Cape Town: With South Africa’s economy in freefall, the government will allow most businesses to reopen next month even as coronavirus infections continue to mount heading into winter.
Africa’s most-industrialized economy went into lockdown on March 27, with only grocers, pharmacies and suppliers of essential services allowed to keep operating. While the rules were eased May 1, many businesses have remained partially or completely shut and unemployment — which stood at 29% before the coronavirus struck — soared.
The entire country will move to disease alert level 3 on June 1, from level 4, allowing an additional 8 million people to return to work, President Cyril Ramaphosa said Sunday in a televised speech. The government earlier threatened to retain more stringent restrictions in areas where infection rates are highest, including some of the main cities — an option that remains should the spread of the virus there remain unchecked.
“We have known all along that the lockdown would only delay the spread of the virus, but would not be able to stop it,” Ramaphosa said. “While the nationwide lockdown has been effective, it cannot be sustained indefinitely.”
Under the new rules, limited alcohol sales for home use will be allowed to resume, while a night-time curfew and a restriction on when people can exercise will be dropped. Tobacco sales will remain banned because of the health risks associated with smoking. Restaurants, bars, sporting venues, places of worship and conference centers also won’t be allowed to reopen.
The easing comes after the authorities faced criticism that some of the rules were nonsensical, had no bearing on the fight against the virus and were causing undue harm to the country. The central bank expects the economy to shrink 7% this year, while business groups have warned of an even bigger contraction and millions of job losses.
South Africa’s 22,583 confirmed coronavirus infections and 429 fatalities are low compared with nations such as the U.S., Spain and Italy, but the number of cases has risen sharply in recent weeks as testing and screening increased. Currently 842 patients are in the hospital, with 128 of them in intensive care. The government is re-purposing about 20,000 hospital beds and building 27 field hospitals to accommodate an anticipated surge in patients.
The spread of the pandemic has been particularly worrying in the seven main cities, which have been declared virus hotspots, and intensive interventions will be instituted there to bring the disease under control, Ramaphosa said. He urged citizens to take greater responsibility for safeguarding their own health and that of their compatriots.
“The easing of some restrictions does not mean that the threat posed by the coronavirus has passed or that our fight against the disease is over,” Ramaphosa said. “In fact, the risk of a massive increase in infections is now greater than it has been since the start of the outbreak in our country.”
Here are some of the other changes that will result from the easing of restrictions:
- Most retail is permitted, with strict health protocols in place.
- People must remain at home, except to travel to work, buy goods or seek medical care and exercise.
- All public transport may operate subject to directions; limited domestic air travel will be allowed for work purposes. – Bloomberg