/Jackson Mthembu: Government’s response to Covid-19 has been informed by the imperative to save lives

Jackson Mthembu: Government’s response to Covid-19 has been informed by the imperative to save lives

2020-05-13 16:35

We are working to ensure that life slowly returns, but it will not be life as we knew it before. We must be prepared to live with restrictions and the threat of the virus for many more months, writes Jackson Mthembu.


Much has been written and spoken about decisions to lockdown parts of society throughout the world because of Covid-19. Much of the debate has been driven by those who want an immediate end to restrictions.

At home, this call has been echoed by certain voices who have vociferously called for society to reopen.  

From the very start of this crisis, government has adopted a listening and consultative approach. 

As a caring and listening government we have continually assessed our operations, and where appropriate we have amended them to best respond to various challenges.

Government has also listened to expert advice and taken decisions after examining all the possible consequences.  

The initial hard lockdown at level five was necessary, and prevented a massive and uncontrolled spread of the virus. Those first few weeks of the lockdown were crucial in flattening the curve and bought us valuable time to fight the virus.

Had we done nothing our hospitals and health system would have been overwhelmed by large numbers of ill people seeking help. This uncontrollable influx of sick people would most likely have caused a massive spike in ICU and hospital bed use. 

Thousands would likely have died, and many more thousands would now be infected.   

By taking the hard decision to lockdown, we have kept our infection rate relatively low, and we have given our health systems time to prepare for the expected influx of ill people during the peak.

Our models have indicated that the virus peak is only likely to be reached between August and September this year. 

We have used this time to sharpen the training of our health workers to ensure that they are ready to save lives, while also remaining safe.

The lockdown has also given us time to procure the personal protective equipment that will be necessary for the long-term fight against the virus.

At the same time, we have learned lessons from other countries and are implementing those in our preparedness.  

Flattening the curve and keeping infection rates down is our best defense, especially when one considers that South Africa has a unique disease burden with a high number of HIV/AIDS  and TB people.

The virus is deadly for those with compromised immune function, and for people with co-morbidities such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

By heeding the call to prematurely reopen large sectors of society, we would knowingly be sentencing to death those who are sick, infirm or elderly.  

What has been missed by those calling for things to return to “normal” is the fact that this is now the new normal.

Covid-19 will continue to pose a grave threat to humanity and our way of life until a working and safe vaccine is found. This is likely still many months away, and until then we must continue to tread cautiously.   

We have, first and foremost, upheld our obligation and responsibility as Government of primarily saving the lives of all our people.

By moving to level four, we have struck a balance in a responsible and cautious manner, between the need to keep infections low, while also getting our economy and nation back to work.   

The system is flexible and allows us to gradually ease restrictions when it is safe and appropriate to do so.  It is key to ensuring that we do not undo the progress we have made in fighting the virus.

In fact, the UK has now adopted a five-tier system which is very similar to ours.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a broadcast said that the alert system would help the country “avoid going back to square one”.     

As government we are committed to further easing restrictions, but will do so in a measured and responsible manner. What we will not do is sacrifice the gains we have made or the lives of our people by easing restrictions in a haphazard manner!  

We will also never sacrifice potential lives just to bow to the pressure coming from certain lobby groups. It has to be a responsible decision which strives to protect the majority of lives and livelihoods.  

Our alert system allows for flexibility in responding to the level of threat, and will allow us to further ease restrictions when it is safe to do so. 

We are well aware that all of us are experiencing hardship due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

Our way of life has been impacted upon by Covid-19 and we have been required to adapt to a new normal. However, the necessary sacrifices we are making today will ensure that we have a collective future as a nation and a people tomorrow.  

In the coming weeks and months, many more businesses will reopen and more people will return to work as we gradually ease restrictions. Our economic recovery is going to be gradual, but we will recover, and emerge even stronger than before.  

Since 1994 we have continually defied the odds and the sceptics. We have shown that South Africa and her people are at our strongest when we are united.

Our unity and resolve has carried us through our darkest times and will do so again. 

I can assure our people that government is working day and night to find ways to steadily reduce the alert level, while still keeping the rate of infections down.

We are working to ensure that life slowly returns, but it will not be life as we knew it before. We must be prepared to live with restrictions and the threat of the virus for many more months.  

We will have to adapt, we will have to change, and we must find new ways to preserve our way of life, while still ensuring our health and safety. 

– Jackson Mthembu, Minister in the Presidency  

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