News in South Africa 29th November:
1. SA stays on Alert level 1:
South Africa to remain on Alert Level 1 – but ‘every one of us needs to get vaccinated’
Vaccination is by far the most important way to protect yourself and those around you against the Omicron variant, to reduce the impact of the fourth wave and to help restore the social freedoms we all yearn for.
Earlier this week, our scientists identified a new variant of the coronavirus that causes the Covid-19 disease.
The World Health Organization has named it Omicron and has declared it a “variant of concern”.
The Omicron variant was first described in Botswana and subsequently in South Africa, and scientists have also identified cases in countries such as Hong Kong, Australia, Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Denmark and Israel.
The early identification of this variant is a result of the excellent work done by our scientists in South Africa and is a direct result of the investment that our Science and Innovation and Health departments have made in our genomic surveillance capabilities.
The early detection of this variant and the work that has already gone into understanding its properties and possible effects means that we are better equipped to respond to the variant.
There are a number of things that we already know about the variant as a result of the work our scientists have been doing on genome surveillance.
Firstly, we now know that Omicron has far more mutations than any previous variant. Secondly, we know that Omicron is readily detected by the current Covid-19 tests.
This means that people who are showing Covid-19 symptoms or have been in contact with someone who is Covid-19-positive, should still get tested.
Thirdly, we know that this variant is different from other circulating variants and that it is not directly related to the Delta or Beta variants.
Fourthly, we know that the variant is responsible for most of the infections found in Gauteng over the last two weeks and is now showing up in all other provinces.
Over the next few days and weeks, as more data becomes available, we will have a better understanding of:
- Whether Omicron is transmitted more easily between people;
- Whether it increases the risk of reinfection;
- Whether the variant causes more severe disease, and,
- How effective the current vaccines are against the variant Omicron. The identification of Omicron coincides with a sudden rise in Covid-19 infections.
We have seen an average of 1,600 new cases in the last seven days, compared to just 500 new daily cases in the previous week, and 275 new daily cases the week before that.
The proportion of Covid-19 tests that are positive has risen from around 2% to 9% in less than a week.
A decision was taken that the country should remain on Coronavirus Alert Level 1 for now and that the National State of Disaster should remain in place.
We should all remember that in terms of Alert Level 1 regulations:
- There is still a curfew in place from 12 midnight to 4 am.
- No more than 750 people may gather indoors and no more than 2,000 people may gather outdoors. Where the venue is too small to accommodate these numbers with appropriate social distancing, then no more than 50% of the capacity of the venue may be used.
- No more than 100 people are permitted at a funeral, and night vigils, after-funeral gatherings and “after-tears” gatherings are not allowed.
- The wearing of masks in public places is still mandatory, and failure to wear a mask when required remains a criminal offence.
- The sale of alcohol is permitted according to the regular licence conditions, but may not be sold during curfew hours.
2. Mandatory vaccines for some:
Following the emergence of the new Omicron variant and the pending fourth wave, Business for South Africa (B4SA) is calling for a rapid move to restrict access to public indoor areas that are not required for emergency use.
B4SA and a group of 22 scientists and experts said that certain public spaces should be subject to vaccine mandates or only be open to people who are vaccinated. This includes:
- Grocery stores;
- Certain government services;
- Large-scale events;
- Travel in buses, taxis and aeroplanes;
- Indoor establishments such as restaurants and taverns; and
- Places of worship.
The group said that these measures are necessary to save lives and avoid severe lockdown restrictions over the upcoming holiday period.
“This is in line with global restrictions and based on the science regarding airborne diseases. Ventilation and masks remain important, but we now need to look at enforcing a further layer of protection.”
B4SA is also calling on all employers to ensure safe working environments for their employees and customers, which in many instances should include restricting access to vaccinated individuals and implementing vaccine mandates wherever possible. This is per their responsibilities outlined in the Department of Labour’s OHS Directive, issued in July.
The group is also calling for lower limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings to be reintroduced.
“The global scientific community is in the process of determining the transmissibility of the new variant, and scientists’ initial view is that our current vaccines remain highly effective against death and severe illness,” said Kingston.
In short, vaccinations remain our best weapon against Covid-19, he said.
