News analysis

Hard lockdown
  • South Africa faces the possibility of going back to a "hard" lockdown, health minister Zweli Mkhize believes.
  • Once it was in the rearview mirror, government described what we now know as Level 5 to have been an exercise in buying time to prepare the healthcare system.
  • With cases actually spiking, the thinking may be changing – though President Cyril Ramaphosa struck a cautiously optimistic note on Wednesday, with no hint of hardening rules.
  • This is what hard lockdown looked like the first time around.
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As South Africa prepared to come out what would become known as Alert Level 5, President Cyril Ramaphosa offered a warning.

"We must avoid a rushed re-opening that could risk a spread, which would need to be followed by another hard lockdown, as has happened in other countries," he said in an address to the nation in the last week of April.

The consensus in government, it seemed in May and even deep into June, was that Level 5 had been a necessary evil to buy the time required to prepare the health system for the coming flood of Covid-19 patients. That had been achieved and, as long as everyone took care, it was something of the past.

But this week, with coronavirus cases rising fast in Gauteng and health services failing in the Eastern Cape, health minister Zweli Mkhize struck an ominous note. Rather than the "differentiated approach" for hotspots once proposed, Mkhize appears to now be chewing over something closer to the "intermittent" lockdown strategy Gauteng has floated – a return to a national Level 5, perhaps more than once.

Such a return to hard lockdown "may become necessary", Mkhize said, even as casinos and sit-down restaurants reopen.

There has been no indication that regulation drafters have considered serious amendments to Alert Level 5 rules, something that is – hopefully – a precondition for any national return to hard lockdown.

At the start discussions on different lockdown levels, Level 5 was described as "drastic measures".

It has been more than 60 days since the end of Level 5. Here is a recap of some of its more extreme initial measures.
  • For most people, movement was restricted to essential shopping trips, for essential groceries and medicine, and seeking medical care only
  • Other than for essential workers, a 20:00 to 05:00 curfew applied
  • Rather than a list of those that had to remain closed, only a small list of businesses were allowed to operate
  • Rather than a list of what is not for sale – such as cigarettes – only a specific list of essential goods were permitted on shelves
  • Schools were entirely closed
  • Exercise was banned
  • E-commerce was banned 
  • Clothing sales were banned
  • Restaurants were closed – even for delivery
  • Minibus taxis and e-hailing cars were banned except during four-hour windows in the morning and evening
  • Only the bare minimum of government services operated – not including the likes of deeds offices

On Wednesday night, during a virtual imbizo, President Cyril Ramaphosa struck a cautiously optimistic note and, if anything, seemed to suggest there could be no hardening of rules again.

"The reality is that we could not remain under lockdown forever," Ramaphosa said. "People need to earn a living. Learners need to continue their education, businesses need to reopen so that they can survive and so that they staff can also keep their jobs and salary."

Rising infection numbers are not a cause for alarm, Ramaphosa said.

"Our healthcare system continues to be strengthened as we move on. It is strengthened on an ongoing basis. It is challenged, but we are strengthening it."

He ended the session by stressing the need for individual responsibility and behaviour change to curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

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