A resident of Alexandra is tested for Covid-19 at a screening and testing drive in front of the Madala Hostel. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP
A resident of Alexandra is tested for Covid-19 at a screening and testing drive in front of the Madala Hostel. Picture: MARCO LONGARI / AFP

Today is SA’s first day out of an ironclad lockdown as a slight easing of the rules takes effect. But if the science and scale of the economic disaster are both taken into account, there is a case to be made that SA should have lifted far more of the restrictions.

This week, health minister Zweli Mkhize said the lockdown had reached the limit of its effectiveness in delaying the Covid-19 infection peak, when SA will have the highest number of cases and the greatest demand for hospital beds.

“On our calculations, a further lockdown was not going to be of any benefit … we need to start to ease the lockdown,” he said.

But equally, Mkhize argued that an immediate return to normal would cause cases to spike again and undo the benefit of the lockdown. He said it had delayed the peak number of infections from the beginning of June to the end of July.

On Thursday, Mkhize told a virtual World Health Organisation press conference that SA’s infections would peak in September in a best-case scenario, and in July in a worst-case scenario. Hospital staff don’t want a peak in the mid-winter month of July, since wards will be full with flu cases.

While many economists have bemoaned how the lockdown had decimated the economy, Mkhize argued this week that as far as stopping a “rapid and exponential” rise in cases, as had happened in Italy and Spain, it could be termed a success. “It reduced people close to one another on trains and taxis and so on … We are quite pleased with what has happened,” he said.

According to one slide he shared, the current epidemiological models accepted by the government show that 8-million South Africans could get Covid-19, of which 75% would be asymptomatic and wouldn’t get sick. Without the lockdown, there would have been 12-million infections, his slides showed.

The government has used the lockdown period to set up field hospitals for when the peak hits, including an 800-bed construction at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.

Despite the lockdown, Mkhize said the virus was still spreading “communally”, as it had in China where 75% of infections happened in households and small clusters. While this had been expected, it bolsters the case of those who believe it’s time to end the lockdown.

Jobs bloodbath

However, the economic cost of the lockdown is starting to become clear – and it’s a horror show.

On Thursday, the National Treasury gave a presentation to parliament’s standing committee on finance in which it said the country is now likely facing its “worst recession since the Great Depression”. Alarmingly, it said the economic slowdown could lead to between 3-million and 7-million job losses in SA.

This is immense, considering that in February, Stats SA calculated that just 16.4-million South Africans had jobs, with 29% of the 23.1-million-strong workforce unemployed. If as many as 7-million people were to lose their jobs, this would push unemployment towards the 60% mark.

The level 4 lockdown – which prevents e-commerce agents from trading, manufacturers from opening fully, and tourism outlets from operating – will do little to ease the pressure.

The economic devastation stands in stark contrast to the good news about SA’s Covid-19 mortality rate, which is just 1.9% of confirmed cases, with 103 fatalities. By Thursday night, there were 5,647 confirmed cases.

Discussing why the fatality rate was low, Mkhize said infections had largely been detected in people younger than 63. “Most people today [who become infected] are healthy young individuals, which makes them recover very quickly,” he said.

Even South Africans with underlying conditions – including hypertension, obesity and diabetes – were surviving, he said.

This appears to accord with international data, which shows the virus largely affects elderly and sick people. In Italy, for example, the average age of people who died was 79.5.

Still, Mkhize was worried that Covid-19 would prove dangerous to the high numbers of people in SA with untreated HIV, untreated hypertension and tuberculosis.

Our models were accurate

There has, however, been plenty of criticism about SA’s initial modelling about the number of Covid-19 deaths.

In particular, in an FM story last week, Prof Shabir Madhi criticised the initial models provided by the SA Centre for Epidemiological Modelling & Analysis (Sacema), which predicted a maximum of 350,000 deaths. This Sacema model was put together for Mkhize’s department and shown to the president.

But Madhi, the former head of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said this large number of deaths was “implausible” and the model was “flawed”. (Nonetheless, he still supported the initial lockdown.)

This week, Mkhize rejected the claim that the models were flawed. He said it was untrue that this model played a role in the decision to lock down the country.

While the government hasn’t publicly released any of its models, on Wednesday, the Actuarial Society of SA released the first public models.

Its model, which assumes that 75% of people will have no symptoms, suggests that cases will peak between August and September. At that stage, it says, 70,000 people will need hospital beds and the requirement for ICU beds will reach 10,000.

The actuarial society calculates that SA deaths could reach 48,300.​ That would be double the number of deaths per year in this country from TB – SA’s biggest killer.

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