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South Africa lockdown 'no longer sustainable'

June 19, 2020

President Cyril Ramaphosa said he was trying "to balance our overriding objective of saving lives and protecting livelihoods." Around 40% of South Africans live below the poverty line, and the lockdown hit them hard.

A pupil at the City Kidz Pre & Primary School in the Inner City district in Johannesburg sanitises his hands as he enters the school
Image: AFP/M. Longari

South Africa faced one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, with almost all outdoor movement restricted and a firm ban placed on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was praised for ordering the lockdown, but the measures pummeled the nation's economy, which was already facing a recession before the coronavirus.

Despite a rapid rise in cases, Ramaphosa pushed to continue to ease lockdown restrictions this week. In an address to the nation, he focused on the need to preserve economic livelihoods and called for a reopening of the leisure industry.

Read more: COVID-19: South Africa's social divide and economic woes exposed

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“We have to think about these people who are employed in these industries and those who depend upon them for their livelihoods. Through the easing of the lockdown we are continuing to balance our overriding objective of saving lives and protecting livelihoods," he said.

Salim Abdool Karim, a prominent epidemiologist who is leading South Africa’s COVID-19 advisory team, believes the hefty set of restrictions should be lifted as they are not sustainable. 

"Because South Africa acted very early, we imposed restrictions and the lockdown when we had only 402 cases," Karim told DW. "We are now in week 14 of the lockdown and it's no longer sustainable for us to continue along this path. And so we're having to make the very difficult decision of easing the restrictions, so that people can start accessing healthcare, accessing food and so on."

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The issue of reopening the country is a contentious one, with more than 40% of the South African population living below the poverty line. Many of those people are employed by factories and production lines shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak. Without sufficient state assistance, those people have also been at risk of hunger without an income.

But despite seeing a resumption of normal economic activity, the spike in cases this month has accounted for a third of total cases in the country, Ramaphosa said.

Read more: COVID-19: Security forces in Africa brutalizing civilians under lockdown

At the start of the month, the mining sector and manufacturing businesses were allowed to return to standard production, while people were allowed to go outside for work, worship, exercise or shopping. The ban on alcohol sales was also lifted this week.

Additionally, Ramaphosa said casinos, cinemas, personal care services and some accommodation would soon be allowed to resume operations.  

The Marxist opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), have subsequently accused authorities of sacrificing poor and vulnerable workers to the interests of the elite, and criticized the reopening of places of worship.  

Hard-hit Cape Town

Western Cape province, which includes Cape Town, has been the hardest-hit area by the pandemic, accounting for nearly 60% of all coronavirus cases, with over 47,000 infections.

Karim believes that the area was so heavily hit due to unusually high levels of community transmission.

"We were always playing catch-up in the Western Cape, trying to find cases and stop the transmission through looking at contact tracing and isolation. It reached a stage very quickly where all our efforts were actually just trying to get to a point of some level of containment." However, he says, slowing the rate of transmission hasn't stopped a continuous rise in new cases.

Read more: Cape Town — A tourist's paradise without tourists 

African hot spot

South Africa has a total of 83,890 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with a total death toll of 1,737. The country of 58 million people has significantly more cases than its neighbors, and the highest number of cases on the continent.

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Despite conducting thousands of tests per day, the country is also dealing with a shortage of test kits, which can help officials track and curb the spread of the disease.

"The country is now doing somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 tests per day," said Karim. "So it's not like we're doing only a handful, we're doing a lot of tests. But our need is much, much greater." 

The problem does not lie in the country's capacity to test, he said, but is due to a difficulty accessing the necessary number of tests. "We have the capacity, to do 70,000 tests, 90,000 tests a day. We have that capability because that was built in order to do testing for HIV and tuberculosis. So we have the capacity, we have the machines and everything, we just can't get hold of the kits."

Lesotho, the landlocked kingdom encircled by South Africa, has just four confirmed cases, while Zimbabwe to the northeast has just 463 cases and four deaths. Namibia, to the northwest, has 40 confirmed cases and no reported deaths.

Read more: Africa rallies support for coronavirus testing kits

lc/msh (Reuters)