With the end of South Africa’s current national State of Disaster due in a few days, a number of scientists and politicians have called for President Cyril Ramaphosa to allow it to lapse, whereas a Department of Health deputy director-general has warned that doing so would create “chaos”.
The State of Disaster is declared under the Disaster Management Act and allows government to impose lockdowns, curfews and other restrictions without parliamentary oversight, ostensibly to retard the infection rate and lessen the burden on the health system.
It has been renewed monthly since March 2020 at the start of the global pandemic. The current period is due to end on Saturday.
Prof Shabir Madhi, dean of the University of Witwatersrand’s faculty of health sciences and professor of vaccinology, said there is no reason to renew the State of Disaster.
“There is absolutely no excuse for an ongoing State of Disaster and more so in a country where we now have pretty much lifted all restrictions,” he told Business Day.
“I think we are at a very different stage of the pandemic and there needs to be greater oversight, including of the decisions made by the NCCC [National Coronavirus Command Council] because this is a time when we need to start reconstructing the economy, the education sector and every other aspect of our lives.”
The number of people who died during the Omicron wave would probably be equal to, if not less than, the 10,000 to 11,000 people who died from seasonal influenza before COVID-19 arrived, and substantially lower than the 58,000 people who died annually from tuberculosis.
He said the death rate of this fourth wave was possibly less than one-tenth of that in the third wave, which saw about 50% of all deaths due to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. The fourth wave has caused fewer than 5% of all COVID deaths. All provinces were at the tail end of the fourth wave.
Nicholas Crisp, deputy director-general in the Health Department, said ending the State of Disaster immediately would create “chaos” and remove the government’s ability to impose restrictions such as mandating masks in indoor areas or closing schools to deal with spiking infections.
Helen Suzman Foundation legal counsellor Anton van Dalsen said it was undemocratic that the minister could declare national States of Disasters indefinitely without an end date, while DA leader John Steenhuisen said the State of Disaster was no longer necessary to manage the virus and was doing more harm than good by undermining SA’s social, economic and democratic recovery.
“The pandemic has become endemic in SA. We need to get back to living normal lives and accept that the virus will continue to circulate, as other viruses do,” he said.
But this view is contrary to that of the World Health Organization (WHO), with senior emergencies officer at WHO Europe Catherine Smallwood quoted by international media as saying: “We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges”. A move to an endemic status would also depend on the availability of vaccines globally in an equitable manner, she said.
An infectious disease is considered endemic when it is circulating at a level that is considered acceptable and able to be managed without special restrictions. “What we’re seeing at the moment is nowhere near that,” Smallwood said.
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