President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared a national state of disaster and announced sweeping measures to contain the spread of Covid-19, including travel restrictions on foreigners from hard-hit countries, a ban on mass gatherings of more than 100 people, and the closure of schools.

The cabinet anticipated the pandemic would have a “significant and potentially lasting” impact on the economy, and was finalising a package of measures to mitigate its impact, he said.

“In the last few weeks we have seen a dramatic decline in economic activity in our trading partners, a sudden drop in tourism and severe instability across global markets,” he said in an address broadcast on national television.

President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on March 15 2020.

As of Sunday the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 had risen to 61 and included cases of local transmission, he said. The number was expected to rise in the coming weeks. “We have decided to take urgent and drastic measures to protect our people and reduce the impact of the virus on our society and economy. This situation calls for an extraordinary response. There can be no half measures,” he said.

A state of national emergency has been declared in terms of the Disaster Management Act, and the cabinet has decided to establish a national command council chaired by the president to co-ordinate SA’s response to the virus.

Ramaphosa said SA would impose a ban on foreign nationals traveling from high risk countries, including Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the UK, US and China from Wednesday, and visas issued to potential visitors from these countries have been revoked.

SA citizens are advised not to travel to high risk countries, with immediate effect, and no visas will be issued to foreign nationals who have visited a high risk country in the past 20 days, he said.

The government will close more than half of its 72 ports of entry on Monday, including 35 land ports and two sea ports, and is discouraging all non-essential travel in SA, particularly by air, rail or bus. 

Schools will close on March 18, and will remain closed until after the Easter weekend. Ramaphosa said curbing the spread of the virus required social distancing. Gatherings of more than 100 people would be prohibited, and large events have been cancelled.

It means Limpopo will not be able to host the annual Easter gathering of members of the Zion Christian Church in Moria, which draws an estimated 3-million people, and the suspension of large sports gatherings, concerts and conferences.

Many organisations have already cancelled mass gatherings, including the Cape Town International jazz festival and Africa’s biggest running event, the Two Oceans Marathon, over concerns about the virus. Several universities, including Rhodes and UCT, have postponed graduation ceremonies and conferences.

SA is already feeling the economic impact of Covid-19, and Nedlac is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting on Monday to deal with the impact of the pandemic on the economy and labour market.

Friday saw the JSE end its worst week in more than 21 years, with the bourse dropping  more than 15% as a surge in the number and spread of  coronavirus cases pushed global markets to decade lows.

The JSE had rebounded earlier in the day, in line with US and European markets, after the US Federal Reserve said it would inject $1.5-trillion into the US financial system in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus, before turning weaker by the close. The latest move by the Fed comes as investors look to central banks to provide some support amid concerns about the economic effects of the virus.

Covid-19 has raced around the globe since it first emerged in China in late December, and by Sunday evening the total number of cases had risen past 162,690 with more than 6,065 deaths, in 146 countries and regions, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. Europe has now become the epicentre of the pandemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined, excluding China.

While most cases are mild, the respiratory disease can cause acute illness and death, with the elderly and people with underlying conditions at greatest risk. The World Health Organisation (WHO) currently estimates the case fatality rate, based on reported cases and deaths, stands at 3.4%.

The pandemic has rattled financial markets, disrupted global trade and travel and seen a growing number of countries impose increasingly aggressive measures to try and slow the transmission of Covid-19. These restrictions have disrupted global supply chains and seen a growing number of countries shutter businesses in an attempt to contain the virus.

US President Donald Trump, who declared a national emergency last week, has extended restrictions on non-US citizens travelling from the European Union to include the UK and the Republic of Ireland as of Tuesday.

On Saturday Spain followed Italy’s lead and announced an unprecedented national lockdown, restricting 47-million people to their homes, except for essential work or to buy food and medicines, or to seek healthcare. Italy, which is at the centre of Europe’s outbreak, has the second highest number of cases in the world after China. By Sunday it had more than 21,000 cases, and had recorded over 1,440 deaths. It instituted a lockdown on March 9.

With Odwa Mjo and Reuters.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za