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Covid-19: South Africa gets ahead

By Aarti Bhana and Verashni Pillay

Hi there and welcome to The Wrap: simple news updates for busy people, brought to you by the explain.co.za team ??‍♀

As the lockdown continues it’s easy for our hopes to wear thin. This is a globally challenging time. We can take heart that our country has a plan. Here’s the latest news plus examples of the indomitable human spirit that shines through.

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EMOJI NEWS INDICATOR

  1. Gradual lockdown lift: Here’s what’s now allowed ?
  2. Professor Karim is our new Covid-19 superhero ??‍♂️
  3. SAA: will a phoenix rise from its ashes? ✈️
  4. Rays of lights for our economy ?️

And in your weekly dose of inspiration: a dramatic drop in violent crime plus local innovation in testing kits. ?

So, let’s dive in:

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? For the audio version of this update, go here

? _For text, keep scrolling

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▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ 1.COVID-19 UPDATE

Latest numbers: 19 April 2020

?108 021 tests conducted
? 3 034 confirmed positive
? 903 recoveries
? 52 deaths

Our testing numbers are impressive but the confirmed cases show an increase in our growth, which may extend the lockdown again. More on this below. ??

? Some bans lifted… but still no alcohol

In positive news for our economy – and people – the government has lifted some restrictions on the lockdown. This allows certain industries to operate again, including:

▪️ 50% of the mining industry, on the condition workers are screened, tested and quarantined, as necessary
▪️ Oil refineries
▪️ Some retailers, like hardware stores and those selling essentials for babies
▪️ Plumbers, electricians, mechanics and locksmiths
▪️ ICT professionals and retail call centre employees, who are now considered essential workers

These amendments to the regulations were announced by Minister of Cooperative Governance Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma on Thursday, as part of a gradual lifting of the lockdown.

BUT this week also revealed a doubling down on some restrictions and people are seriously unhappy about it.

▪️ The sale of alcohol is still banned, despite all ongoing rallying and legal action to have it lifted – things got spicy!
▪️ This week the Department of Trade and Industry also clarified that grocery stores may NOT sell hot/cooked foods. Minister Ebrahim Patel insisted this was the case from the start but many argued that food is an essential. Peeps are not pleased and there was a lot of chatter about Woolies’ roast chicken…

? Hunger

South Africa’s two biggest Sunday papers led with growing concerns around hunger.

While the government has rolled out a food parcel programme to help those in need, reports of corruption or just plain bad planning are rife – across provinces. The heartening news is that NGOs, media, opposition party leaders and even ordinary citizens all seem to be on the lookout for dodgy deals in this time. Mbombela Local Municipality has launched an investigation after receiving substandard sanitisers, which did not include the minimum percentage of alcohol content required by law. A whistleblower alleged that sanitisers were made in garages by the suppliers, City Press reported. Meanwhile, several councillors have already been suspended or arrested for trying to profiteer from the pandemic. South Africa is on high alert for opportunism, which is always a good thing.

But the stories of people queuing for food parcels that never arrived, the looting of stores, and the hungry flocking to shelters are all cause for concern. A crucial Cabinet meeting tomorrow will consider proposals to provide relief to save millions from hunger — including a temporary increase in social grants and the introduction of a basic income grant, the Sunday Times noted.

Meanwhile NGOs, religious organisations and even gang leaders in the Western Cape are making food available to those in need.

▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ 2. SA HAS A SOLID COVID-19 PLAN IN PLACE BUT THE STORM IS COMING ?️

Just ask Professor Salim Abdool Karim, a globally respected expert who became a local celebrity after his illuminating presentation to the nation this week on South Africa’s battle against Covid-19. Karim is one of the government’s advisors on our Covid-19 response. Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize asked him to explain some of the thinking going on behind the scenes. Karim’s presentation, which was simple, engaging and realistic, has since gone viral. Here’s our summary:

? Why the slowdown?

