Forget level 3 – South Africa must move to level 2: experts

Business bodies have called on the government to ease lockdown restrictions to level 2 as soon as possible, or face disastrous economic and social consequences.

It comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced earlier this week that large parts of South Africa will move to level 3 of the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown before the end of the month.

Some areas where the infection rate is highest, will however, likely remain at level 4 for longer. Unfortunately, these ‘hotspots’ are areas with the highest economic activity, including Johannesburg, and Cape Town.

The president has always maintained that the aim of the strict lockdown period has been to save lives, and to prepare the country’s healthcare system for what’s to come.

“Social partners expressed their support for the risk-adjusted approach South Africa has taken to the reopening of the economy, as well as for the original restrictions put in place to give the country time to prepare the health system for the management of Covid-19 infections,” Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko told News24.

“Social partners have agreed on the need for the strengthening and sustainability of prevention measures at workplaces, on public transport and in public places, as elements of a long-term way of life in the midst of Covid-19.

On Saturday evening, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize announced that there are now 14,355 confirmed cases of coronavirus in South Africa.

This is an increase of 831 cases from the 13,524 cases reported on Friday, when the country recorded its previous highest daily total of 785 new infections.

Dr Mkhize said on Saturday (16 May), that the total number of deaths has now reached 261– an increase of 14 deaths from 247 reported before.

A report in the Sunday Times however, shows that scientists, business and labour want the government to fast-track lockdown restrictions, saying they are having little or no effect on stemming infections in the country.

Some members of the ministerial advisory committee (MAC), the body headed by professor Salim Abdool Karim that advises the government on its response to the pandemic, have supported their colleague Dr Glenda Gray, who has said that the lockdown has no basis in science.

Gray, chair of the South African Medical Research Council, said the strategy “is not based in science and is completely unmeasured”.

The acting director-general of the department of health, Anban Pillay, said however, that the government has “adopted almost all of the recommendations” made by the medical council.

“We have never been engaged by Gray individually, or as a collective by the advisory committee, on the reasons for some of the measures that have been put in place. If they were engaged and wanted to understand something, we would be able to provide explanations.

“They could then share their views about alternatives, but we have never had such a discussion. They are directly in contact with us on almost a daily basis,” said Pillay.

MAC member professor Shabir Madhi, said: “decisions about different lockdown levels and what should be allowed are not based on anything discussed by MAC,” he said.

“The risk-adjusted strategy was never shared with us, it was presented to us the day before it was announced. We saw the models eight days ago. It’s a catastrophe. There’s panic in the MAC that decisions are being ascribed to us but we have never seen them, we were not party to them.”

Extending the lockdown was not likely to change the infection picture any further, a MAC member said.

Professor Lynn Morris, interim executive director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, noted that the country’s risk-based approach around lockdown is based on guidance by the World Health Organisation, which uses infection rate as one primary indicator.

Others include that:

  • Transmission is controlled;
  • The health system is able to detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact;
  • Outbreak risks are minimised in health facilities and nursing homes;
  • Preventive measures are in place in workplaces, schools and other places;
  • Risks of the virus being further imported can be managed; and
  • Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to adjust to the new norm.

Martin Kingston, who represents Business SA, has called for the country to move to level 2. “There’s no doubt that unless we can move … to level 2, the economy is going to suffer increasing damage.”

Business for SA (B4SA) has stated that quickly moving South Africa to a level 2 lockdown will save over one million jobs, while still allowing people to keep safe and follow Covid-19 health protocols.

If level 4 continued for a month, with a gradual move to lower levels, the economy would contract by as much as 14.5% in 2020.

However, a swift move to level 2 would reduce the contraction to 10% and cut the number of formal sector jobs at risk from 2 million to less than half that number.

Liquor Traders Association of SA spokesperson Sean Robinson said earlier this week that the body’s 1,400 members can’t wait until alert level 3 to trade, because “it will be too late”.

Intellidex analyst, Peter Attard Montalto, believes that people should prepare for a roller-coaster of level changes for at least the next 12 months.

Because of the pressures from businesses, which are eager to get back to economic activity, and the reality of the pandemic – being that the peak of infections is yet to hit, and a second peak is expected to follow as more relaxed restrictions take root – Attard Montalto expects a baseline scenario of many ups and downs in the coming months.

“The national lockdown may be reduced to level 3 for a month or so, and then back to level 4, and then into level 5 for the peak through July and August,” he said.

“This, before a return slowly back to level 2 by the end of the year, and level 1 in the first quarter of next year – before a ramp back up on a second wave in the middle of 2021.”

Read: Mkhize explains how South Africa’s district-based lockdown will work

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Forget level 3 – South Africa must move to level 2: experts