Covid-19 Roundup | Level three brings new challenges

Lockdown regulations are easing across South Africa, heralding a rise in the movement of people as schools and businesses reopen and the labour force gets back to work. Infections are expected to spike.

As the country prepares to begin operating at level three of the government’s Covid-19 lockdown on 1 June, Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize has assured the public that there are measures in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus, particularly in areas with a high number of cases.

Mkhize said on 27 May that the government has identified epidemiological hotspots and taken additional measures to contain the spread of the virus in these areas. “As clearly explained by the president [Cyril Ramaphosa] in his speech, these are areas that have more than five infected people per 100 000 population, or areas where the infections are increasing at a fast pace,” Mkhize said.

Ramaphosa said in his address on 24 May that seven metros have been identified as hotspots. These are Cape Town, Tshwane, Ethekwini, Buffalo City, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Nelson Mandela Bay. Other hotspots include the West Coast, Overberg and Cape Winelands district municipalities in the Western Cape, iLembe district in KwaZulu-Natal and Chris Hani district in the Eastern Cape.   

Mkhize said the government had decided to deploy specialists and experts and that they would devise plans specific to their area to limit the spread of Covid-19. He mentioned that if the proposed structures fail to keep the infection rate manageable in a certain area, that area could return to lockdown level four or five.   

“This will be done rapidly and in an effort to contain and manage the spread, and also to ensure that our health facilities are not overwhelmed by the rapid rise of positive cases in that area,” he said. 

Commuter trains not ready

With much of Gauteng’s working class returning to work in June, a Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) presentation to the Gauteng Legislature’s portfolio committee on roads and transport suggests that the province’s commuter trains are not ready. 

Only one Metrorail line – between Pretoria and Pienaarspoort, east of Mamelodi – will be operational at level three. Of the line’s usual passengers, 30% will ride four trains, stopping at eight stations. Only one of these stations is ready to offer hand sanitisation of any kind. One has no running water, and none have been fitted with the required social distancing markers. 

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Prasa said it will cost close to R48 million to make this one line compliant with Covid-19 regulations during level three. Without the funding, the agency “will not be able to provide services from 1 June 2020”. 

The state-owned rail agency also said there is a high risk of “ripple effect of employees testing positive”. Six Prasa employees had tested positive for the virus at the time of writing, 119 had recorded high temperatures during screening and 116 were in quarantine.

Barriers for waste reclaimers 

Waste reclaimers have challenged the constitutionality of certain lockdown regulations that impede them from working. Barred from operating at level five, reclaimers have been allowed to work under level four regulations. 

But Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy issued a directive that requires reclaimers to apply to the municipalities for permits. It says they must be in possession of an identity document, passport, work permit or other form of documentation to support the application.

The African Reclaimers Organisation has described these directives as anti-poor and xenophobic. It said the government was already using the possession of certain documents, such as IDs, or the lack thereof in marginalised communities to determine who gets food parcels and social grants. This has seen thousands of people subjected to hunger. The same irrational and unfair requirements cannot be imposed on vulnerable groups of people trying to earn a dignified living, said the organisation.

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Acting on behalf of reclaimers in Tshwane, Lawyers for Human Rights have lodged a legal

challenge to the directives as they violate the fundamental rights of waste reclaimers. 

“The state’s Covid-19 directives must be related to halting the spread of the virus and ensuring the safety of the country, not simply used as a tool to create new laws,” said Lawyers for Human Rights attorney Louise du Plessis.

Not only Africans on Africa Day’

Shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo criticised the South African government this week for ill treating migrants.

In its Africa Day message on 25 May, organisation president S’bu Zikode said: “In South Africa, the same politicians that encourage and enforce xenophobia from above are saying how much they love Africa. But what does it mean to say that you love Africa when you are sending the police to round up people from Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique, beat them, steal from them, and then take them to rot in Lindela before they are deported? What does it mean to say that you love Africa when you always put the profit of multinational companies before people?” 

