In a matter of days, South Africans could be facing a national lockdown if the number of confirmed coronavirus infections continue to rise.
The concern is that there could be more community infections that have not been detected because of how testing for the virus is carried out. South Africa could be joining the likes of Italy and France if the measures outlined by President Cyril Ramaphosa don’t curb the rise in infections. On Friday Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced that 202 South Africans were infected, a jump of 52 from the day before.
“This is nearly a doubling of the previous day’s number and that is indicative of a growing outbreak,” said Professor Alex van den Heever, the chair of social security systems administration and management studies at Wits School of Governance. “The problem has been the bias in the testing process, in that they’ve been turning people away if they didn’t fit the criteria. I believe that is a serious error of judgement and we are essentially turning a blind eye to possible community-based infections.”
China, Van den Heever said, began their big lockdowns when they saw rapid escalations of between 400 and 500 new cases a day.
“And we could be, depending on our own numbers, be four days away from that,” said Van den Heever.
“But if we were seeing community-based infections of 100 to 200 per day, we would probably have to escalate the prevention strategy.”
Bruce Mellado, professor of physics at Wits University and a senior scientist at iThemba LABS, and his team have been analysing big data to understand global and SA trends in the spread of the coronavirus.
“The bottom line is that the situation is very serious. The spread of the virus will continue for as long as people don’t pay attention to the recommendations of the government. The problem here is that if the population doesn’t respect the recommendations issued by the government, the virus will spread and become massive,” Mellado said.
“There’s no question about it. The numbers are very clear. And even in those countries that have some level of measures, the spread is very fast.”
This comes as five people who attended a church in the Free State tested positive for the virus. The five were tourists, but the Department of Health is preparing to test almost 600 people. So far, Van den Heever said the measures that were introduced were good in preventing the spread of the virus, including the closing of schools and universities. Schoolchildren have been seen in the past as being a driver of flu infections.
But while Mkhize said there was a chance that between 60% to 70% of South Africans would become infected with the coronavirus, Van den Heever pointed out that this would only likely happen if no measures were put in place to combat the pandemic.
Department of Health spokesman Popo Maja said that if a national lockdown happened, it would be announced by Mkhize or the president.
“We are guided by the case definition as contained in the International Health Regulations per unit of the World Health Organisation,” Maja said.
But if the number of community-based infections did rise, it would mean having to identify the vector of the virus. This could be taxis, and would mean possibly even closing down taxis, even setting up roadblocks to enforce the ban, said Van den Heever.
While the fear that the rate of infections will continue to climb, economists are warning that the economy is in for a hammering, especially under lockdown.
“The consequences of measures to address the coronavirus will certainly have a significant, negative effect on SA,” said Dr Sean Muller, a senior lecturer at the University of Johannesburg’s school of economics.
“Travel restrictions will negatively impact on the tourism and hospitality industries, while social distancing measures will negatively impact on the services industry in particular.”
On Friday SAA said that it would be suspending all international flights.
“Those negative effects will, in turn, have a negative effect on other parts of the economy (including the informal sector) through reduced wages and revenue. Global developments have already negatively impacted on listed companies and could have further effects on the financial sector.
“However, this is an unprecedented situation so how current local and global restrictions will affect businesses and workers remains unclear.” “Since we do not yet even have a clear idea of how the public health situation will evolve, there is no way to come up with reliable estimates of the extent of the impact.”
A lockdown would signal disaster, said Muller. “A lockdown would seriously amplify the negative effects. If it impacted on the production and supply of basic goods that could create social instability as well.
“The government needs to be extremely cautious in balancing measures taken to prevent the spread of disease with the potential negative economic and social consequences of those measures.” Dr Kenneth Creamer, an economist from Wits University, agreed.
“The coronavirus poses a very real threat to a South African economy that is already experiencing low growth and rising levels of poverty and unemployment.”
“We need to balance the medical imperative of trying to slow down the spread of coronavirus, with the economic imperative of trying to keep our businesses running and maintaining sufficient levels of trade, commerce and payments, the lifeblood of economic activity.”
Economy expert Lumkile Mondi believed thousands of South Africans could face job losses. “The SA economy is undergoing structural change, digitalisation and human contact will be less after the crisis. It is an opportunity for retailers, including petrol stations to leap into self-services destroying thousands of jobs in the process,” said Mondi, a senior lecturer at the school of economics and business science at Wits.
“It will also pave the way for new forms of entertainment online or over TV screens from the couch or bed. SA unemployment will be in the upper 30s after the crisis and the economy will be different. A lockdown and a state of emergency is required to limit the loss of life. However the economic impact will deepen the recession and unemployment and poverty will deepen.
“The government needs to play a much bigger role in the economy and borrow from Roosevelt during the Great Depression as an employer of last resort to support incomes and nutrition.”
Meanwhile, Dr Nic Spaull, a senior researcher in the economics department at Stellenbosch University, said while murmurs of pupils and students having to repeat the year if the pandemic spread even further in SA were a long way off, schools probably wouldn’t open after Easter as expected.
“I don’t think it’s feasible for all children to repeat a year. That would basically be the same as saying all children will be one year older for each grade and there would be no space for incoming students. “I think the big question at the moment is how long schools are going to be closed for. The minister said until after Easter but I can’t see schools reopening before the end of April or May.
“That means that we need to come up with plans for how children will get meals, given that 9 million children depend on free school meals. How we can utilise that time to train teachers remotely and how to ensure children can still learn even while they are at home.”
Private schools and fee-charging schools will probably not be as affected as no-fee schools. “This is because there is better internet connectivity at those student’s houses and those schools are likely to also come up with contingency plans with remote learning via Zoom/Skype/Google Hangouts etc,” Spaull said.