The following address on the extension of the state of disaster was delivered by the DA Federal Leader John Steenhuisen in Cape Town today.
On Tuesday, the government extended the State of Disaster yet again. South Africa has now been under a State of Disaster for over two years.
All signs are that the government will continue to extend the State of Disaster until it has permanent legislation that can keep the lockdown in place.
This week, the health minister released a raft of proposed changes to health regulations, to enable the lockdown to continue after the State of Disaster ends.
Yesterday, the labour minister published a new code of conduct for managing Covid in the workplace.
Let’s be clear on what all this means. It means that South Africa will be under a State of Disaster indefinitely, and that the lockdown is becoming permanent.
Over the past two years, the government has constantly claimed to be “led by the science”.
The science now tells us that the lockdown is unnecessary, irrational and unreasonable.
Yet the government is intent on keeping the State of Disaster and the lockdown.
When the president proudly states that his government’s Covid response is guided by science, he should be honest and admit that this is only true when it enables more sweeping, unchecked powers.
Because when the science points in the other direction – as it is very clearly doing now – his government pretends not to see or hear it.
Next Wednesday will mark two years since South Africa entered a three-week lockdown to prepare for the Covid-19 epidemic.
Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, thousands of livelihoods have been destroyed, millions of school and university days have been missed, and billions of rands have been lost to tax revenue, which could have gone to poverty relief.
The only state of disaster that the country is in, is the self-imposed one caused by ongoing restrictions which do more harm than good.
It is time to focus all our energies on regaining and transcending what has been lost.
And it is high time to restore our democratic order.
The Democratic Alliance will not allow the State of Disaster to be glibly extended, month after month. We will stop it in court.
We will not allow our democracy to be suspended indefinitely in favour of rule by decree, with no democratic checks and balances.
I have today instructed our attorneys to bring an urgent court challenge to Tuesday’s irrational and unreasonable extension of the State of Disaster.
But it’s not enough just to end the State of Disaster. The lockdown itself must end. It can’t just become permanent legislation, as the government is trying to do.
When the government moves lockdown regulations into permanent legislation instead, the DA will mount a legal challenge to those too.
The lockdown is not in South Africa’s best interest. On the contrary, it is pushing more and more people into joblessness and deeper into poverty.
Poverty and jobs crisis
Let’s be clear. The real disaster facing South Africa is our growing poverty and jobs crisis. This crisis poses a far higher risk to national wellbeing and is causing far more human suffering than Covid is.
As a nation, we must get better at assessing and balancing risks. Government’s overcaution on Covid is exacting a profound human toll, measured in joblessness, hunger, desperation and despair.
This is the human toll that we must balance against the Covid risk, a risk which has extremely low for some time now.
Low risk from Covid
Severe Covid illness and hospitalisation rates are extremely low across the country.
Transmission rates are also extremely low, and even if they go up, they won’t necessarily drive severe illness and hospitalisation rates with them.
The fourth Covid wave in December 2021 was not associated with significant hospital pressure.
Despite the fourth wave, there have been almost no additional deaths in people under 60 since early September 2021, except for one week over Christmas.
Older people were also less seriously affected than in previous waves.
This is because most people in the high-risk group have protection against severe disease and death, either from vaccines or from prior infection, or both.
The lockdown is of little to zero benefit to society.
Cases of Covid-19 are not a disaster if people are not getting very sick nor dying.
This is why European countries have opened up, even with high cases.
There is no need to maintain the state of disaster and the lockdown.
If needed, the state of disaster and the lockdown can always be reinstated if the situation genuinely demands it. (We all already know how swiftly this can happen.)
There is also no need to move lockdown restrictions into permanent legislation. As I said, if the Covid risk goes up, the state of disaster can always be reinstated.
The only permanent Covid-related regulations that need to be in place are those enabling the Social Relief of Distress grant to continue to be paid.
On the other hand, the single most immediate step South Africa can take to reduce the overall risk we face as a society is to end the state of disaster and the lockdown altogether.
No other step will do more to address our poverty and jobs crisis.
No other step will do more to speed up service delivery to the poor.
No other step will do more to safeguard our democracy.
Poverty and jobs
Ending lockdown will have a major positive impact on our economy.
Level 1 and other ministry-specific restrictions seem harmless, but they are not.
The tourism industry used to support 10 percent of all jobs in South Africa.
Yet international tourism is still only 20 percent what it was.
Its recovery is hamstrung by requirements such as a negative PCR test to enter the country, imposing a significant additional cost to international tourists.
Most countries accept evidence of vaccination or prior infection too, while some, such as Mexico, impose no requirements at all.
While the rest of the world has filled stadiums for sport and shows, in South Africa, the Soweto Derby had to take place in an empty stadium last weekend.
Outdoor and indoor limits of 2000 and 1000 prevent the events industry from reviving.
Most of the world has opened its nightlife, but South Africa still bans nightclubs from operating.
No wonder more than half of adults in South Africa are not in employment.
No wonder our economy is not recovering.
No wonder people are falling deeper into poverty.
Rotational schooling has thankfully come to an end, after the DA filed papers in court.
But social distancing rules contained in level 1 regulations still apply to all employers, including state departments and agencies, municipalities, universities and banks.
This means many places are still operating on reduced or rotational staff, with lowered productivity all round. It means employees with “comorbidities” are still working from home even if the nature of their job actually requires contact with the public.
People are wasting time in queues and waiting for government services. As usual, this is affecting the poor disproportionately, as the poor rely more heavily on government services.
Tertiary institutions are still operating in a hybrid fashion, with negative effects on particularly poorer students, for whom online options are not ideal/available.
Some police stations and other government offices still close for expensive and unnecessary “sanitising” whenever a single Covid-19 case occurs, which is wasteful expenditure.
In South Africa, it is still the law to wear masks in public, including in schools, where they are a barrier to learning and a source of discomfort.
In most countries, masks are only mandated in specific high-risk contexts. The requirement to wear masks outdoors is particularly irrational.
Covid-19 no longer a greater threat
It is time to treat Covid-19 in the same way as we treat other health risks, such as HIV, TB, cancer, and maternal mortality.
Like other countries, we need to focus on vaccinating the high-risk group.
Like other countries, we need to licence cheap and quick rapid tests for home use so that people can judge for themselves if they pose a risk to the vulnerable. It makes no sense to limit these to medical supervision.
Like other countries, masks should only be mandated in high-risk contexts, such as oncology wards.
Like other countries, we should do everything possible to stimulate our economy toward the return of jobs.
Instead, government is planning to make some of these and other restrictions permanent by legislating them.
This will continue to strangle our economy, harm young people in education, and grow poverty.
The only part of the Disaster regulations that should stay in place is the Social Relief of Distress grant – precisely because of the jobs crisis.
Nothing else is justified.
Safeguarding our democracy
But let’s be clear about what is really going on here.
The ANC government is no longer fighting the spread of Covid. It is fighting to hold on to the powers it has become accustomed to these past two years.
Powers that allow it to evade all accountability and oversight.
Such an unconstitutional power grab cannot be tolerated in an open, democratic society like ours.
The Democratic Alliance is going to fight the State of Disaster and the lockdown until we end them both.
If President Ramaphosa does not instruct his Poverty Cabinet to end both, we will see him in court.