Analysis

Government’s Week Of Flip-Flops In Covid-19 Regulations

By Pinky Khoabane

WITH the corona virus infections topping a million and over 50,000 deaths worldwide, the South African government on 2 April 2020 decided to announce a set of relaxations to the COVID-19 Regulations released on 18 March 2020.

The announcement by Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on Wednesday 1 April 2020, on the benefits of wearing the mask seems to have opened the floodgates for relaxing the rules that were put in place just two weeks prior as a means of curbing the pandemic.

Dr Mkhize’s about turn on masks comes after weeks of the South African government’s adherence to recommendations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that healthy members of the public should not wear masks and that they should be worn only by those with the disease or those in close contact with those infected. And in line with this recommendation, the key messages from the government have been: 

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Maintain social distancing
  • Stay home if you are sick 
  • If you are healthy wear a mask only if you are looking after someone with suspected COVID-19 or you’re coughing

The result of this message regarding the mask caused major confusion, with some of the political leaders themselves going out into the public wearing masks and gloves while some adhered to the recommendations by the health ministry. This message of not wearing masks if you’re healthy was still the official line two days before Dr Mkhize’s announcement on the benefits of wearing masks.

Loyiso Masuku, MMC for Corporate and Shared Services for the City of Johannesburg, for example, posted, on Twitter, pictures of her assisting the elderly on the day they had gone to collect their grants and when asked why she didn’t have a mask she responded with the official line that masks had no benefit unless you were looking after the sick, etc: “Thnx4Concern. You only need to wear a mask if U are sick with flue, sneezing/coughing.U need a mask if you are taking care of a patient that has Corona or if you have a weak immune systems or working in a clinic or hospital or with chemicals or environment like pick it up.”

There remains a major confusion in the retail industry with some shops offering their employees masks and gloves while some major supermarkets like Woolworths, PicknPay and Food Lovers Market, don’t offer them to staff. 

The recommendation that masks didnt’ play a part in combating transmission of the disease was always a bizarre one from the get go. We have seen people, in Asia especially, wearing masks, more so during pandemics such as the SARS virus of 2003. But what was more alarming was the fact that WHO officials themselves wore masks at their press conferences. 

SA’s U-Turn on Masks

But in an about turn, Dr Mkhize said: “There is no question that the use of masks is one of the best ways of preventing the spread of infection. We recommend them particularly where people have any cough or any symptoms or in a situation where social distancing is a bit difficult.

“The issue of COVID-19 being an airborne infection is something that came out in the papers but WHO disputed that. As far as we’re aware, it’s a droplet infection”, said Mkhize.

Dr Mkhize continued: “Whatever might have been said masks are useful and recommended”. 

The U-turn coincided with the release of a video by the Czech Republic which went viral on social media, promoting masks for everyone and attributing the success of that country’s campaign against Coronavirus. 

Capitulation to the Taxi Industry

Apart from the announcement on the importance of masks in fighting the pandemic, Wednesday 1 April was April Fools Day and Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula’s birthday. The Minister’s Twitter account that morning was largely about his special day.

But some unsettling news was tainting what should have been a good morning for Minister Mbalula. Health officials in Kwazulu-Natal were desperately trying to trace some 6000 passengers who had been on a cruise from Durban to Mozambique after some tested positive for the coronavius. Twitter was abuzz with condemnation of Mbalula for the way he had handled the issue of ports and airports. He was accused of, among others, reneging on a promise that he would deal severely with the operators of the cruise for having taken the holiday despite knowing that the coronavirus had hit South African shores. 

That afternoon, the Minister held a press conference at a taxi rank in Johannesburg and as I’ve previously said on this platform, politicians have themselves defied the COVID-19 Regulations https://wp.me/p7OMJc-3grThe head table was stacked with people – shoulder to shoulder – including the Minister. 

The government had initially, and rightfully so, identified the 200,000 taxis which pack their commuters like sardines, as one of the areas where the plague would thrive. And rightfully so, Mbalula had announced loading capacity was reduced to 60%: “anything above that undermines what government is trying to achieve,” the Minister said. Taxis could operate between certain hours in the morning and afternoons in order to transport only employees who offered essential services. 

