Another Covid-19 message for Capetonians on a poster on a building on the corner of Buitensingel and Long Street. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES​
Another Covid-19 message for Capetonians on a poster on a building on the corner of Buitensingel and Long Street. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES​

Health minister Zweli Mkhize is right to worry about SA’s rising Covid-19 infection rate. The number of people infected with the virus is climbing daily as rapid community transmission hits parts of the Western Cape.

On Sunday the biggest single-day jump in new infections was recorded: over 1,000. By Monday night the total figure had jumped to over 16,400, the Western Cape accounting for over 10,000 of those. Data from Media Hack shows that for every 100,000 people in the Western Cape 136 have contracted Covid-19. Yet in Gauteng the infection rate is just 15 per 100,000 people.

Mkhize says the spread of the virus in the Western Cape is taking place “too fast” and that this requires intervention, presumably by national government. “The real issue is, you can’t have one province accounting for over 60% of the figures in the whole country [when] that province’s population is about 13%-15% of the country’s,” he says. The virus could spread quickly to other parts of SA when the economy reopens if the steps that are taken reduce the spread of Covid-19 in the Western Cape are not successful, he adds.

Western Cape premier Alan Winde, who is in precautionary self-isolation, says the province’s “hotspot strategy” aims to change individual and community behaviour to slow the spread of the virus in particular geographic areas.

He has indicated that his government wants to broaden its focus to its economic recovery. But the Western Cape’s infection rate makes his call for the province to be moved to level 3 of lockdown a risky strategy. Can it really reopen parts of its economy when it is the epicentre of the spread of Covid-19 in SA?

And will national government agree to the move? Just last week Mkhize said that “it must be expected” that there will be parts of SA “where it might not be the best way to just let everything get back to normal”. He added: “We might need to consider heightened interventions of lockdown in various forms.”

Meanwhile, the data paints a picture of a province that is doing more testing. Until last week (when the most recent comparable data was available), 83,000 tests were recorded in the Western Cape, against 127,000 in Gauteng. However, the Western Cape had conducted 1,200 tests per 100,000 people, against 837 tests per 100,000 people in Gauteng.

Unfortunately, even with slightly better and more regular data from the Western Cape, the picture is still murky. Data tells some of the story, but the real details about what is going on in the provinces’ hotspots have not been made public.

Judged anecdotally, it looks as if concern is justified. Every day there are multiple new reports of stores and businesses that have had to close because staff members or patrons have tested positive. More recently this included Woodstock’s refuse collection depot, Balmoral Supermarket – also in Woodstock – Aneesa’s Takeaways in Grassy Park and Food Lover’s Market in Tokai. Last week staff at Checkers in Rylands Village forced the store to shut, due to concerns over their own safety.

Both Mkhize and Winde would do well to read this short comment published in The Lancet about the importance of precise data on Covid-19’s spread, using an example in Germany. And this analysis by MIT applies a cost-benefit analysis to help understand the trade-off between the relative risk of infection and the importance of reopening to consumers and the economy. It is designed specifically to help policymakers guide decision-making on how and when to reopen – again, guided by data.

Things are a lot worse in other parts of the world. This article in The Atlantic shows how one US state is manipulating data to paint a rosier picture to the public. Officials in Virginia blend the results of two different types of coronavirus tests, reporting viral tests and antibody tests in the same figure, even though the two answer different questions about the pandemic.

By combining these two tests, Virginia is able to portray itself as having a more robust infrastructure for tracking and containing the virus than it actually does. In doing so, The Atlantic says, it can represent gains in testing that do not exist in reality.

A new future

Meanwhile, The Correspondent has published this essay about the turning of the tide from harsh neoliberalism – which has come with deep inequality and tax avoidance – to a possible green new deal.

That article explores the “one dogma” that defined neoliberalism: selfishness. It says the space has now opened for a different, more realistic view of human nature, in which humankind can co-operate.

It is a thought-provoking overview that explains how the world got to this point, while also setting out new economic thinking from “three dangerous French economists” – Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman – as well as Mariana Mazzucato. Radical and formerly unthinkable ideas have now entered the realm of the possible, it says.

* Munshi is News & Fox editor of the FM​

This is a roundup of the best Covid-19 news from the web, brought to you in today’s FM lockdown newsletter. To subscribe, for free, click here.