End of the State of Disaster: A look at how Covid-19 has impacted South Africans

The National State of Disaster in response to Covid-19 lasted more than 750 days in South Africa. Take a look back over the last two years to see how the country has managed the pandemic.

On Monday night President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the State of Disaster would come to an end, even though certain regulations would stay in place, like wearing masks in indoors public spaces.

Ramaphosa said certain transitional provisions will remain in place for 30 days after the termination of the National State of Disaster, to ensure essential public health precautions and other necessary services are not interrupted while the new regulations in terms of the National Health Act come into effect.

These include the following:

  • Members of the public will still be required to wear a face mask in an indoor public space, but not outdoors
  • Both indoor and outdoor venues can take up to 50% of their capacity without any maximum limit, provided proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test not older than 72 hours is required for entrance
  •  Where there is no proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test, the current upper limit of 1000 people indoors and 2000 people outdoors will remain in place
  •  International travellers entering the country will need to provide proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test not older than 72 hours
  •  If a traveller does not submit a vaccine certificate or proof of a negative Covid-19 test, they will be required to do an antigen test on arrival. If they test positive, they will need to isolate for 10 day
  •  The directions that provide for the payment of the special R350 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant will remain in place
  •  Directions are provided for the extension of the validity of a learner’s licence, driving license card, professional driving permit and registration of a motor vehicle will remain in place.

These will automatically lapse after a period of 30 days.

The State of Disaster was officially declared on March 15 2020 as South Africa prepared to enter into a hard lockdown in response to the country’s first cases of Covid-19. To date, South Africa has had a cumulative total of 3 728 689 positive cases, with 100 075 people officially having lost their lives to the virus.

Lockdowns and regulations

The declaration of the national state of disaster in March 2020 and the hard lockdown that was in effect from March 27 until May 1, heralded the start of extreme restrictions placed on South Africans.

Under the initial Alert Level 5 lockdown, residents were confined to their homes, with only essential workers allowed to travel – and only if they had the required permits. The sale of alcohol and cigarettes was banned and it was illegal to walk your dog or even go for a solitary jog.

The risk-adjusted approach adopted by government resulted in the introduction of a five-level Covid-19 alert system, with level 5 being the strictest and level 1 the most lenient.

South Africa moved from level 5 to 4 on May 1, 2020. The months that followed were characterised by the easing and tightening of restrictions, dictated by the number of Covid-19 cases and the pressure on the healthcare system, as government tried to find a balance between curbing the spread of the virus and preventing a financial crisis.

Curfews

With the easing of lockdown regulations, curfews were imposed to prevent the unnecessary movement of people. During the level 4 lockdown, a 20:00–05:00 curfew was imposed. Curfews were eased with each lower lockdown level, before being scrapped in December 2021, just in time for New Year’s celebrations.

Masks

The wearing of masks in public was declared mandatory when level 4 restrictions took effect in May 2020. Although there have been public calls for mandatory mask-wearing to be scrapped, Cabinet said on March 10 that South Africans must continue to wear masks that properly cover both the mouth and nose.

Exercise

During level 5, residents were confined to their homes, be it an informal shack, flat or mansion. Fitness fanatics found creative ways to keep fit. During level 4, exercise was allowed, but only from 06:00 to 09:00 and on the condition that you wore a mask. Gyms and fitness centres re-opened during level 2 in August 2020.

Schools

After a total shutdown, schools were gradually reopened in June 2020, with grades 7 and 12 learners returning to class first. Most schools adopted a rotational system to allow learners class time while maintaining social distancing regulations and a 50% classroom capacity.

Schools were fully reopened with no social distancing in February 2022. Since then, several schools have had to temporarily close due to Covid-19 outbreaks. It is estimated that learners lost 70–100% of class time between March 2020 and July 2021 (National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey).

Mzansi humour

While Covid-19 is nothing to laugh about, the pandemic – and especially the lockdown regulations – delivered some comical moments in a country where people always manage to see the silver lining.

Apart from the ban on alcohol and cigarettes, which made sense to most, South Africans had to endure bans on buying prepared food and underwear and could not purchase a new fridge if theirs packed up. While these restrictions caused anger and frustration, it was a ‘ban’ on kissing by Minister of Police Bheki Cele that had us laughing out loud.

Some of the funniest and strangest moments:

  • Police Minister Bheki Cele ‘banned’ kissing – even in the middle of the night.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s mask fumble had the country in stitches, sparking the #CyrilMaskChallenge

Remember when you could buy fizzy drinks and sweets, but no cigarettes? Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s speech explaining her ban on cigarettes and ‘when people zol’, went viral.

Vaccines

When Covid-19 started to spread across the world and scientists confirmed that this would be humankind’s next pandemic, the race began for an effective vaccine.

On December 31, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued the first emergency validation for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), South Africa’s vaccine rollout would be done in three phases. Firstly, the country’s frontline healthcare workers were vaccinated, followed by essential workers, persons in congregate settings as well as people over the age of 60. The final phase targeted the rest of the country’s population.

