South African response on the COVID-19 pandemic

Following a special cabinet meeting on 15 March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the country on the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the time of the address there were 61 confirmed cases of people infected with the virus, but the figure is expected to increase over the coming weeks. Initially, it was people who had travelled out of the country, especially to Italy, who had positively tested for the virus, but authorities are now dealing with internal transmission of the virus.

A state of disaster in terms of the Disaster Management Act was declared, which enables government to implement an integrated and coordinated disaster management mechanism focusing on preventing and reducing the outbreak of this virus. The possibility to raise a state of emergency remains on the table to further tighten enforcement measures if the current interventions fail.

Included in the current response, Ramaphosa announced travel bans from eight high-risk countries, the closure of some points of entry into South Africa, bans on gatherings of 100 or more people, and the closure of schools from Wednesday 18 March 2020 until after the Easter holiday ending on Monday 13 April 2020.

Addressing the current lack of quarantine facilities, Dr Zweli Mkhize, South Africa’s health minister, has tasked provincial health Members of the Executive Council (MECs) with locating potential isolation and quarantine sites where people who may struggle to self-isolate, such as those living in informal settlements, can be housed.

According to the minister of transport, Fikile Mbalula, screening facilities will be established at all taxi ranks. Trains and taxis will be expected to be sanitized and an awareness programme will be launched, however, no airports are being closed yet. Surveillance, screening and testing measures of passengers at OR Tambo will be increased.

South Africa is closing 12 of the 17 border posts with Botswana, nine of the 14 posts with Lesotho, three of the four with Mozambique and five of the seven with Namibia. South Africa’s border post with Zimbabwe at Beitbridge will not be closed.

As of 18 March 2020, a travel ban on foreign nationals will come into effect. This includes cancelling visas, revoking those previously granted and denying visas to foreign nationals who have visited high-risk countries in the past 20 days. The eight high-risk countries include: Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Germany, the US, UK, and China. Travelers from medium-risk countries, such as Portugal, Hong Kong and Singapore, will need to be screened before coming to South Africa. Citizens from the eight high-risk countries who are already in South Africa on temporary permits will not be affected.

The flow of trade in goods remain largely unaffected, beyond the additional pressure on the remaining open ports and a potential slowdown in border crossings (including at airports) from cautious staff and the additional capacity required for passenger clearance. Government still has some space to increase emergency measures and South Africa is not yet at a stage of national shutdown, rather taking a targeted and measured approach on surveillance, screening and testing of persons entering the country.