South African health minister refutes criticism against COVID-19 lockdown

Residents look out of the window as a worker wearing protective gear sprays disinfectant to sanitise parts of the Alexandra's Madala Men's Hostel during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to try to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Alexandra, South Africa April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
South Africa Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize. Reuters

South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on Tuesday refuted criticism against the COVID-19 lockdown, saying the measure has effectively stalled the exponential spread of the novel coronavirus.

With the lockdown, South Africa’s healthcare sector has won time to prepare for the rising wave of infections and deaths, Mkhize said.

“Had we done nothing, estimates show that by this point, as many as 80,000 South Africans would have been infected, and nearly 2,000 of our brothers and sisters would have lost their lives,” the minister said, citing scientific models and estimates.

He was responding to rising criticism from the opposition that some lockdown restrictions are too harsh, nonsensical and not based on scientific principles, and thus should be brought to an end.

The criticism comes at a time when the Western Cape province accounts for 60 percent of the national cumulative cases, with cases increasing exponentially on a daily basis as compared to the rest of the country, Mkhize said in a statement.

The Western Cape province is governed by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which is spearheading the campaign to halt the lockdown.

As of Tuesday, South Africa has recorded 17,200 confirmed COVID-19 cases, up by 767 from Monday, and 312 deaths, an increase of 26, said Mkhize.

The Western Cape remains the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic with 10,639 cases and 187 deaths.

“Our mortality rate of 1.8 percent remains well below the global average, which is currently 6.6 percent, and our recovery rate is 42.4 percent, which is above the global average,” he said.

“Had we not traded freedom for time, hospitals would now be overwhelmed, and our concern would have been drawn away from saving lives by the need to excavate mass graves for those we would have lost,” Mkhize said.

He warned against ending the lockdown abruptly, saying if people are allowed to flood back to the way life was before, infections would surge, effectively undoing everything that has been sacrificed thus far.

In the weeks to come, different areas will experience different levels of lockdown, according to Mkhize.

This district-based approach is seen as the most practical and implementable measure to balance the epidemiology of the virus with the economic risks of a continuous hard lockdown, he said.

Districts with low transmissions will be put on a vigilance program to maintain low levels of the virus infection while those with high transmissions will be classified as hotspots where restrictions are necessary and strong teams of medical experts will be deployed, Mkhize said.