We are all in agreement that South Africans are tired of the lockdown. We want our freedoms back. We want to explore the great outdoors, have braais with friends and family, go to public parks and beaches, watch our favourite sports teams at the stadium, return to places of worship, pack restaurants, taverns and bars, and travel without being restricted.
We have been under some form of lockdown for 19 months. On Thursday, President Cyril Ramaphosa placed the country on alert level 1. It moves the curfew to between midnight and 4am; permits an increase in the size of gatherings indoors to 750 and outdoors to 2,000. It allows the sale of alcohol – on and off-site – seven days a week.
We welcome the easing of restrictions; the economy needs a boost if it is to grow enough to regain some of the thousands of jobs we have lost. As we head into summer, establishments that rely on tourism or large crowds can use this leg-up. We have been stuck in our homes way too long; we need fresh air.
However, the opening up of the country also carries risks. Allowing larger gatherings could be a catalyst for superspreader events, speeding up the fourth wave.
The president has cited falling infection rates as the reason for downscaling to level 1.
“At the peak of the third wave, we were recording around 20,000 new cases each day. In the last seven days, the average number of new cases was at around 1,800 a day. There are also sustained decreases in Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths in all provinces,” he said in a public address to the nation.
However, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the hidden motive behind this decision. Election season is in full swing and political parties need to hold campaign events that attract large crowds.
South African Medical Association chair Dr Angelique Coetzee said while she agreed with the decision to ease the lockdown, allowing larger gatherings was not a well-thought-out move. “What doesn’t make sense to us is to have outdoor gatherings of 2,000 and indoor of 750. It doesn’t make scientific sense, it makes political sense. I think we are about to see in four weeks after elections what the impact of this will be.”
Ramaphosa acknowledges that political activities could cause a surge in new infections. He has urged party leaders to ensure health protocols are followed during campaigning. But political considerations are trumping health concerns.
For a country in which vaccine hesitancy is rising by the day, it is dangerous to open gatherings to these levels. SA has so far administered 17-million vaccines. Only 8.6-million people are fully vaccinated. The government has set itself the ambitious target of vaccinating 70% of the adult population by December’s end. For this to become a reality, 250,000 vaccines must be administered every single workday until mid-December. We have secured enough vaccines to cover the entire population; the challenge is how we get them jabbed into arms. On Friday the president launched Vooma vaccination weekends, intended to achieve 500,000 vaccinations over weekends.
It is still too early to judge what impact this intervention will have. Such a campaign should have kicked off long ago to counter the destructive influence of anti-vax propagandists. But as we all know, money that should have gone to this campaign went to fund beauty salons in Pietermaritzburg, Gucci bags, trips to Turkey and kitchen remodelling exercises for the family and close friends of former health minister Zweli Mkhize. The report of the Special Investigating Unit into how a R150m communications tender in the health department was squandered corruptly makes for harrowing reading.
As Mkhize and his corrupt associates prepare to face accountability, the government must ensure it ramps up public messaging on the importance of vaccinating and why it is in our interests as a nation if we are to regain our freedoms once more.