior waves, it said.

“A lack of severe pressure on the country’s healthcare system allowed the government to avoid imposing tighter restrictions on the still-struggling economy over the country’s summer break. In fact, the country’s curfew was completely lifted from 31 December for the first time since the onset of the pandemic. As a result, mobility has held up at the start of the new year.”

While BNP Paribas said that there are still concerns about the country’s lagging vaccination rates, the bank said it is likely that the country has now turned a corner when it comes to restrictions.

“We believe that the hurdles for a return to stricter lockdowns are high, as we expect the government to adopt a more pragmatic approach as it looks to the virus to transition towards an endemic.”

There have been growing calls for the South African government to end the 22-month long national state of disaster which has been enabling the various lockdown restrictions in the country.

Medical experts have argued that, given the data available from the fourth wave, there is no longer a need for the state of disaster, particularly as virtually all lockdown restrictions have been lifted. However, the Department of Health said that things like the public mask mandate are still in effect, and cannot be implemented without it.

Health experts agree 

BNP Paribas’ commentary comes after John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), said that severe lockdowns were no longer the best way to contain the virus.

“The period where we are using severe lockdowns as a tool is over. We should actually be looking at how we use public health and social measures more carefully and in a balanced way as the vaccination increases.”

In an analysis published earlier in January, Shabir Madhi, dean of the faculty of health sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the South African government has decided to take a more pragmatic approach while keeping an eye on severe Covid and whether or not health systems are imminently under threat.

“This reflects an acceptance that governments will increasingly be looking for ways to live with the virus cognisant of the detrimental indirect effects that restrictions have been having on the economy, livelihoods and other aspects of society. This is particularly pertinent in resource-constrained countries such as South Africa,” he said.

This week, Spain called for Covid-19 to be treated as an endemic disease, like the flu, becoming the first major European nation to explicitly suggest that people live with it.

The idea has gradually been gaining traction and could prompt a re-evaluation of government strategies on dealing with the virus, Bloomberg reported.

British Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi on Sunday told the BBC that the UK is “on a path towards transitioning from pandemic to endemic.”

On Wednesday (12 January), South Africa reported 6,762 new cases of Covid-19, taking the total reported to 3,540,891. Deaths have reached 92,830 (+181), while recoveries have climbed to 3,309,735, leaving the country with a balance of 138,236 active cases. The total number of vaccines administered is 28,585,930.

Read: Europe starts to consider treating Covid like the flu – and ending restrictions

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