Carol Paton Editor at Large
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

SA will deploy a 10,000-strong force of field workers to visit homes across the country to screen people for symptoms of the Covid-19 virus and will introduce mobile technology to track and trace contacts of those found to be positive, President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

The measures mark a dramatically stepped up effort by government to tackle the fight against the virus before it reaches the point where it can overwhelm the health system.

The intervention came as SA reported its third death and the number of confirmed cases reached 1,326.  The virus has crippled the world and placed billions under lockdown, and is threatening to plunge SA’s already struggling economy into a deep recession.

Government’s new measures also came as health authorities reported the first confirmed cases in low-income areas in Johannesburg and Cape Town, signalling the  need for greater urgency.

The field workers will send those with symptoms for testing at local clinics. People who are found to be positive with mild symptoms will be quarantined either at home or in government facilities, while those who are ill will be hospitalised.

Using mobile technology, government will develop an extensive tracing system to trace contacts with confirmed coronavirus cases and monitor the geographical location of new cases in real time.

“This drive is far-reaching, it is intensive and it is unprecedented in scale,” Ramaphosa said in a televised address to the nation on Monday night.

Ramaphosa urged South Africans to stand firm on the lockdown for another 17 days, saying that he understood the disruption to their lives and to the economy but that this measure was necessary and for the good of everyone.

“Some people may think that this disease is something that does not concern them and it will never affect them.

“But it is very real and poses a great danger. It affects the rich and the poor; the young and the old; black and white; and those who live in cities and rural areas. Let us not make the mistake of thinking this is somebody else’s problem,” he said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa updated South Africa on the state of the coronavirus pandemic in the country on March 30 2020. While announcing the updated figures, Ramaphosa also announced the national rollout of a mobile screening and testing programme.

Friday’s downgrade of SA’s government credit rating by Moody’s Investors Service meant that the “grave health crisis” was taking place when the economy was under even greater strain.

“This will significantly increase the cost of borrowing to fund government spending and will have a negative impact on the economy. This development will not diminish in any way our response to the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.

At the same time the government would push ahead with structural economic reforms to address the weak economic growth, constrained public finances and struggling state-owned enterprises, he said. These have repeatedly been listed by ratings agencies as key vulnerabilities in the SA economy.

Government was particularly concerned, he said, about the plight of the self-employed and of informal businesses and was “urgently” developing additional measures for their support.

Over half of SA’s population lives below the poverty line with 40% either unemployed or engaged in survivalist enterprises which have now been stopped from operating.

Ramaphosa thanked front-line health workers and government staff, the 18,000 deployed security personnel and all those who are involved in essential work such as the production of food and electricity.

“This is uncharted territory for us all. We have never experienced a situation like this before and a number of mistakes will be made, but we ask for our people’s understanding that all this is being done for the good of everyone.... But I am convinced that we will succeed, because we will take this coronavirus threat seriously, we will adapt as a society, and we will all act responsibly.”