A group of epidemiologists, vaccine experts and other scientists have also published a list of recommendations around mandatory vaccinations in South Africa.
In a column on the Daily Maverick, the group said that while a surge in Covid-19 cases is likely over the December holiday period, it was possible to navigate the coming weeks through a series of intelligent interventions rather than a total lockdown.
Some of the key proposals include:
- No more restrictions, except on indoor gatherings – At best, lockdowns may have somewhat delayed infections in the last three waves. Still, an estimated 60% to 80% of South Africans have been infected at the expense of substantial social and economic suffering.
- No more travel bans – This virus spreads very easily, and travel bans between provinces and countries clearly did not work with the previous lockdowns, as the virus hopped quickly from one area to the next.
- Prepare health facilities – The scientists said that this is critical and that government needs to do it in deed, not just in word.
- Booster shot – Get an urgent second vaccine to all healthcare workers and others who were given a single J&J jab.
- Mandatory vaccines – Enforce vaccine passports for entry into public spaces, including places of worship, taxis and restaurants.
- Aggressively improve access to vaccination – Make getting a vaccine very easy by using pop-ups in areas such as taxi ranks, malls, grants queues and drive-throughs.
3. Hospitality industry suffering from bans:
The near-global ban on travel to and from South Africa over fears of the Omicron variant has left the local hospitality industry reeling.
Not only has it done untold damage to many local businesses that would have benefitted from tourism over the festive season, but its sudden onset has also left South Africans abroad stranded.
The Department of International Relations and Cooperation is working on getting stranded citizens home, but it is proving a challenge as flights have been suspended.
South Africans have been left stranded in many European countries and even Mauritius. Many others are stuck at home after making plans to visit family abroad.
4. Cyril calls out all countries with travel bans:
President Cyril Ramaphosa came with receipts when it came to calling out countries that imposed travel bans on South Africa after local scientists identified a new coronavirus variant.
The Omicron Covid-19 variant has many governments running scared as they fear it has the potential to rapidly increase the spread of the deadly virus.
This has driven them to take unreasonable and poorly thought-out actions like putting in place travel bans on Southern African countries, said Ramaphosa in his address to the nation on Sunday night
He said not only was there no need for these restrictions, it was also against what was agreed to at the G20 summit in Rome last month to “restart international travel in a safe and orderly manner.”
Ramaphosa noted that the G20 Rome Declaration specifically addressed the plight of the tourism sector in developing countries, and a commitment was made to support a “rapid, resilient, inclusive and sustainable recovery of the tourism sector.”
Despite this pledge, it did not stop the United Kingdom, United States, European Union members, Canada, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Seychelles, Brazil and Guatemala from imposing travel bans on SA and other Southern African countries.
He called on the countries that have imposed travel bans to reverse their decisions before any further damage was done to the economies in the region.
Ramaphosa was unusually direct when it came to calling out those counties which imposed the latest restrictions.
“These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our Southern African sister countries. The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant.”
He added: “The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic.”
When it comes to the Covid-19 crisis, Ramaphosa along with the rest of SA are starting to discover that playing by the rules is difficult when you’re the only ones playing by it.
5. Prasa chasing away investors:
International investors in the rail sector in South Africa have threatened to disinvest from the country because of “the mess” at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula said on Friday that captains of industry in the rails sector have raised issues with him and told him “we are closing shop”.
“We are packing up and going – and these are top companies, international investors threatening to leave. Why? Because Prasa is just a mess,” he said on the sidelines of a briefing on the state of transport entities in Johannesburg.
Apart from the failure of Prasa to issue contracts related to its modernisation programme and other programmes, Mbalula highlighted other problems at the agency, including successive adverse audits from the Auditor-General, irregular and wasteful expenditure, non-functioning rail lines and stations, non-payments to service providers and problems with Prasa’s board and executive management team in implementing its strategy.
Mbalula did not identify the companies that have threatened to disinvest, other than to state that they are companies that have invested in the “general overhaul contracts” but Prasa is not awarding contracts “so our business must fold and go”.
“These are companies with huge capacity and they are huge investments into South Africa,” he said.
Mbalula said companies are also not paid on time. “I’ve got a lot of complaints. Lots. People who got contracts, they were given jobs, they rendered services at Prasa but have not been paid.