On Monday, thousands of people clambered aboard South Africa’s massive fleet of commuter ‘taxis’ for the first time in nearly 100 days as the country further eased lockdown, prompting fears of a spike in coronavirus cases.
Most of the Toyota combis were carrying a full load of passengers, many of whom were not wearing masks, despite a government recommendation that the minivans should travel at only 70 per cent capacity.
Now experts fear that a combination of poor planning on the government’s part and public distrust of authority will see a huge rise in the number of coronavirus cases in the coming weeks, particularly in Johannesburg.
Gauteng province, whose capital is Johnanesburg, has recorded around 45,000 cases and will overtake the Western Cape on the other side of the country whose tally stands at nearly 65,000 but whose infection rate is falling.
In late March, South Africa imposed a sudden and sweeping lockdown to limit the spread of the virus, bringing daily life to an almost complete standstill. South Africans were only allowed to go out to buy food or visit the doctors, while the sale of alcohol and cigarettes was banned entirely.
However, this wrought huge damage on the economy and the government began to ease lockdown, sparking a rise in the number of cases.
The South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis predicts that cases will continue to rise until they peak between early July and August and that a total of 35,000 to 50,000 South Africans could die from the virus.
Experts believe that the government failed to use the lockdown as an opportunity to shore up the country’s health system.
For example, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government did not ensure South Africa’s pharmaceutical sector manufactured its own Covid-19 tests. He also locked down the clothing sector which could have made all the PPE needed by health wokers.
He also allowed many “incompetents” within his cabinet to pay more attention to banning cigarettes and alcohol than creating sufficient infrastructure to test and trace, according to Professor Alex van der Heever, chair of social security at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance.
He said the government “needs to massively improve the efficiency of its prevention strategy without an unaffordable re introduction of a general lockdown.”
He said only the Western Cape province, which has seen the highest number of cases but whose infections are now falling, developed and implemented an “effective strategy [of testing and tracing] which has borne fruit.”
South Africa has enough resources to manage the pandemic, he added. “But many of the public health services outside of the Western Cape have also been weakened historically by institutionalised patronage and corruption.
“Covid-19 is a litmus test for poor governance. South Africa has massive capacity but is underperforming.”
South Africa also has a huge and sophisticated private healthcare sector, but the government has not struck any deal to draw on its considerable resources.
“We cannot win with treatment, we can only win with prevention,” Professor van der Heever said.
Dr Fundile Nyati, a family physician with a private healthcare company in Johannesburg, said the government initially failed to communicate important public health messages in South Africa’s many languages, allowing myths about the disease to spring up.
“An instruction like ‘social distancing’ was only translated into the vernacular in weeks nine and 10. People also believed, to begin with, that Covid-19 was a white man’s disease as the first infections were from privileged people returning from travels.
“They didn’t believe it would affect people in shacks in the townships," he said.
Dr Nyati added that some believed that the BCG vaccination, which every South African receives at birth, provides protection from Covid-19. He also said that black South Africans were less likely to listen to government messages.
“Also remember the psyche of black South Africans who resisted apartheid for so long used strategies and tactics to resist authority.
“You can see some of this continues in failure by so many to pay bills for electricity and water, and in the taxi industry which is today resisting reducing its passengers to 70 percent.
“So the government tells us to do one, two, three and the mind of resistance kicks in.”
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