The members of the National Coronavirus Command Council looked ragged, as they gave a nearly three-hour long press briefing on the regulations governing the Covid-19 Level 4 restrictions on Wednesday.
The Level 4 regulations are set to go into effect on May 1, and are the first steps out of the total lockdown, which has seen 58 million South Africans staying at home since March 27 as a way to mitigate the spread of the deadly virus that has claimed 225 000 lives around the world, and infected 5 350 people in South Africa.
The lockdown is meant to give SA time to ramp up its health service to deal with thousands of critically ill people but comes at the cost of bringing an already struggling economy to a virtual standstill.
On Friday the country will take its first tentative steps towards starting up the economy, while still trying to manage the spread of the virus.
Economy starts up
The Level 4 restrictions will open the way for a broader range of retail chains like DIY stores to start operating, as well allowing e-commerce chains to sell a wider range of goods including winter clothes and warm meals. Under the regulations the agricultural sector will not only become fully operational but also be allowed to export products like wine, which according to Vinpro, was losing R200 million a week.
The regulations also open the way for about 30% of the manufacturing sector to start operating and some sectors of the construction sector head back to work.
Despite opening the way for increased economic activity, the regulations have come in for some sharp criticism, especially around Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel’s initial reluctance to allow more goods to be sold online.
The government eventually decided to allow more goods to be sold through e-commerce after reviewing the 70 000 submissions, which were sent to it by the public over the past two days.
Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who headed the briefing, said that although the draft regulations were released on Saturday, government felt that it could improve if the public was allowed to comment on it.
This is why, according to Minister in the Presidency, Jackson Mthembu, members of the command council looked so tired, as they had not slept for “quite some days”, while weighing up the public submissions on the regulations.
Submissions make a difference
Patel said that opening up the process to the public had had a marked effect. “We had a short but very valuable consultation process. We were reading through the proposals from Saturday afternoon right through to late last night.”
He said some of the proposals had given them food for thought and would likely be introduced under amendments to Level 4 regulations or when the country goes into Level 3.
Not all of the changes to the regulations have been applauded. Some smokers were especially aggrieved after President Cyril Ramaphosa initially said people would be allowed to purchase tobacco products under Level 4. Dlamini-Zuma said this decision was reversed after 2 000 submissions were received asking to maintain the ban.
She did, however, say that the 22 000 submissions calling on the state to relax the prohibition on exercising in the streets were heard. Runners, dog walkers, and cyclists will be permitted to exercise in public pending certain restrictions, one of which dictate that this may only be done so between 6am and 9am.
Level 4 for a while
How long SA will be at Level 4 is an open question. Patel says this depends on a range of measures like the number of tests done, how well businesses are managing and the health system’s ability to cope. It will then be up to Health Minister, Zweli Mkhize to make his recommendation to Dlamini-Zuma, whereafter it will be discussed in Cabinet.
Patel indicated that the country will not be relaxing regulations anytime soon. “Level 4 will prepare the economy for the next 6 to 8 months.”