On Monday evening, 14 December, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced additional Covid-19 measures to stem the tide of a ‘second wave’ in South Africa. These are urgently required after Health Minister Zweli Mkhize stated last week that South Africa had officially entered the second wave of the pandemic. Infection trends have risen sharply in four provinces – the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, and traditional travel between provinces over the holiday period risks worsening the outlook. Nevertheless, the government has eschewed a return to harsher restrictions, not least in light of the challenging economic and fiscal picture.
With daily average new cases now at 6,600 and deaths having increased from 100 to 150 cases per day, new public health measures are urgently required. According to Ramaphosa, infections are now heavily concentrated among the 15-19-year age group, with large social gatherings cited as super-spreader events. Customary holiday season travel between cities and rural areas risks worsening the picture.
Beyond Nelson Mandela Bay, the government has declared two additional Covid-19 hotspots: Sarah Baartman district (Eastern Cape) and the Garden Route district (Western Cape). Given the risks posed by the festive season, additional restrictions will also be implemented at the national level. These focus on stricter enforcement of the current ‘Level 1’ restrictions, with an attempt to force managers and employers to ensure face-masks are worn at the risk of facing fines or even imprisonment of up to six months. The size of social gatherings is also being reduced and events like festivals prohibited entirely. The hours of the night-time curfew will be extended again, to 11pm to 4am.
But no return to higher alert level
The cabinet has avoided a return to higher alert levels and harsh lockdowns, at least in part because of acute fiscal and economic concerns. With the economy only just starting to recover in Q3, with unemployment at 30.8% (or 43.1% according to the expanded definition) and no additional fiscal stimulus to give, the imperatives to avoid another massive shutdown of economic production and unpopular and complicated regulations are immense. In any case, that today’s new measures are being introduced without raising the overall alert level hardens the impression that the government’s five-tier alert system has become largely redundant.
Looming vaccine challenge
Like elsewhere, the big issue heading into 2021 will be the rollout of vaccines, amid major concerns that the African region will be at the back of the global vaccine queue. As part of the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) initiative, Ramaphosa says that South Africa hopes to receive vaccines for about 10% of the population “in the early part of 2021.” Ramaphosa has also been overseeing the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team to identify alternative financing mechanisms beyond COVAX. Also primed to struggle is South Africa’s joint proposal with India at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to issue a pandemic-related waiver of intellectual property rights to improve access for poorer countries. If vaccine access represents a major challenge, public attitudes might pose an additional problem, particularly after Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng controversially stated: “If there be any vaccine that is the work of the devil, meant to infuse 666 in the lives of the people, meant to corrupt their DNA, any such vaccine, Lord God Almighty, may it be destroyed by fire in the name of Jesus.”