Experts warn against quick ending of Covid state of disaster
They say new regulations to manage the pandemic need to be put in place first
The end of the Covid state of disaster was flagged on Wednesday by President Cyril Ramaphosa but experts told the Sunday Times that this should not happen in a hurry.
They said a delay is needed to develop and promulgate regulations that will allow government departments to keep managing Covid interventions.
The DA, which has been leading calls for the state of disaster to be ended, said this had always been known. “It is something that should have been done a long time ago,” said party spokesperson Siviwe Gwarube.
Professor Mosa Moshabela, deputy vice-chancellor of research and innovation at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said ending the state of disaster is “not as simple as it sounds” because pandemic regulations cannot be implemented under the National Health Act as it stands.
“Our regulations are linked to the Disaster Management Act. If we end it then we don’t really have the legislation that is going to anchor those regulations. If anyone were to challenge the regulations in court, they would win.”
Moshabela said scrapping the state of disaster would also have a devastating effect on people receiving the special Covid social relief of distress grant.
Health department deputy director-general Dr Nicholas Crisp said the need for regulations went beyond the department.
“Once [the state of disaster is] lifted, each minister must implement their own regulations. There will be no National Coronavirus Command Council needed for decisions,” he said.
The Health Justice Initiative, headed by Fatima Hassan, released a report this week tracking ministerial advisory committee recommendations over 12 months ending last August.
It said the health department “has not always disclosed expert advice provided to it in a timely manner” and “in certain cases, it has not sought, or followed, expert advice at all”.
The report also found that the department “had not always disclosed the names of all of its expert advisers both from SA and elsewhere”.
Business for SA's Martin Kingston also cautioned against acting in haste.
“We think there needs to be a streamlined and seamless process of integrating [regulations] and as business, alongside all the other social partners in Nedlac, we have asked to be part of that process so that it can be efficient,” Kingston said.
University of Cape Town medical historian Mandisa Mbali said the latest one-month extension of the state of disaster to February 15 underlined gaps in public health and crisis management.
“We need to ask about the extent to which the Disaster Management Act is fit for purpose in the medium to long term,” Mbali said.
An alternative, such as legislation on global health emergencies, “could ensure more societal buy-in to measures to address the pandemic and any future pandemics of this nature. It would also encourage transparency and accountability through open public participation processes and more tailored parliamentary debates on Covid-19 measures.”
Mbali said the way HIV/Aids is managed provides a template for Covid. “We have policy-related structures such as the South African National Aids Council. It produces five-year national strategic plans. We could follow such an approach to develop Covid-19 policies.”
Professor of infectious diseases at Stellenbosch University Wolfgang Preiser said: “If sensible, low-impact measures can be upheld without the state of disaster, fine. If not, perhaps legislation should be introduced to allow for that, so that the state of disaster can end but clever measures are still taken.”
Preiser said it was time to “move ahead and learn to live with the virus” but this did not mean “abandoning everything and pretending there is no virus”.
He cited universal vaccination and masking in certain situations as examples of measures that should be retained.
2,648: Covid deaths in the first 20 days of 2022
9,967: Covid deaths in the first 20 days of 2021
Wits University professor of vaccinology Shabir Madhi said Covid will probably cause no more deaths in 2022 than the annual number caused by seasonal flu before Covid, and will be “substantially lower than the 58,000 anticipated TB deaths. Hence, it is difficult to justify a state of disaster if the same was not done to deal with TB.”
Madhi said evidence from the fourth wave, fuelled by Omicron, had seen a “massive decoupling of infection and severe disease and death rates in SA” and that this indicates we are in a “convalescent phase of the pandemic”.
While another resurgence is likely and a new variant is possible, it is “unlikely that these would cause anywhere close to the rate of hospitalisation and death experienced in the initial three waves”.
Beyond measures to contain the virus, the DA's Gwarube said the party was worried about the circumvention of procurement processes allowed by the state of disaster.
“We don't want to look back, six months from now, and realise that a lot of people were using the state of disaster to shortcut these processes and siphon money.”
UDM leader Bantu Holomisa said the government had used the state of disaster in a dictatorial way.
“It looked like they wanted to use it as a ruse to control the public. This meant that people could not protest for services,” Holomisa said. “It was like we were living under a state of emergency for two years, so people want their freedom back now.”
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