South Africa’s vaccine roll-out programme experienced a slight hiccup when the first batch of vaccines that had arrived in the country on February 1, 2021 (one million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine) was found to be ineffective against the then dominating Beta variant. This delayed the vaccine roll-out.

The first batch of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine arrived in South Africa on February 16, 2021. The following day, the first South Africans were vaccinated. Receiving their jabs alongside healthcare workers were President Cyril Ramaphosa and former Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize.

On May 2, 2021, the country’s first batch of the Pfizer vaccine arrived.

On May 17, 2021, people over the age of 60 were able to get vaccinated, followed by teachers and support staff on June 23, 2021. In July, it was the turn of people older than 50 and members of the media, the police, SANDF, inmates, prison staff and other frontline workers.

From August 1, 2021, people above the age of 35 could get vaccinated, and those over the age of 18 were eligible from August 20. Children and teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 started receiving their vaccines on October 20, 2021. While only eligible for one dose, initially, this was changed to two doses from December 9, 2021.

Booster shots are now available for adults.

As of April 2022, more than 18 million South Africans were fully vaccinated, with more than 33.9 million doses administered. That means that about 30.4% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Worldwide, about 4.58 billion people have been fully vaccinated with around 11.4 billion doses given, meaning that nearly 60% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated.

According to Covidvax, at the current rate of vaccination (one dose administered in just under a second), South Africa could have 70% of its population fully vaccinated by March 21, 2024.

Variants and waves

South Africa has experienced four waves of Covid-19, with a fifth wave looming. According to the NICD, a Covid-19 wave is when the weekly incidence of cases is equal to or greater than 30 cases per 100 000 people. The wave stretches until the weekly incidence is equal to or below 30 cases per 100 000 people.

Although there are no exact dates connected to each of the waves, as every province experienced an increase in cases at different times, the first wave occurred roughly between April 2020 and September 2020. The second wave happened between November 2020 and March 2021, while the third wave took place between May 2021 and September 2021. The fourth wave started around November 2021 and lasted until around February 2022.

Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla predicts that the fifth wave of Covid-19 is likely to hit South Africa in winter or earlier, depending on the variants that might develop.

Throughout the pandemic, the WHO has highlighted certain variants of concern. These include Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron.

The Alpha variant was first documented in the United Kingdom in September 2020, while the Beta variant’s earliest documented samples come from South Africa in May 2020. After that, the Gamma variant was first noted in Brazil in November 2020, followed by the Delta variant that was documented in India in October 2020. The Omicron variant was detected by multiple countries in November 2021, including South Africa.

Predictions for the next wave

Prof Veronica Ueckermann, head of the Covid-19 response team and Adjunct Professor at the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Pretoria, says they are cautiously optimistic that the tide is turning on the pandemic.

“This is related mostly to the fact that our fourth Omicron-dominated wave was markedly different from the preceding waves, in terms of numbers of hospitalised patients, bed availability and mortality. We have seen many more patients that have co-incidental Covid-19 in the past weeks than in the previous waves, and we are certainly seeing less severe disease in vaccinated patients.”

According to Ueckermann, South Africa’s healthcare systems can cope with the current numbers.

“We know that levels of immunity in the community were higher in the fourth wave than any of the others, despite our comparatively low vaccination rates, with previous infections contributing to so-called natural immunity.”

She says it is expected that the magnitude of waves in 2023 will be lower.

“Covid-19 is with us to stay, but we hope to see it as a more endemic disease, with the majority of people having mild disease and hospitals having the capacity to manage those with more severe disease.

“Having said that, we cannot ignore the development of new variants and although we hope to continue to see these variants resulting in milder disease, only time will tell. We are all holding our breath to see what the anticipated ‘fifth wave’ holds for us.”

Ueckermann says they have learnt from experience that relaxation in restrictions generally leads to a sense of complacency and an increase in cases. “As we are likely to hear an end to the state of disaster being announced soon, this may happen again.”

Dr Jo Barnes, an epidemiologist at Stellenbosch University, says the virus has shown several times over the past two years just how good it is at changing its outer coat and slipping past our defences.

“There is no way of knowing whether we are facing a gradually weakening virus, or whether the next mutation may be more severe than Omicron was. What is certain is that there will be other variants, just like with the seasonal flu viruses.”

It is expected that over time the virus will settle down and behave like one of the annual flu viruses, she says. “But how long that process will take is completely unknown.”

Barnes says for the time being, people should learn to live with the presence of the virus in one form or another.

She says one of the factors playing a role in the mutation of the virus, is whether the virus will colonise other animals, mutate there and return as a new form to reinfect humans.

“There are signs that it may be happening. Covid-19 has been picked up in white-tailed deer in the northern hemisphere, for instance, in a variant closely resembling the one infecting humans at present.

“The way to look at this is to work towards methods to control the spread of the disease caused by Covid-19 and the treatment of those who do fall ill, so that it does not have such a disastrous affect on the population of the world.

“We succeeded with other viruses that plagued humanity for centuries, such as measles, chickenpox, and so forth.”

She cautions, however, that the challenges posed by the anti-vax groups and people with vaccine hesitancy will have to be overcome.

Read original story on fourwaysreview.co.za