Gauteng Covid-19 SOS: province pleads for hard lockdown regulations to curb surge
Covid-hit province will try to persuade cabinet that tough new curbs will help
The Gauteng government wants the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) to allow it to reintroduce hard lockdown regulations in an attempt to curb soaring Covid-19 numbers in the province.
If approved, the move could see SA's economic powerhouse being shut down for up to two weeks at a time.
"Nobody goes to work and no-one moves. Then the economy opens up again for a particular period of time and then it closes again. So at least there is predictability and you can control infections in that way," health MEC Bandile Masuku said yesterday.
He was speaking minutes before attending a provincial cabinet meeting.
With infections in the province having surpassed 54,000 by Friday evening, Masuku went to the meeting with a proposal for an "intermittent" lockdown, closing economic activity in intervals.
However, the province could struggle to convince the national cabinet, which has the final say on the matter, as President Cyril Ramaphosa told the media on Friday that there are no plans to move back to level 4 or 5 of the national lockdown.
During the period of the proposed lockdown, movement would be restricted, and weddings, protests and church gatherings banned. The number of people who attend funerals would be cut from 50 to 20.
Alcohol sales for off-site consumption would be allowed only once a week.
Masuku told the Sunday Times the province needs the reinstatement of restrictions seen in the early days of the nationwide lockdown to arrest the rampant spread of the virus, which could overwhelm the system, compromising its ability to save lives.
He said the shutting down of the economy is on the table to avoid the movement of people - including barring taxis from loading 100% of their capacity.
"The option of intermittent lockdown, it gives us the option of shutting down everything. So at least there is predictability and you can control infections in that way.
"We must put up regulations which we will be able to enforce. One thing that is a problem is people gathering in crowds, that is the first one. So parties, churches, funerals, protests, weddings and all social gatherings are causing a problem.
"Restricting numbers assists us in curbing infection because you would rather deal with 20 people that you must do tracing for, and not only that but the infection rate as well. Remember, we are more or less on one person infecting three other people.
"So 50 people means you already have a minimum of 150 people for tracing and the possibility of infections spreading," he said.
Co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma would not say if the national cabinet would approve Gauteng's proposals.
"Let's wait until they come and we'll hear what they have to say . when they come we'll listen to them," she told the Sunday Times yesterday.
She would also not say if the cabinet had discussed a differentiated lockdown for hotspots.
Masuku revealed that the Gauteng government is in a frantic race against time to set up life-saving infrastructure.
We are going into this discussion now on lockdowns with a better understanding of what they are and how they work, given the experience we have had over the past few months.Health MEC Bandile Masuku
He said the government has roped in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), mainly to build field hospitals with thousands of beds.
This week Ramaphosa informed parliament that he will be extending the deployment of 20,000 soldiers to assist in enforcing Covid-19 regulations. This is in stark contrast to the deployment of 76,000, which ended last week on Friday.
Gauteng is not the only province calling on the SANDF. This week Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane also announced that he had sent an SOS to Ramaphosa.
Gauteng has a shortfall of 1,501 beds in the medium term and almost 8,000 for the period from the end of July to September, according to a presentation made public on Thursday.
Yesterday the provincial cabinet met to give departments a chance to table their needs, which will be documented and packaged as a recommendation to the president, who chairs the NCCC, which will have the final say.
On Thursday premier David Makhura was at pains to emphasise that protest actions are causing cluster outbreaks. He also joined Ramaphosa in lamenting how the abuse of alcohol is causing avoidable traumas, reducing the availability of beds.
Masuku said: "We are going into this discussion now on lockdowns with a better understanding of what they are and how they work, given the experience we have had over the past few months. We're not going into it blindly, we know the high-impact areas and how we will enforce restrictions in those areas."
He said the exact model of lockdown is still being discussed but it will see a total shutdown for a specified time in order to flatten the curve.
He said this will also bring about a sense of "predictability".
The national government has yet to table plans for any differentiated approach of
localised restrictions for hotspots.
The Western Cape - which until recently was the epicentre of the country's Covid-19 pandemic - has reportedly registered up to 1,662 cases per 100,000 people.
Gauteng could soon overtake Western Cape as the epicentre as it began recording the highest number of active cases.
Masuku said modelled projections for Gauteng have been based on the hard lockdown of the first few months.
Upon considering the behaviour of people coupled with expanded economic activity, it became clear that the peak could arrive a month earlier than originally expected.
The province has begun the work of adapting its quarantine site at Nasrec, near Soweto, to a field hospital as well as building another one at the Tshwane Events Centre. The two sites, along with others, will provide an additional 4,500 beds by the end of July.
Masuku said the province has reached out to the department of public works and the Solidarity Fund for additional resources to build these field hospitals.
"Ideally we wouldn't want to have ventilated patients at field hospitals but they should... serve the same purpose when required, so the aim is to get all those who are critically ill to be in hospitals and those who just require continuation of oxygen and antibiotics can be at those field hospitals," said Masuku.
"The SANDF will set up field hospitals as they do when they go to battle and it will serve the same purposes, so we will use the same structures which they put up, which are quite resilient and insulated."
He said the province is working to ensure that no patients are turned away when seeking help and that they will be comfortable even as they wait to be assigned to beds.
Masuku also raised a concern flagged by the Mpumalanga department of health this week - that health-care workers are getting infected in their communities.
"Yes, there is a sizeable number of workers who get infected at work, who get infected by patients. However, most of them have actually gotten infected where they stay in the community.
"So one of the things we are in discussion about - which I think should have happened earlier - is to try and preserve and have separate accommodation [so] that our health-care workers at a particular point in time shouldn't be travelling between work and the community. When you have that, already you have a bigger platform for them to get infected, which is the case now."
Calls by taxi operators to operate at 100% capacity were raised as a concern by Makhura this week. He said teachers and pupils use taxis in the main to get to school. As of this week 108 pupils and 311 teachers in the province have tested positive.
Transport minister Fikile Mbalula is set to hear from his colleagues in the NCCC today on whether or not they will allow taxis to operate at full capacity.
The industry has cited fears of up to 40% of taxis being repossessed as their reason for the 100% demand and their rejection of the government's R1bn relief fund measure, which would amount to R5,000 per licensed taxi.