▪️ South Africa’s ‘slow’ infection rate is not a result of lack of testing or slow testing. Testing has increased dramatically in South Africa, so logically confirmed cases should have increased too. Transmission from travellers have stopped since travel restrictions were put in place.

▪️ Karim said South Africa’s infection rate is very unique. Compared to other nations, the number of infections in South Africa did not increase exponentially, once we reached the 100 cases mark, as we expected. Instead our overall infection rate slowed, while local transmission – infections not caused by those traveling abroad – flatlined. Experts expected local transmission to spread like ‘wildfire’ – so what happened? In a word: lockdown.

▪️ All signs point to the dramatic drop in our curve happening as the lockdown took effect. South Africa took stringent measurements early – earlier than most, as explain.co.za pointed out in our comparison with other countries.

? What’s next?

▪️ Karim emphasised we’re not missing this bullet. It’s still coming. South Africa will likely experience a delayed exponential curve when the lockdown ends. Essentially, our early lockdown helped to delay the spread and buy us some time. This is going to help us A LOT when the inevitable tsunami of ill people hit our hospitals.

▪️ ICU facilities, triages (field hospitals) and ventilators are being scaled up. Between provincial health departments, the national health department, and the Solidarity Fund, about R755 million has already been spent on protective equipment including millions of masks and hundreds of ventilators.

▪️ Karim’s presentation even included a plan for the inevitable grieving when our deaths increase – and burials. This is another sign of how uniquely we have been given time to prepare. In other countries the worst was upon them before they could blink and things like burial and morgue space became an issue.

? And the lockdown?

▪️ Karim said if the average number of daily cases increases beyond 90, the lockdown will continue. If it’s below 44, the government can lift the lockdown. However… the last seven days have seen a sudden growth in our daily confirmed cases. We’ve had well over 90 cases most days. This may mean a lockdown extension may be imminent. ?

▪️ This isn’t because we’re delaying the inevitable. It’s so that our systems can cope with putting out the small fires, as Karim put it. A sudden lift on the lockdown would create raging fires – the kind that are much harder to extinguish – and that spread much faster.

▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ 3.CAN A NEW SAA RISE FROM THE ASHES? ✈️

SAA’s business rescue practitioners are running out of options to save the debt-laden South African carrier. This week the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE) rejected a request to provide another R10 billion in funding or guarantees to save the airline. ?

We hear you breathe that sigh of relief. It’s high time government stopped pumping public money into that black hole. A national airline is hardly an essential item. Covid-19 has forced us to prioritise what really matters as a country.

Some background: SAA has incurred losses of over R28 billion over the past 12 years and has not made a profit since 2011. With some flights halted due to Covid-19, it’s in more trouble and stands to lose about R40 billion. Government placed the airline under business rescue in December last year.

Quick explainer: business rescue is the step before liquidation, and aims to restructure or rehabilitate a business so that staff and those who are owed money can get a better deal than if the whole thing was just shut down. It was a big move for government to put SAA under the supervision of independent business rescue practitioners, given the long political handling of the airline. It’s meant that hard business facts have taken centre stage – not political vanity.

Before the pandemic the practitioners had a number of scenarios for SAA’s future. Now, however, they have proposed letting go of staff and have also proposed a severance settlement agreement for all SAA staff because they believe it’s unlikely the airline will be rescued.

But unions and the DPE are determined not to see SAA’s 4700 employees suddenly without work. The department is working with unions to model a new plan for SAA. Public Enterprises Minister, Pravin Gordhan is expected to present his findings at that Cabinet meeting scheduled for tomorrow. It’s going to be a packed meeting.

Before you roll your eyes, it’s worth noting that a national airline, if done realistically, can be useful – especially in a post-Covid-19 world. The pandemic has taught us that ruthless capitalism isn’t the way to go and even normally liberal publications have stated that some state intervention is necessary going forward.

