Natasha Marrian Financial Mail deputy editor & columnist
Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/PHILL MAGAKOE
Health minister Zweli Mkhize. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/PHILL MAGAKOE

As temperatures soar and SA wipes the dust from its eyes after a gruelling six months in lockdown, the spectre of a regression into harsher restrictions is unimaginable.

But if a second wave takes hold here, the country may see restrictions imposed afresh, as has been the case in Europe. The Economist reports here how parts of Europe are being put back under lockdown.

This week, as health minister Zweli Mkhize remained in quarantine, after he and his wife, May, tested positive for Covid-19, he sounded the alarm over the risk of a resurgence of the coronavirus in SA.

But at this point, given the economic devastation, it’s hard to see how the government could reimpose any form of lockdown.

Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched his recovery plan to restore the economy in the aftermath of the lockdown. Economists agree that the plan is the last shot for Ramaphosa’s administration to turn the economy around, create jobs and stabilise government finances.

In that context, it’s unimaginable that the country could again return to a stricter lockdown.

And yet, that was the underlying message from Mkhize in a statement released this week as he recovered from the virus at home.

“In a war when an injured soldier lies down to recover … he uses such an opportunity to reflect on the battle and also to think ahead for when he rejoins the army. Like a soldier, I find myself in that position as we continue to fight this battle against Covid-19 as a country,” he wrote.

After reading the country’s epidemiological reports, Mkhize said, he was concerned about the risk of a resurgence of the virus.

“It would be irresponsible of us to ignore ‘small flames’ that we see redeveloping in some parts of the country. You will recall that a few months ago when we witnessed these trends, it wasn’t long before we started experiencing a burden in our health system.”

Mkhize pointed out that over the last seven days, there has been a 9.1% increase in new cases in SA and over the last 14 days, an increase of 10.7%.

The numbers are ticking up slowly, even as life pretty much returns to normal: restaurants – those that survived the lockdown, at any rate – are filling up, and even a semblance of nightlife is returning.

But the risks inherent in increased socialising are clear, as teens at Cape Town nightspot Tin Roof discovered last week. Cases from the Tin Roof party now stand at 89.

Mkhize made specific reference to the Western Cape, saying there was a “marked increase in cases in the province. While the province’s premier, Alan Winde, disagrees that there is a “resurgence”, he is nonetheless “on alert”, as Business Day reports.

Mkhize warned that the rate of new infections and deaths will inform recommendations that his department will make to the national coronavirus command council. In other words, the department could recommend the return of stricter measures, should the numbers continue to increase.

While it seems unfathomable that we’ll see another lockdown like we had in March, we may very well see stricter regulations on a district level.

If you’re wondering how that could work, read this article.

If the government imposes further restrictions to counter a second wave, it would do so cautiously and well aware that compliance is by no means guaranteed this time, given the experience of citizens since March.

There is much resistance to harsher restrictions overseas, though European countries are taking a tough stance against noncompliance, as this Wall Street Journal article points out.

In SA, there’s another level to the public resistance, however. First, because South Africans had to endure strange, nonsensical restrictions, and second, because the reports of large-scale looting of resources meant to combat the pandemic only infuriated people more.

It was pervasive: Hawks head Gen Godfrey Lebeya told parliament this week that his team are investigating 80,000 Covid-linked payments.

Mkhize says the only weapon left is for SA to adhere to health protocols, to avoid a resurgence and further restrictions.

Already, at many restaurants and nightspots, there are few masks in sight, amid a generally lackadaisical attitude towards social distancing. And this is before the holiday period begins. At best, this implies the government’s state of disaster is unlikely to be lifted soon; at worst, it suggests the government may ratchet up the restrictions to halt the virus.

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