To say South Africa is tired of the lockdown would be a gross understatement.
Officials acknowledge the effect that a curfew and limitations on movement are having on the population’s financial and mental health, but say they are holding firm against a bigger health threat: that of a virus that has killed 3.2% of those known to be infected in the World Health Organization’s African region.
The global death rate is about 7%, according to WHO statistics.
The head of the opposition Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, told the ruling African National Congress, “We are no longer dealing, with a COVID-19 crisis. We are dealing with a lockdown crisis. An ANC lockdown crisis, to be precise. Let me be very clear about this: There is no longer a justification to keep this hard lockdown in place. Government cannot even produce this justification. They cannot show us the modeling they use to decide when to ease and when to tighten restrictions. They cannot do this, because they don’t seem to know for sure themselves.”
The initial five-week hard lockdown, which has now been replaced by slightly loosened restrictions, was aimed at buying the health system time to prepare for an inevitable wave of infections. Critics argue that that time is up, and that the harm done to livelihoods outweighs the risks faced by easing the restrictions.
Most of the country is currently under what is known as Phase 4 of the eased lockdown, with a nighttime curfew and reduced shopping hours in place. The sale of alcohol and cigarettes remains illegal. Although several key sectors of the economy have gone back to work, many South Africans remain at home, unable to do so.
Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, urged more targeted testing and screening, and huge improvements to water and sanitation. Lockdowns, he said, aren’t enough.
“And if we can’t do that, unfortunately, we're setting up ourselves for, irrespective of what policy government has, if we're not able to abide by those sort of conditions, if we can’t create an environment for people to actually practice those sort of interventions, we're going to have a much quicker rate of transmission of the virus,” Madhi said. “And we're trying to get a surge much sooner, and the peak with this wave probably will be much greater than we expect, if those non-pharmaceutical interventions don't work.”
At this time, the government is holding firm in its positions. Over the weekend, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize noted an alarming rise in new infections in the Western Cape, and threatened that the nation may see a return to a total lockdown, or “heightened interventions of various forms” in some areas where transmission is high. Steenhuisen opposes that.
“The real tragedy playing out here is no longer the coronavirus, but the lockdown itself,” Steenhuisen said. “Because this lockdown is going to cost many more lives than it can possibly save.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to say publicly when the restrictions might end; but, in his Monday newsletter, the president said the nation was stepping up its testing, screening and treatment regime. He noted, “The transition to the next phase of the coronavirus response, that of recovery, will be more difficult than the present one.”