South Africa’s COVID-19 Cases Explode As Country Tries To Rescue Its Economy
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa

Four months after South Africa implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, it appears that neither lives nor livelihoods have been spared.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was widely praised for taking decisive action when he introduced one of the fastest and strictest lockdowns in the world in late March. Within three weeks of the country’s first case being identified, all residents had been ordered to stay at home for five weeks, and for a while it appeared as if the country was going to escape the worst of the pandemic.

But four months later, South Africa has the fifth highest COVID-19 caseload in the world after the US, Brazil, India and Russia. It accounts for over half of all African cases and the economic cost of the lockdown seems to have been in vain as the country is following the worst-case scenario sketched by epidemiologists.

And while the country recorded over half a million cases the first weekend in August, SA president Cyril Ramaphosa said that “the national lockdown succeeded in delaying the spread of the virus by more than two months, preventing a sudden and uncontrolled increase in infections in late March. Had South Africans not acted together to prevent this outcome, our health system would have been overwhelmed in every province. This would have resulted in a dramatic loss of life.”

Ramaphosa added that “the daily increase in infections appears to be stabilising, particularly in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Eastern Cape. Our case fatality rate – which is the number of deaths as a proportion of confirmed cases – remains at 1.6%, significantly lower than the global average.

“We have empowered our law enforcement to investigate all reports of alleged corruption and irregularities in the procurement of medical and other supplies. It is unconscionable that there are people who may be using this health crisis to unlawfully enrich themselves.”

But official COVID-19 death toll – reported to be 7,812 on 30 July – is also in doubt after the SA Medical Research Council reported on 22 July that there were 22,279 more natural deaths between 10 June and July 20 than expected, and these were concentrated in provinces with the highest COVID-19 cases.

South Africa saw a spike in deaths by natural causes between 6 May and 21 May 2020
Lockdowns Hurt Day Wage Workers

The dramatic effects of the lockdown were evident within days in a country where millions of people – citizens and economic migrants from neighbouring countries – are heavily dependent on a hand-to-mouth existence in the informal economy.

Feeding schemes were soon inundated and some reported queues up to four kilometres long, as people used to eking out a daily living from selling at markets became instantly destitute because they weren’t allowed to trade.

Some 47% of households reported running out of money for food in April, according to the National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey which was recently released.

The South African government appeared not to have anticipated such a rapid and dramatic economic catastrophe and it was forced to relax lockdown regulations on 1 May, and allow most sectors of the economy to open from 1 June.

“We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t,” said Professor Salim Abdool Karim, the chairperson of the ministerial advisory committee (MAC), which provides scientific advice to the health minister.

“The WHO recommends an easing of restrictions only when cases start going down, but we would have had a lockdown for a very long time and had to deal with starvation. The regulations were not sustainable and we had to ease some,” Abdool Karim said in a radio interview last week.

“We were not in a position to ease restrictions on 1 June to allow for 70 to 80% of economic activity to resume, as cases were going up at the time. But each decision requires a fine balance. Right now, the economic decisions are a really a high priority,”  said Karim.

Volunteers in Philippi, Cape Town packing food parcels to be given out to the needy during the COVID 19 pandemic lockdown.
Contradictory Lockdown Policies Based On Politics Rather Than Science

But as the government seeks to balance health and the economy, its pandemic response has degenerated into a morass of contradictory regulations. Worse still, many appear to have been influenced by powerful lobby groups rather than by science or even economics.

Churches, casinos and restaurants  – identified as super-spreaders in other countries – have been allowed to operate for some time with certain restrictions.  But public parks and beaches remain closed.

From mid-July, minibus taxis, the main mode of transport for most South Africans, have also been permitted to operate at 100% capacity although Abdool Karim admitted that 50% capacity would be best from a health point of view.

At the same time, domestic leisure travel is banned even if people want to drive in their own cars to self-catering accommodation.

There is a curfew between 9pm and 5am, although scientists on the ministerial advisory committee say it will have no bearing on the spread of the virus. However, it has a significant impact on businesses such as restaurants need to close by 8pm to allow their staff to get home in time.

Sturks Tobacco Shop, considered one of the oldest businesses in Cape Town, South Africa. It was closed in 2020 due to COVID-19.

The sale of cigarettes has been banned since the lockdown started – ostensibly to get smokers to quit and thus protect them from severe COVID-19 illness. But this too has been condemned, even by scientists.

A large study of over 12,000 smokers released in late May found that only 16% had quit while over 90% had been able to buy cigarettes on the black market.

“The ban may well have undone the progress the South African Revenue Service had made in reducing illegal cigarettes prior to lockdown. It has given illicit traders a larger foothold in the cigarette market, and has created an opportunity for these traders to develop their distribution channels,” according to the researchers from the  University of Cape Town.

In addition, diabetes – rather than smoking-related conditions – has emerged as one of the most dangerous co-morbidities. Yet government has not banned junk food or sugary drinks that are fueling the country’s type two diabetes epidemic.

Last week, Ramaphosa announced that schools would be closed until 24 August against scientists’ advice who advocated that neither children nor teachers were more at risk in schools than communities.

However, a recent court order has compelled school feeding schemes to remain open, so children from low-income schools will still go to school to get food.

Political Corruption Difficult To Control

Depressingly, the pandemic has also provided opportunities for corrupt government officials to profit from tenders awarded to friends and relatives for a range of pandemic-related good and services, including the supply of food relief and personal protective equipment.

Numerous workers who have lost their jobs during the pandemic have also reported not getting the unemployment insurance fund (UIF) payments owed to them, while government has been slow to pay out a miniscule R350 (around 18 Euros) it promised to all unemployed South Africans between May and October.

Shoppers queue outside to observe social distancing measures during South Africa’s Level 4 lockdown.

Ramaphosa announced last week that he had empowered the corruption-busting special investigative unit (SIU) to investigate “allegations of corruption in areas such as the distribution of food parcels, social relief grants, the procurement of personal protective equipment and other medical supplies as well as the UIF special COVID-19 scheme”.

Media reports say that 90 companies are being investigated in one province alone, and that the corruption is estimated to have cost R2,2-billion (Euros 113 078 507) so far.

Sandile Zungu, head of Business Unity South Africa, described businesses profiteering from the pandemic as “parasitic COVID-pruners”.

“South Africa is becoming a nation of thieves, with the most unscrupulous enablers in official positions all too ready to feast on the relief meant for the most vulnerable in our society,” Zungu told a leading Sunday newspaper.

Ramaphosa’s promise to address the corruption has been met by skepticism. His administration has so far failed to act against his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, who looted billions and has brought the economy to its knees.

Ramaphosa beat Zuma by a narrow margin and was forced to make deals with various corrupt factions and individuals to do so, and lacks the power to take them on.

In addition, a number of his key allies in government have been infected with the virus and been forced to step aside. Four Cabinet ministers, three provincial premiers and the treasurer general of the ruling party are amongst those infected.

In the meantime, frustration and anger is building in communities as more people lose their jobs and young people lose hope of ever being able to find work.

This story was updated 3 August 2020 to included a public statement from Cyril Ramaphosa.

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons: Discott, GovernmentZA, SA Medical Research Council, Wikimedia Commons: Discott, WIkimedia Commons: Thuvak.