JOHANNESBURG - South Africa is fighting a strong “third wave” of coronavirus, leading President Cyril Ramaphosa to announce a raft of new restrictions to try to curb the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.
The president said on national television late Sunday that the Delta variant has now been detected in five of the nation’s nine provinces.
“The rapid spread of this variant is extremely serious,” he said. “It is for this reason that I said I address you on a weighty matter tonight. Even if it is not more severe, the rate at which people are infected could lead to many more people becoming ill and requiring treatment at the same time. We therefore need to take extra precautions.”
Those measures include a ban on all gatherings, the closure of schools, a ban on all alcohol sales and in-restaurant dining, a stronger curfew and tougher enforcement for lawbreakers.
And, for the worst-affected province, Gauteng — home to the Johannesburg-Pretoria megaplex — he also announced a 14-day ban on leisure travel.
South Africa, the epicenter of coronavirus on the continent, has reported more than 1.9 million cases, with more than 18,000 new cases on Saturday and 15,000 new cases reported on Sunday, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. Of all the cases, 59,900 have been fatal.
"We are in the grip of a devastating wave that by all indications seems like it will be worse than those that preceded it,” Ramaphosa warned. “The peak of this third wave looks set to be higher than the previous two.”
The reaction to his announcement split along political lines, with the ruling African National Congress expressing support and opposition parties slamming the government’s reaction to the pandemic.
“We believe that these measures are necessary to flatten the curve,” said ANC spokesman Pule Mabe, speaking to state-run television.
But the far-left opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party vowed, in a statement, to continue to campaign for October elections despite restrictions. They accuse the ruling party of "using lockdowns and restrictions to manage the inevitable, but coming, removal of the ANC from power in all municipalities.”
And the opposition Democratic Alliance is calling for an inquiry into the government’s vaccination program, with party leader John Steenhuisen on Sunday laying blame on Ramaphosa directly.
“Every COVID death and every job lost to the draconian restrictions he announced tonight are on President Ramaphosa now,” he said in a statement. “He is now forcing South Africans to pay the price for his administration’s catastrophic vaccine failures, or “missteps” as he calls them.”
Waiting for vaccines
Although South Africa began to receive vaccine doses in February, only 2.7 million people have been vaccinated — a far cry from the nation’s goal of vaccinating 40 million people.
Ramaphosa announced that the next phase of vaccinations would start this month, targeting people over the age of 50. Additionally, he said, those who work in basic education and in the security sector, such as the police, are beginning to receive vaccinations.
“We ran short and we are not the only country in the world,” Ramaphosa said. “I get calls every day from leaders on the continent about the availability of vaccines — from as far afield as the Caribbean. The entire world is crying out for vaccines and we are doing everything we can to make sure that the vaccines are here. Whilst we do so, we must observe what we have always talked about as a defense: wearing our masks, regularly washing or sanitizing our hands. We must always keep a safe distance from others unless it is necessary. We must remain at home.”