Many South Africans are drinking lots of alcohol — which blocks up hospital accident and emergency wards. President Cyril Ramaphosa bans its sale. And as Covid-19 deaths rise, he’s getting tough on his citizens again.

13 July 2020 By Paul Martin
Face-masked South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

With Covid-19 infections accelerating to 276,200 confirmed cases by the night of Sunday July 12, President Cyril Ramaphosa has reimposed a ban on selling alcohol. He has also brought back a night-time curfew (from 9pm to 4am). It’s now become compulsory to wear masks. 

“[I realise] this imposes unwelcome restrictions on peoples’ lives and mood,” said Ramaphosa as he criticised careless citizens and residents.

“Some act without responsibility to respect and protect others. A number of people have taken to organising parties, having drinking sprees and walking in crowded spaces without masks. It is concerning that many are downplaying the seriousness of this virus,” said Ramaphosa.

Regulations to ban alcohol have already been passed. 

“The resumption of alcohol sales has resulted in substantial pressure on [hospital] trauma units – [as a result of] accidents, [drunken clashes] and other forms of [alcohol-related] trauma,” said Ramaphosa.

And the reason for the reimposition of a curfew is that “most of these and other traumas occur at night”. 

The Medical Research Council’s Professor Charles Parry, who advises the government on the alcohol ban, said that an eight-week ban could decrease trauma admissions by 50,000 in South Africa, freeing up space for 12,900 Covid-19 patients in ICU (based on cost savings) or 18,000 patients in general care wards.

The alcohol industry had been on a corporate PR campaign placing ads and influencer campaigns to beg their customers to drink responsibly. It did not work, says the Maverick.

Responding to those South Africans who have complained they do not have masks, the president said: “Seriously! Even a T-shirt or a piece of clothing can be worn over your mouth.

“[There have been] several tragic instances where people organise social gatherings, including family gatherings or ‘after-tears’ [post-funeral gatherings], where people have contracted the virus and have died.”

The minibus taxi industry, the main form of mass transport for black South Africans along with trains, announced at the beginning of July that it would start a defiance campaign against the lockdown by filling up taxis to 100% (and not at the regulated 70%).

The government has backtracked on this, though. Local taxis can fill up at 100%, but if they will travel long distances they can only load to 70%. 

All other cross-provincial travel is still banned.

New regulations mean these taxis must keep windows open and must also make sure their drivers and passengers wear masks.

The winter of discontent just got more discontented as the national electrical power supplier Eskom is also load-shedding extensively – a much-hated system to shut off electricity supplies from area to area between pre-declared hours. That left people without power for much of the coldest weekend of the year.

As deaths rise, the government has taken steps to strengthen the lockdown rather than loosen it. 

According to official statistics, by Sunday July 12, 4,079 people had died from Covid-19 and one thousand of those had died just in the last week. 

While South Africa had delayed the surge for 120 days, infections are growing at over 12,000 a day (or 500 an hour), said Ramaphosa.

However, South Africa’’s case fatality rate from Covid-19 is 1.5 percent, making it one of the lowest in the world, said Ramaphosa.  

“This is compared to a global average case fatality rate of 4.4%,” said Ramaphosa. He emphasised, “The surge has arrived. The storm is upon us.”

Calling this the “gravest crisis in the history of our democracy”, Ramaphosa warned: “The difficulties of the past few months are about to get significantly harder.”

But he promised: “We will weather this storm. We will restore our country to health and prosperity.”

Modellers predict that South Africa may have between 40,000 and 50,000 deaths by the end of the year.  

“We must make it our task to prove these projections wrong. We can and must change the cause of this pandemic in the country,” said Ramaphosa.

He acknowledged that “health facilities in several provinces are under intolerable strain – it is deeply worrying that we hear people are being turned away. We will strengthen the strategy to manage the peak.”  There is also a shortage of 12,000 health workers.

Hospitals in Gauteng and Eastern Cape are taking the greatest strain and reports in the past week have revealed shortages of beds and that health worker infections are growing so high that they are compromising care.

Government is increasing general wards and critical care beds, freeing up ward capacity by delaying elective surgeries, increasing oxygen supplies (even if it means diverting supplies), and improving referrals from rural facilities to urban health centres. 

One of the reasons hospitals are facing such problems is that testing is slow (due to international shortages of equipment and chemicals) as backlogs mean patients cannot be discharged or moved to the correct level of care.  Ramaphosa said government was working on “reducing turnaround testing time to no more than 48 hours”. 

People who refused to isolate were likely to face measures (including counselling and social worker assistance) to make them do so.  

While Ramaphosa shut down the booze industry, he has reopened the auction sector. And parks will reopen too, but not for gatherings (picnics, concerts, organised runs, walks etc).  

But even though people are mixing and gathering, Ramaphosa said: “Family visits and other social activities are not allowed.” 

While Ramaphosa’s previous addresses have been well received, the downcast early commentary suggested a much less popular landing of his sixth Covid-19 address. 

Early commentary suggested that it lacked policy coherence, that the taxi industry was getting off easily and many people raised concerns about whether the lockdown period had been well-used if the health system was teetering so precariously.

In addition, South Africans have suffered a weekend of triple jeopardy: higher infections amidst a lockdown, intensifying load shedding and biting cold fronts that ripped across the country. DM