For example, SAA was able to repatriate a number of South Africans who were stranded overseas, and is continuing with cargo flights carrying essential medical supplies to fight the pandemic.

Analyst Peter Attard Montalto of Intellidex has suggested three possible scenarios for a healthier SAA:

▪️ Selling SAA’s profitable subsidiary Mango and SAA Technical to raise money.
▪️ “Restart a new SAA” with a smaller international network.
▪️ Restarting SAA as a smaller international franchisee airline under contract with a large international airline.

▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ 4. TWO GOOD SIGNS FOR THE ECONOMY ?️

Two pretty significant things happened to aid the South African economy this week.

? The Reserve Bank (Sarb) announced a surprising and bold 100 basis point cut to the interest rate on Tuesday. It was surprising because it comes just three weeks after March’s interest rate cut and because its next meeting was only supposed to be in May! It had everyone talking because the Sarb is known for its rather conservative and cautious approach. The Governor said the cut was in response to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement to extend the lockdown, which poses further danger to South Africa’s already struggling economy. AND the Sarb said this might not be the end of its intervention, saying more cuts could be on the cards! The cut is good for your loans, but a bad sign for the economy’s standing.

Read our explainer on this here.

? Moody’s has extended us an olive branch. Remember how they downgraded us to junk a few weeks ago AND gave us a negative outlook? In its April 14 note the rating agency said it would likely change the rating outlook to stable if the government ‘consolidated its finances’ in line with its expectations. They forecast that South Africa’s economy will contract by 2.5% in 2020, citing the impact of the five-week lockdown. It previously forecast a 0.4% expansion in the economy.

The government is working on a couple of plans to fire up the economy.

▁ ▂ ▄ ▅ ▆ ▇ █ INSPIRATION?

Violent crime drops dramatically

One of the unexpected consequences of the lockdown has been a sharp decline in violent crime.

These are the drops in the first week of the lockdown, compared to the same period in 2019, according to a preliminary report by the police ministry:

▪️ Murder cases: 326 to 94
▪️ Rape cases: 699 to 101
▪️ Cases of assault: 2 673 to 456

Police Minister Bheki Cele, who has long rallied against alcohol sales, claims the alcohol ban is part of the reason. Even SA’s notorious gang members are taking credit for the drop. Former gang leader, Welcome Witbooi said: “It was a national decision that all gang leaders and gangs … cease all forms of activities during the lockdown, including selling drugs.”

Local innovation

Two South Africans, Daniel Ndima and Dineo Lioma, have developed a groundbreaking testing kit that provides Covid-19 test results in just 65 minutes, City Press reported. The qCPR kits, which should be available by June, are made in Pretoria and are cheaper than the current imported kits. They will play a crucial role in ensuring South Africa can weather the Covid-19 crisis.

SA’s news wins

In another win for South Africa’s handling of this crisis, South Africa ranks second after Singapore for the most reliable Covid-19 related news and information, according to a massive study by the newly-found Covid-19 infodemics observatory. Allow us as your journalists to take a bow ? There’s actually a lot that sets SA’s media apart from the rest of the world. A story for another day.

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Cabinet will have a busy week ahead. This week they will be discussing:

▪️ Relief packages for the millions of people suffering from hunger. Some ideas on the table include the introduction of a basic income grant and a temporary increase in social grants.

▪️ South Africa’s socio-economic recovery plan as the economy spirals downward. Treasury briefed Cabinet its economic plans on Wednesday but Cabinet said it would make a final decision on the proposals when it meets on Monday.

▪️ Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan will present a report on the SAA crisis as well as provide measures and the way forward for the debt-laden carrier.

Stay safe, wear a mask if you’re going out and try to introduce daily exercise and meditation into your routine to stay sane.

That’s it from us at The Wrap, a product of https://www.explain.co.za/ – simple news summaries for busy people. ??‍♀

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Till next time, goodbye from Verashni, Nickolaus and Aarti. ✌?