The government has banned alcohol sales “with immediate effect” and will impose an evening curfew from Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday night, as SA’s coronavirus tally soared past the 276,000 mark.
The move is expected to reduce the alcohol-related trauma load on hospitals and free up desperately needed resources for Covid-19 patients. But it is likely to trigger fierce opposition from the alcohol industry, which said at the weekend the livelihoods of more than 1-million people depend on the liquor supply chain.
Modelling by the Medical Research Council, presented to the government last week, estimated that an eight-week ban on alcohol sales would result in 50,000 fewer trauma cases presenting at hospitals. The R1.3bn in savings could free up enough resources to treat 17,755 Covid-19 patients in general wards, or 12,947 in ICU wards.
The government’s latest move follows lobbying by several provincial governments for tighter alcohol restrictions and a return to more restrictive lockdown measures to try to curb transmission of the disease.
SA has in the past week shot up the global Covid-19 rankings published by the Johns Hopkins University tracker, with the surge in confirmed cases driven by the rapid spread of the disease in densely populated Gauteng. By Sunday, SA had the world’s ninth biggest caseload of confirmed cases, ahead of Iran, Spain and Pakistan.
“This is a fight to save every life, and we need to save every bed,” said Ramaphosa in an address to the nation, his first in a month. His address, in which he also announced that the state of disaster would be extended to August 15, follows a meeting of the National Coronavirus Command Council last Thursday, followed by a cabinet meeting on Friday.
The cabinet also agreed to strengthen regulations on the wearing of cloth masks outside a person’s home, including making it a legal requirement for businesses and public institutions to ensure everyone in their buildings wore a face covering.
Businesses, schools and other institutions will also be required to improve ventilation to reduce the risk of airborne transmission of Covid-19.
Taxis will be permitted to carry full loads for local trips, but will have to keep their windows open to ensure adequate ventilation, he said.
Restrictions on some activities that pose little risk of transmission will be eased. Auctions will be permitted and parks will be open to the public for exercise, but family and social visits remain prohibited.
The curfew will be in place from 9pm to 4am, and will require everyone to remain at home, unless they are travelling for work or seeking emergency assistance such as medical care.
SA’s first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on March 5, and after an initially slow start the country is now grappling with rapidly escalating epidemics in several provinces. Gauteng has reported a massive surge in confirmed cases in the past few weeks and by Sunday evening accounted for more than 35% of the country’s caseload, and hospitals were taking strain.
“The system is holding, but only just. It is a testament to very poor planning,” said Francois Venter, head of the Ezintsha health unit at Wits and a member of health minister Zweli Mkhize’s advisory committee on Covid-19. “Doctors are very stressed and ambulances don’t know where to take people. If the numbers start screaming up, we will be stress-testing beyond the capacity of the system to cope,” he warned.
Even private hospitals are battling to find space for patients, as they have had to reduce bed numbers to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission, while increasing numbers of staff are sick or in quarantine, said Mark Human, chair of the Gauteng branch of the SA Medical Association. “The hospitals are filling up and staffing is turning into a nightmare … especially for critical care,” he said.
Progressive Health Forum convener Aslam Dasoo said there was little co-ordination between the public and private sector in Gauteng, and the provincial health department had not prepared adequately for the surge in Covid-19 patients.
“We are facing a dire situation in our public hospitals, which are being left to their own devices in trying to cope with increasing Covid-19 patients. We are getting reports from hospitals and clinics that there is a serious deficiency in life-saving equipment. Helen Joseph Hospital reported an acute shortage of oxygen this week: this should have been foreseen by the authorities,” he said.