People can’t live in their rooms forever: Mkhize

 ·18 May 2020

Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize says that even though the number of coronavirus infections in South Africa is rising at a worrying rate, the country has to get back to work, and government is doing what it can to balance the two issues.

In an interview with Radio 702, Mkhize said that it was always known that the number of infections would rise.

“What is worrying us is the rate of spread is too fast,” he said, noting specifically that the trajectory taken in the Western Cape is “something that needs to be intervened upon”.

“We’re currently working on that,” he said.

On Sunday, South Africa recorded its highest new infections since the coronavirus outbreak, with 1,160 fresh cases in the last 24-hour cycle.

According to Dr Mkhize, the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases is now 15,515, while three people succumbed to the Covid-19 related illness bringing the death toll to 264.

The Western Cape remains the most severely affected province with 9,294 cases, followed by Gauteng with 2,329 and Eastern Cape with 1,936 cases.

“We remain concerned about the developments in the Western Cape, with the total cumulative cases now comprising almost 60% of the national cumulative cases and the new cases from Western Cape comprising 76% of the new cases from the past 24-hour cycle,” Mkhize said in a statement on Sunday.

The Western Cape has contributed 890 new cases, followed by the Eastern Cape, with 124 new infections reported over the past 24 hours – two provinces the minister said are exhibiting the same trend.

“The real issue is, you can’t have one province accounting for over 60% of the figures in the whole country and that province’s population is about 13%-15% of the country’s population,” he said.

Western Cape premier Alan Winde, has maintained that his province conducts substantially more tests than others, leading to higher reported cases of infection.

He has also indicated that the province has very stringent reporting standards and that deaths elsewhere in the country may not have been recorded as coronavirus-related.

“This is not true,” Mkhize said, dismissing claims of “better testing” being the reason for high numbers.

“The reality is that during the screening and testing in all provinces, we are finding different amounts of positive cases depending of how much infection is present in that part of the country. As you can see, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape are very closely associated – the numbers are going up there. These are hotspots where we will need special programmes to intervene there,” he said.

The Western Cape problem

According to Mkhize the pattern seen in the Western Cape is that cluster infections are in places where the most mobility has been recorded – specifically among essential service workers who were not confined to their homes during level 5 lockdown.

The minister said that the handling of the cluster outbreaks in the Western Cape will be the proving ground for what lies ahead for the rest of the country – and if the government is able to successfully reduce the spread of infection there, it will have a good handle on how to deal with spread around the rest of the country.

Mkhize said that citizens don’t have adequate access to healthcare – facilities or professionals. One of the planned interventions in the Western Cape will seek to address this.

This will see the City of Cape Town divided into different clusters of wards, and within the metro, a unit of multi-disciplinary specialists, nurses and social workers will be stationed.

These units will address and account for everyone within their respective area, while community, religious and professional leaders will be called on to change the culture of their respective communities to change behaviours.

In extreme cases, the intervention will also see the blocking of certain areas – hotspots where mobility is high and infections are increasing might have to be blocked off from moving around.

Ending lockdown

The minister said that South Africa has no choice but to ease the lockdown restrictions, because people need to get back to being economically active.

He said there is small comfort in the fact that the country is in the exact same situation as the rest of the world – but “there is no clear formula from anywhere in the world, so we have to adapt to our own situation”.

Government has to balance the risk to health with the need for people to get back to work so they can feed themselves. “People cannot live in their rooms forever,” he said.

“The World Health Organisation says we need to show a drop in infections – but we can’t wait for that. The numbers are still rising, but we don’t have the reserves to allow people to stay home. Because of that, we need to open up while infections are still rising.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa says that the government is in discussions around a move to level 3 lockdown before the end of May.

Read: Here are Cape Town’s coronavirus hotspots as infections surge in South Africa’s Covid-19 epicentre

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