In a tweet on Thursday morning in the wake of rumours that government may be considering relaxing some of the restrictions on some sectors of the economy in a bid to save jobs, EFF leader Julius Malema was unequivocal that a total shutdown should remain in place or “millions will die”.
The EFF leader has previously called on his members to physically go to businesses not obeying the shutdown and forcibly enforce the rules.
Most countries affected by the coronavirus have implemented measures restricting the movement and activities of citizens, with South Africa one of the world’s most stringent. Sweden, by contrast, has opted for an approach that still allows most economic activity to continue while asking its citizens to take sanitary precautions against spreading the disease. Some have speculated that the country is opting for a so-called herd immunity approach by allowing the virus to spread through the population in the hope that eventually enough people will develop immunity.
The debate on trying to balance the need to keep people economically active and avoid a global depression with concerns that if the virus spreads too quickly people will overwhelm their countries’ health systems is one that continues to rage.
It has been complicated by the fact that the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is still so new and not everything is known about it or the effect it has on different countries’ populations in different scenarios.
Malema, however, has clearly thrown his support behind taking and maintaining the strongest preventative measures possible.
“If the state is not going to be firm and not negotiate with any non-essential sector of the economy for relaxation of lockdown regulations, this lockdown will collapse, barbarism will emerge and the deadly coronavirus will spread like wildfire: millions will die. Stop it cowards!” he said in a tweet that he pinned to the top of his timeline.
If the state is not going to be firm and not negotiate with any non-essential sector of the economy for relaxation of lockdown regulations, this lockdown will collapse, barbarism will emerge and the deadly coronavirus will spread like wildfire: millions will die. Stop it cowards!
— Julius Sello Malema (@Julius_S_Malema) April 2, 2020
An analysis by GroundUp last month posed the question about how many people could die due to the coronavirus outbreak in South Africa.
Nathan Geffen wrote that researchers at the University of East Anglia in England had used data from the Chinese and Italian epidemics to make an online tool to estimate the potential number of deaths in other countries, including South Africa.
They made assumptions based on the imperfect knowledge we have of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Scientists are still unsure of how fast the virus spreads and what percentage of infected people it kills,” Geffen wrote.
“The interesting thing about this tool, though, is that it takes into account the ages of a country’s population.”
Here are the estimates for South Africa assuming that 25% or 50% of the population gets infected, using the Italian or Chinese mortality data:
Peter Lloyd-Sherlock told GroundUp: “These are just hypothetical scenarios, based on a best-guess approach. What we can’t guess is how well South Africans will respond to this calamity. Quite simple actions could do a lot to limit the rate of infection, potentially saving many thousands of lives.”
For example if 50% of the population gets infected, using the Chinese data nearly 240,000 people in South Africa would die, and using the Italian data about 190,000 South Africans would die. Halve these numbers if we keep infections to 25%.
“These calculations did not take into account that South Africans are generally in poorer health than the Italian and Chinese populations. It is unknown if the higher rates of HIV, TB, diabetes, and hypertension and the poorer nutritional status of many people will result in a higher death rate. And while the intensive care units in facilities such as Groote Schuur Hospital are first-class, most cities and towns in South Africa cannot offer the kind of care that is being offered in Italy, nor even China probably,” added Geffen.
“To understand what it means for 240,000 people to die, consider that about 60,000 South Africans are expected to die of Aids in 2020 (source: Thembisa model). In the worst year of the Aids epidemic, 2005, about 285,000 people died of the disease, an average of nearly 770 people per day. So we’d be looking at the kind of mortality we had in 2005.
“This is bad enough, but it will be a lot worse if much more than 50% of people get infected (which is possible if the virus is allowed to spread without efforts to stop it) or our population’s poor health results in more deaths.
“And there is a further factor that can make it even worse. Even at the height of the Aids crisis, deaths were spread out more or less evenly in a year. But here if the curve is not flattened (in other words, if we do not act to slow the number of infections), most of these deaths would happen over a few months, with immediate and devastating effects on the health system and on patients who don’t have Covid-19. Also many people who survive Covid-19 nevertheless become very ill and also need to go to hospital. If the health system cannot cope, people who could have survived the illness may die.”
It was because of scenarios like this that governments across the world, including South Africa, were taking strenuous action to reduce the rate of infections.
Professor Francois Venter, a director at Wits University’s Ezintsha research unit, said this analysis gave South Africa a “heads-up”.
He said South Africa had the resources to intervene and keep the infection rate down.
“We cannot behave like the US and stick our heads in the sand. We need to support the lockdown and case finding urgently.”
Malema last month lent his support to President Cyril Ramaphosa in Cape Town while calling on businesses not to try to maximise profits out of the crisis.
He said the only way hospitals would avoid being “nationalised” during the crisis was if they fully cooperated with the health minister and gave beds for sick people when needed.
US-based investment bank and financial services company JP Morgan this week identified South Africa as one of the five countries likely to be the most severely hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
They forecast that the economy would contract by at least 7% this year. The short-term GDP would also be severely cut because the lockdown had shut down about half of the national economy.
JP Morgan further warned the country would find it difficult to recover from the crisis as national finances were weak and sovereign debt was now at sub-investment grade following the recent downgrade by ratings agency Moody’s.
The other countries in the “worst five” group were identified as Mexico, New Zealand, the US and Australia, with only Mexico predicted to be more severely hit than South Africa.