Zweli Mkhize. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
Zweli Mkhize. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

Health minister Zweli Mkhize recommended on Friday that South Africans wear three-layered cloth face masks when in public, a U-turn from an earlier guideline after scientific evidence showed fabric coverings of the face can lower the transmission of the novel coronavirus. 

Until now the government and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, a research agency on infectious diseases, have said people without symptoms did not need to wear masks unless they are caring for an infected person, hoping to keep specialised masks available for health-care workers.

“Our scientists are saying they actually have got evidence that the level of excretion of the virus in the exhaled air after the mask is much, much, much reduced,” Mkhize said in televised press conference, adding he was recommending homemade masks because specialised medical masks are already in short supply for health-care workers.

The new recommendation, meant to reduce the risk of those who are infected but without symptoms from spreading the virus, comes on top of social distancing guidelines and a nation-wide lockdown to reduce the spread of Covid-19.  

Up to midnight on Thursday, the virus had infected 2,003 people, killing 24 in SA. The number of cases topped 1,6-million worldwide, prompting authorities to prolong restrictions and lockdowns that have darkened the picture for the global economy. 

Mkhize’s comments come a day after President Cyril Ramaphosa extended the lockdown to the end of April as he juggled the early success of the measures with the prospect of a flare-up after ramping up testing for the virus.

The move is likely to prompt economists to throw out their forecasts for the economy, whose fragile prospects have already been undermined by the government’s slow progress in pushing through structural reforms and a downgrade to junk in recent weeks by Moody’s Investors Service.

Government, the Reserve Bank and philanthropists such as Patrice Motsepe have come up with initiatives  to provide a soft landing for businesses during the lockdown but experts say the measures would not be enough to help the economy escape one of its deepest recessions.