Abahlali baseMjondolo went on to say it had always been an inclusive organisation that understands the plight of migrants.

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“Our record on this question is clear. We are not only Africans on Africa Day. We live and struggle side by side with our comrades from Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Membership and leadership are open to all. We believe in the words of Kwame Nkrumah: ‘I am an African because Africa lives in me.’ We believe in solidarity and internationalism,” said Zikode.

“You cannot say that you support pan-Africanism or internationalism while you are simultaneously pursuing a top-down politic of state xenophobia,” he added. “We will remain committed to building a bottom-up politics of solidarity that unites the oppressed in struggle.”

Smokers fuming

While the sale of alcohol is to resume, smokers are left fuming at the government’s decision to extend the ban on the sale of cigarettes into June as the country moves to level three of the nationwide lockdown, while the sale and flow of illicit cigarettes continues. The unpopular decision has been backed up using scientific evidence and to curb the transmission and spread of the coronavirus, according to the government. Early on 28 May, Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu reassured smokers and interested parties that cigarette sales would be allowed at lockdown levels below three.

“The ban on cigarettes, it’s just the level we are in. We don’t know how many weeks we will be at this level. I can assure you after we’ve been out of level three, I don’t see the ban on the sale of cigarettes continuing,” Mthembu was reported to have said. 

In court papers filed on 27 May, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said the government could not afford to have “thousands of smokers taking up ventilators and ICU beds due to vulnerabilities associated with smoking”. The constitutionality of the ban has been challenged by those citing the right to self-determination, with tobacco heavyweights throwing their weight around, too. 

A third of university students

Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande said on 23 May that at level three of the government’s Covid-19 lockdown, a maximum of 33% of tertiary students will be allowed to return to campus.

This includes students who had already returned during level four of the lockdown; those in their final year who are expected to graduate in 2020; final-year students who need access to laboratories, technical equipment, data and internet connectivity or access to their residence or private accommodation; and post-graduate students who need to use laboratory equipment and other technical equipment. Students in any year of study with clinical training as part of their curriculum may also return if the training platforms have sufficient space to accommodate them while adhering to safety protocols.

“I will publish directions in terms of the Disaster Management Act to permit such travel. Institutions will issue permits to identified students to allow for their travel,” said Nzimande. 

Clinic trials and tribulations

In Port Elizabeth, the Zwide Clinic is scheduled to reopen on Monday 1 June after being closed for three weeks following a coronavirus outbreak that claimed the lives of two nurses and infected 12 other members of staff, including support workers. But the Department of Health has refused to retest staff members who tested positive for the coronavirus and have been in isolation for the past 14 days. 

Some nurses have paid to be retested privately. 

Sources at the clinic say the government has not provided enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to safeguard all staff members when the clinic reopens. According to one source, the department was “stockpiling” PPE instead of distributing it. 

“They are not issuing enough PPE to health workers on the ground in general. When they talk about the millions of masks that have been purchased, they are telling us what is in the store, not what is issued to staff in their hands at a clinic level,” said the source.  

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Another source said community health workers are afraid of starting work again, particularly those who have recently recovered from the coronavirus, as they were not being provided with boots or gowns and had to wear their own clothes. The only PPE that community health workers were provided with was masks, gloves and a plastic visor, despite one of their duties being to accompany suspected Covid-19 patients to facilities to be tested.

“We still need to find out if the department plans to force workers to wear each mask for two days. We are going to be gathering this information. Workers become infected by this virus because of the way they are dressed at work. So if every worker had PPE, we could have prevented most fatalities and infections in Zwide,” said South African Federation of Trade Unions regional secretary Mzikazi Nkata.

The manager of Zwide Clinic, who would only identify herself as Mrs Mretho, declined to comment.

Zwide has been a coronavirus hotspot since April 2020, after a funeral was held in the area during the national lockdown that resulted in at least nine known infections.

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