'A recipe for sickness and death': Easter 'plan' fear amid Covid-19
Warning of third wave as government mulls larger church gatherings
The government is considering allowing outdoor gatherings of up to 5,000 people and indoor gatherings of up to 1,000 to accommodate religious gatherings over the coming Easter weekend.
It is also toying with the idea of restricting or barring alcohol sales over Easter and banning interprovincial travel to limit the movement of people between provinces, according to two senior sources privy to discussions that took place in the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) this week.
Though nothing has yet been decided, the Sunday Times understands that a number of options were placed before the NCCC.
President Cyril Ramaphosa will meet provincial premiers on Monday, after which deliberations will be taken to the cabinet for a final decision.
Health minister Zweli Mkhize told the Sunday Times that the government is discussing how to contain infection risks over Easter while at the same time accommodating churches.
"There are debates about issues of safety going into Easter. The worry is if we become complacent and there are gatherings in overcrowded spaces where safety regulations are not followed, that will create a situation whereby the next wave [of Covid-19 infections] or clusters can arise," he said.
"On the other hand, we have churches who have been pleading that there have been no services and they do not want to miss Easter for the second time, so we have to balance those factors. A decision has not been made. It is a difficult one."
A senior politician who sits on the NCCC, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said one of the options discussed was permitting indoor gatherings of up to 1,000 people, and 5,000 people outdoors, but there was fierce opposition to this proposal. Another option was allowing indoor gatherings of up to 500 people and restricting outdoor gatherings to 1,000. A third option proposes increasing indoor gatherings to 250 people and allowing 500 people to gather outdoors.
Medical physician specialist professor Francois Venter of Wits University has branded all of these options "a recipe for sickness and death", which could accelerate the onset of the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The country is currently on level 1 restrictions, which allow for indoor gatherings of a maximum of 100 people and 250 outdoors.
The Covid ministerial advisory committee has recommended a temporary move to level 2 during Easter to reduce the risk of super-spreader events. A move to level 2 would restrict all gatherings to 50 people; move the curfew from midnight to 10pm; and permit the sale of alcohol for off-site consumption only between Monday and Thursday.
The possibility of increasing the numbers of gatherings was sparked by an outcry from religious bodies whose leaders told Ramaphosa at a recent meeting that they could not be expected to cancel Easter festivities for a second year.
"This is specifically for churches," said the NCCC member, adding that there were disagreements over the issue of increasing the number of people who can gather and also around interprovincial travel. But there was near-agreement on banning the sale of alcohol over Easter.
"On alcohol we agreed," said the member; [sales] must be closed."
The politician said that some NCCC members argued that allowing large religious gatherings would set a bad precedent because the government cannot enact a special dispensation for churches. They said it would then be difficult to control other large, potential super-spreader events such as parties, concerts and nightclubs.
Those in favour of indoor gatherings of up to 1,000 people proposed that interprovincial travel be restricted to control the movement of worshippers between provinces.
"They said if you curtail inter-provincial travel, people will still gather but within their provinces," the NCCC member said.
But this was fiercely opposed by other NCCC members who argued that limiting interprovincial travel over Easter would have a devastating impact on the aviation industry in a traditionally busy period. It was also argued that provinces such as the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Northern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga benefit from the arrival of people from Gauteng over Easter.
There was also a worry that restricting interprovincial travel would require people to once again apply at police stations for permits to travel for funerals, an administrative nightmare.
A businessperson privy to NCCC discussions, who asked not to be named, said he was shocked to learn that the government was considering allowing large religious gatherings. "I'm shocked; this was not the advice from business," he said.
Churches have lobbied hard for their right to hold Easter services.
Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) told the Sunday Times yesterday that they had asked Ramaphosa to allow smaller churches to fill 50% of their floor space, and for bigger churches such as Rhema and Grace Bible Church - which have auditoriums that can accommodate up to 6,000 people - to fill one-sixth of their floor space, which would allow up to 1,000 people inside.
"We said don't allow half but allow up to 1,000 people inside; that's plenty of space for social distancing," he said.
Mpumlwana said the SACC had drawn up guidelines for members "with norms and standards on how to conduct your church service in a safe way, and they are more rigorous than what government is demanding".
He said the latest revision of the guidelines instruct members to only meet at churches within their circuits and not to have different parishes gathering at a central place, as has been the norm at Easter. Catering was also forbidden.
"There must be no sleepovers. You go for one day, have your service and go home," said Mpumlwana.
Pastor Giet Khoza of Rhema Family Churches said they told Ramaphosa that their large auditoriums could use half of the floor space available and still comply with social-distancing regulations. He said it was unfair for churches to be expected to cancel Easter festivities when people were interacting in large numbers at shopping malls and other closed spaces.
"Last year the president came to us to say close all your Easter gatherings, things are bad, and we complied. Every time we were asked to close, we did. We are the most compliant sector; we have never given the government a headache."
However, Venter said of the possibility of an increase in the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings: "It's a recipe for sickness and death, and shockingly poorly considered."
He said every super-spreader event documented was traced to indoor gatherings.
"Singing and speaking loudly has been shown to hugely increase transmission. Church and family events indoors are extremely dangerous," Venter said.
"We need to survive the third wave. Sadly, the vaccines are coming too late, too slow."
Martin Kingston of Business for SA said the advice from Nedlac - where the government, business and labour meet - is that faith-based gatherings be restricted over Easter because they are "potential super-spreader events".
Kingston said large gatherings pose an enormous risk ahead of a potential third wave, especially when SA was yet to embark on a mass vaccination programme.