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

President Cyril Ramaphosa extended the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread Covi-19 outbreak by two weeks on Thursday, acknowledging the need for a larger scale testing of the virus to get a full picture of the prevalence rate.

The initial 21-day stay-at-home order was due to end on April 16, but Ramaphosa said in a televised address to the nation that even as the measures show a level success, the country was at the beginning of a monumental struggle.

“Since the start of the lockdown, the average daily increase has been around 4%. While we recognise the need to expand testing to gain a better picture of the infection rate, this represents real progress,” Ramaphosa said.

But, “we cannot relax. We cannot be complacent,” he said.

The move is expected to inflict further damage to the economy, whose fragile prospects have already been whacked by a downgrade to junk by Moody’s Investors Service, as industries from mining to hotels remain out of action.

“SA lockdown extension implies further downward revision to SA GDP in 2020,” said Kevin Lings, chief economist at Stanlib, on his Twitter page, adding that the extension also implied further tax revenue shortfall, larger government debt and more unemployment.

“SA will have to consider external sources of financial support,” said Lings, whose company currently expects the economy to contract by 5% in 2020.

The rand, which had earlier risen to a one-week high, pared some of its gains and was 0.5% stronger at R18.08/$ by 9.26pm, down a from an intraday high of R17.83/$.  

Ramaphosa also said the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has risen to 1,934. His address to the nation followed a meeting of the national coronavirus command council held on Wednesday and further consultations with various social partners, the presidency said earlier on Thursday.

His comments come as concern grows about the spread of the virus in Africa, where health systems are at even bigger risk of being overwhelmed.

It's too soon  say whether lockdowns are having the desired impact, Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization's regional director for Africa, said earlier on Thursday.

"The virus came later in African countries and we are concerned that it might spread the same way," she said in an online press conference hosted with the World Economic Forum. 

The lockdowns were imposing a huge cost to economies in the region "and we need to work hard to make sure that they have an impact," she said.

The economic impact of the pandemic in Africa, which already has more than 10,000 confirmed cases  and at least 500 deaths, was likely to be even more severe than in developed countries. It was crucial that testing was expanded beyond major cities, Moeti said. 

By Thursday, more than 1.5-million people globally had been infected with the novel coronavirus, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker, while more than 90,000 people had died.

Ramaphosa said while it was too early to make a definitive analysis, there was sufficient evidence that SA's lockdown was working.

He said that in the two weeks before the lockdown, the average daily increase in cases was about 42%, but since then had dropped to about 4%.

Ramaphosa announced that he, deputy president David Mabuza and all cabinet ministers would each take a one-third cut in their salaries for the next three months, and would donate that to the Solidarity Fund. Provincial premiers would do the same.

“We are calling on other public office-bearers and executives of large companies to make a similar gesture and to further increase the reach of this national effort,” he said. 

DA interim leader John Steenhuisen said the party would have preferred a gradual phasing out of the lockdown.

"The absence of empirical data and modelling makes it very difficult to simply agree that a lockdown extension may be an effective means to curb the spread of Covid-19," he said in a statement. "The resulting economic fallout now means that it is not only lives which are threatened by the virus, but livelihoods by our economic and financial collapse as a result of further lockdown regulations."

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