By TAMAR KAHN, GENEVIEVE QUINTAL, LUYOLO MKENTANE and LYNLEY DONNELLY
The number of Covid-19 cases in SA is increasing slower than anticipated, but it is too soon to gauge the effect of the national lockdown imposed last week to curb transmission of the disease, health minister Zweli Mkhize said on Tuesday.
The government’s modelling had projected there would be between 4,000 and 5,000 cases by April 2. But after a week of rapidly rising numbers, the daily increases have slowed and the tally stood at 1,353 on Tuesday, a relatively modest increase of 46 on the day before, said the minister. There have been five deaths so far.
Nazir Ismail, of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said that the apparent slowdown in the rate of reported cases should be viewed with caution.
Several factors could explain the recent trend, as the current criteria for testing were skewed towards people with a recent travel history, and the imposition of travel bans two weeks ago may have led to a reduction in the number of people who met these criteria.
“While the initial social distancing and subsequent lockdown have very likely reduced transmission, this is unlikely to explain the recent declines in case numbers as the incubation period [the time from exposure to symptom onset] is long and there are additional delays as the person with symptoms seeks care and testing,” he said.
The effect of the lockdown is unlikely to be seen before next week, he said.
Ismail said the numbers of cases had periodically shown “erratic” patterns. An increase in private sector testing capacity had triggered a rapid uptick in cases, while a short-term shortage of test kits had led to a drop in new cases, he said.
The government’s plan to send thousands of field workers into communities to screen people and refer them for testing is likely to lead to an increase in the number of cases, he said.
Covid-19 is caused by the highly contagious SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus and has raced around the globe since it emerged in China in December.
By Tuesday evening more than 809,600 cases and 39,500 deaths had been reported in 179 countries and regions around the world, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
Last week SA joined a growing number of countries that have imposed stringent restrictions on travel, trade and social interaction to try to limit the spread of the disease – for which there is no cure and no vaccine — with the implementation of a three-week lockdown that kicked in at midnight on Thursday. Under the lockdown rules, everyone is expected to remain in their homes, except for essential trips to buy food or medicines, to seek medical care or to collect social grants. Schools, universities and most businesses are closed, and only tightly defined essential services are permitted to operate.
Mkhize said the government would assess the effect of the lockdown towards the end of the three-week period, but signalled that it was unlikely that all the restrictions in place would be lifted.
“We will not be living life as normal after the 21 days.”
A wide-ranging briefing by several government ministers earlier in the day highlighted the extent of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Global travel bans and a sharp reduction in the routes operated by airline companies had left more than 1,500 South Africans stranded abroad, and the government was doing all it could to ensure they were safe and could return to SA, international relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor said at a briefing earlier in the day.
In the face of “millions” of claims for unemployment benefits, the government is putting in new systems to speed up the process, which will see benefits paid out through companies, sectoral associations and bargaining councils, said employment & labour minister Thulas Nxesi.
The Unemployment Insurance Fund usually processes claims submitted by individuals.
The government is planning a package for spaza shops, as part of a R500m initiative to help small enterprises hard-hit by the lockdown, said minister for small business development Khumbudzo Ntshavheni.