South Africa: Govt Shuts Borders, Schools to Try to Slow COVID Spread

Coronavirus (COVID-19) disease graphic.

The rise of coronavirus cases in South Africa has prompted President Cyril Ramaphosa to announce tough measures to try to slow the virus’ spread. The respiratory illness, now a global pandemic, has infected more than 153,000 people worldwide since it was first reported in China at the end of 2019. Since South Africa reported its first case on March 5, the nation’s burden has risen to at least 62 confirmed cases, with the World Health Organization classifying it a as a country with local transmission.

“We have decided to take urgent and drastic measures to manage the disease, protect the people of our country, and to reduce the impact of the virus on our society and on our economy,” Ramaphosa said in a televised address Sunday night. “We have now declared a national state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act. This will enable us to have an integrated and coordinated disaster management mechanism that will focus on preventing and reducing the outbreak of this virus."

South Africa’s government this past weekend repatriated 114 citizens from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak started. The citizens will be kept in quarantine for three weeks, although none has tested positive for the virus.

Ramaphosa announced a travel ban from high-risk countries including Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the United States, Britain and China. He also said that all schools would close from Wednesday and banned all public gatherings of more than 100 people.

In South Africa’s economic and transportation hub, Johannesburg, the minibus taxi ranks are usually buzzing with activity. On Monday morning, it appeared people were heeding the president’s warnings and staying away. Many said they were concerned.

“I’m glad that they took the measures,” said freelance journalist Marcia Zali. “I'm just concerned because I'm a mother, and schools are closing early. I'm not sure about what creches (nursery schools) are going to do because I have two kids, one is in creche and one goes to school. So, we'll hear what the schools and creches are going to say about that.”

Others expressed concerns about their livelihoods, like 74-year-old lawyer Phillip Vallet.

“My worry is, how long is it going to take?” he said. “Because just from a business point of view, if we have to shut down parts of our business or drastically interfere with how our business is run, I'm just worried about how long we can stand it. And I'm worried about our staff. I'm worried about the taxis. If there are no taxis and there are no buses, we might not have a business.”

Project manager Phili Chikale said she may have to cancel as many as 18 upcoming projects; but, she said, she agrees with the strict measures.

“I think it was just the right time, because all this time we've been taking this disease lightly,” she said. “It's like it's only now that the president has made us aware of the seriousness and how much it's going to affect us, that we also aware that, oh, no this is really a big deal and we should now start taking care of ourselves.”

But not everyone is concerned. Some say they’ll continue as usual, like sales consultant Mandla Ncube, who said he would continue to work and to go to church services.

“I'm not worried, not a bit,” he said. “I mean at work, I'm already, you know, exposed -- I said my guys are well-traveled. So, I'm exposed. So, I'm already exposed. So, I can't lose at work.”

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