But on this Wednesday, at the taxi rank gathering – which exceeded the maximum 100 people as stipulated in the Covid-19 Regulations and with no heed to the social distance stipulation – the Minister announced his change of heart. Taxis could load to full capacity if they had masks or respirators. It didnt matter that these items were in short supply. Taxis and buses were allowed to operate throughout the day and this we were told, was to accommodate those who had to collect social grants. 

But by the following morning 2 April 2020, he had changed his mind – again. Taxis could operate at 70% capacity – masks or no masks. And with that he was back at the taxi rank. This time with no fanfare but to sanitize taxis and the taxi rank. 

Later that evening, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announced that “Following extensive consultations with the Ministers responsible for the COVID interventions and the National Command Council (NCC)” she had gazetted further amendments to the Regulations on the COVID -19 lockdown. “Certain individuals are now allowed to move between provinces, metropolitan and district areas for purposes of transporting a body for burial”. 

“Attendance at a funeral or cremation is limited to 50 people and will for purposes of these Regulations not be regarded as a prohibited gathering: Provided that no night vigil shall be held and that all safety hygiene measures are strictly adhered to”. 

The Cogta Minister announced that those attending funerals could make use of nearby hotels, guesthouses and lodges it they could not stay with relatives but the following day, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola held a press conference reversing Dlamini-Zuma’s announcement on permission for those attending funerals to use hotels and guesthouses. 

COVID-19 Tracing Database

The National Department of Health was to establish COVID-19 Tracing Database.

The database would “enable the tracing of persons who are known or reasonably suspected to have come into contact with any person known or reasonably suspected to have contracted COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 Tracing Database shall include all information considered necessary for the contact tracing process to be effective, including but not limited to:

(a) the first name and surname, identity or passport numbers, residential address and other address where such person could be located, and cellular phone numbers of all persons who have been tested for COVID19;

(b) the COVID-19 test results of all such persons; and

(c) the details of the known or suspected contacts of any person who tested positive for COVID-19…”

Informal Traders

Informal traders and tuck shops, initially prohibited from trading, were also allowed to trade but needed permission from their ward councillors to travel to buy their supplies.

Lamola: On the update of the amended regulations, one of the unintended consequences was that of informal traders and spaza shops. The regulations will be reviewed and amended from time to time to deal with issues as they arise.

How a government that has struggled with implementing its own laws will manage this regulation is yet to be seen. 

Here’s what’s happening in other countries in as far as regulating informal traders in times of coronarivus. 

Informal traders in India adhering to the social distancing rule under the watchful eye of soldier

Borders

The country’s borders were closed, except for essential goods transported to neighbouring countries, medical emergencies and to South Africans who were outside the country when the lockdown started but in a television interview, Lamola reportedly said movement of people between countries was allowed if they have permission. 

Cigarette Sales

The Western Cape had relaxed regulations on cigarette sales but this was overturned by Police Minister Bheki Cele: “These regulations are national regulations. There are no provincial regulations or regional regulations. What is done in Limpopo must be done in the Western Cape.

“The police will not implement the so-called provincial regulations. Please don’t do it. Stick to what is signed by the national minister.” 

Visitation rights of children whose parents don’t live together

As at two days ago, there was yet another amendment – this time from the Social Development ministry which had on 30 March 2020, announced it was prohibiting the movement “of children between co-holders of parental responsibilities and rights”.  A statement from the department read: ““This prohibition of movement was never intended to limit or prohibit contact with the child/ children or to punish parent….” On 7 April 2020, the Minister issued a directive to amend the regulations. 

While it is understandable that these regulations are not cast in stone and must indeed be amended to address issues that arise, there is however a give an impression that they were never thought out thoroughly in the first place. But worse is the incoherence in messages and ministers contradicting each other – it only does harm to the lockdown and renders it useless. 

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