South Africa will assign levels of lockdown restrictions for each of the country’s roughly 50 districts, depending on the number of active coronavirus infections there, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Thursday.
The National Coronavirus Command Council, the government body overseeing efforts to contain the virus, will review the restrictions for each district every two weeks, Mkhize added, saying the country was moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
It was not immediately clear whether there would be restrictions on movement between districts, which vary widely in size and in population.
South Africa imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in late March, only allowing people to leave their homes under a narrow set of circumstances, such as buying food or seeking medical help.
Restrictions were eased slightly on May 1, and President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an address to the nation on Wednesday that further easing would happen cautiously.
Mkhize, a former medical doctor who has won praise for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, said the district-based approach reflected the need to balance the risks of continuing economic restrictions with the likelihood of an upsurge in COVID-19 cases if restrictions ended abruptly.
“Depending on the average active cases per 100 000 people, districts will be individually assigned levels of lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus,” Mkhize said.
He said the government was working hard to increase the number of beds in hospitals across the country and that cluster outbreaks in and around Cape Town were driving infections in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces, two of the most badly affected.
South Africa had recorded 219 coronavirus deaths as of Wednesday, with 12 074 confirmed cases. Almost 70% of those were in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape.
The parts of the country with the highest rates of infection, including metropolitan areas, are likely to remain under stringent restrictions into June, Ramaphosa said on Wednesday.
That will take a heavy toll on the economy, which was already in recession before COVID-19 struck, and increase daily hardships for millions of poor South Africans.