Covid-19 Roundup | Antibodies and retrenchments

Antibody testing begins as the country moves past the peak of infections and restrictions are lifted. But the hard lockdown continues to devastate workers.


On 24 August 2020, the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority announced the use of antibody testing for Covid-19. A small blood sample is drawn from a patient by pricking their finger. The blood is analysed to see whether antibodies, which are proteins created by the immune system to fight off a virus, are present. But Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize has cautioned that the test is severely limited in its scope and is only recommended for the “diagnosis of Covid-19-associated multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children”, so as “to retrospectively diagnose Covid-19 individuals with occupational exposure to SARS-CoV-2” or for epidemiological or clinical trial purposes. 

Currently, South Africa uses the molecular polymerase chain reaction, a test in which a throat or nose swab is taken from a patient and analysed. This still remains the only way Covid-19 can be clinically diagnosed. 

City of Cape Town interdicted

The City of Cape Town has expressed an intention to reverse a court judgment handed down on 25 August that has been hailed as a landmark eviction case. The ruling interdicted the City from engaging in evictions without a court order during a state of disaster.

Following a series of violent evictions in the Western Cape, the South African Human Rights Commission with the Legal Resources Centre and other organisations approached the court to interdict the City.

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The notorious anti-land invasion unit was interdicted by the high court in Cape Town from evicting and demolishing homes both unoccupied and occupied for the duration of the state of disaster. The City was further interdicted from issuing a tender to any private entity to demolish any so-called “illegal structures” for this period of lockdown. Evictions will have to be lawful with a court order and be done in the presence of the police to ensure the dignity of the evictees is protected. 

The City of Cape Town has also been ordered to return all confiscated building material and to pay R2 000 to each resident claiming compensation after being evicted. 

The City says the judgment is bad in law and will open the floodgates for occupation of private property and city land.

Over the peak

All indications are that South Africa has now passed the peak of the coronavirus. According to figures presented by health minister Zweli Mkhize to the World Health Organization this week, the average proportion of positive Covid-19 tests has declined from a high of 27% during the week ending 23 July to 14% for this week. It remains to be seen whether the country manages to continue repressing new infections, or, as has happened in the United States, they surge again in a second wave.

Cautiously optimistic in KwaZulu-Natal

KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala this week welcomed the decreasing number of Covid-19 infections in the province, The Mercury reported. In the provincial executive statement, Zikalala reportedly said he was still worried about four of the province’s districts – King Cetshwayo District, eThekwini, uMgungundlovu and Amajuba – which are still contributing to the highest number of cases. “We are monitoring the impact of interprovincial travel, the reopening of schools and more sectors of the economy,” he said. 

Regarding the reopening of schools, Zikalala said it all “went smoothly”. Most of the teachers, he said, reported to work, except for 22 teachers from the Chief Lokothwayo Primary School in Marianhill.

Retrenchments at SAA

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the South African Cabin Crew Association (Sacca) have instructed their members not to take voluntary retrenchment from South African Airways (SAA). The voluntary retrenchment offer came after the unions and SAA agreed to reduce the number of workers at SAA to 1 000, with a further 1 000 workers to be placed on a training lay-off scheme. But the unions now say they can’t be sure workers will get their severance packages. SAA employees have not been paid for four months and are surviving on Covid-19 temporary employer and employee relief scheme payments, which only covers part of their wages. 

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The Department of Public Enterprises failed to guarantee funds for workers’ salaries or for the voluntary retrenchment packages, said Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim and Sacca president Zazi Nsibanyoni-Mugambi. “We are concerned that if workers sign these agreements without any confirmation of funding, they will be effectively terminating their relationship with the employer, with no guarantee of income. If SAA has any chance of survival, the entire board and executive must be replaced because they drove the airline into the ground,” they said.

Neglected health and safety

Employees of the Truda Foods factory in the small town of Komani, Eastern Cape, marched on the Department of Employment and Labour, the fire department and the local police station on 26 August, saying that these agencies have failed to enforce the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) at the factory. They marched on Truda Foods, which makes soya mince, porridge and snacks, the following day. South African Security and Allied Workers Union (Saswu) general secretary Xolile Mashukuca said there have been industrial accidents at the company that have led to workers being cut by machinery and seriously injured by forklift trucks. 

“Because it makes chips, there are oil pipes that are all over the place, and there is no emergency evacuation plan. At the front entrance are oil and diesel tanks. At the back entrance are gas cylinders. The fire department is supposed to have drawn up an evacuation plan jointly with the factory but they have not. If there was to be an explosion, it would be a terrible death trap. It is unbelievable that a company like this is allowed to operate in South Africa,” said Mashukuca.

Equality before the law

Cosatu’s North West provincial secretary, Kopano Konopi, has slammed the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for withdrawing a case of breaching the Disaster Management Act against Impala Platinum chief executive Mark Munroe. Munroe was charged in April after the mine recalled over 60 000 employees to work during the lockdown, instead of calling back only the essential service workers. 

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According to Konopi, the NPA withdrew the case on the grounds that Impala is a major economic player. He said South Africa had become a “mafia state”, where the rich and powerful were not obliged to obey the law. “If we had a functioning judicial and legislative system, Munroe, along with other intransigent employers who put workers’ lives at risk, would be put on trial and not be released. Our court system was only designed to railroad the poor into jails and prisons and not to touch the elite. There is no equality before the law,” said Konopi. 

Cosatu previously speculated that the prosecuting authority would never actually process a criminal charge against the mining boss and was angered when, even before withdrawing the charges, the NPA refunded Munroe his R60 000 bail money, allowing him to await trial on a warning.

No digital devices for financial aid students

The year is coming to an end and beneficiaries of the national student financial aid scheme are yet to receive digital learning devices, without which it is impossible to “save the academic year”. In a press statement on 26 August, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande said: “This is, of course, unfortunate and regrettable only in the sense that the procurement of learning devices will not take place right now.” 

According to Nzimande, no one qualified for the tender. “None of the bids competing for the supply of learning devices … had achieved the mandatory requirements as required in the bid document. For this reason, no tender was awarded.”

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