South Africa

The Impact of COVID-19 in South Africa

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By Dr. Emmanuel Sekyere, Prof. Narnia Bohler-Muller, Prof. Charles Hongoro, and Dr. Mokhantso Makoae

The world is currently struggling to control a global public health pandemic—COVID-19—that is spreading very fast with diverse levels of fatalities in different regions and countries. Starting in Wuhan, China in late 2019, COVID-19 has become a global epidemic within a very short time. At the moment, Europe— especially Italy, Spain, the UK, and France—and the U.S. have been hardest hit in terms of infections and fatalities despite their more sophisticated health service delivery systems. This has raised great concern for the African continent due to the continent’s relatively weak health systems compared to Europe and the Global North, and the wide expanse of areas on the continent with no health services or systems in place.

This paper addresses the South African government’s response to COVID-19 and the impact of the disease on South African society. The country announced its first case of COVID-19 on March 5, 2020. By March 15, 2020, the number of cases had risen to 61. President Cyril Ramaphosa then declared a national state of disaster and announced a number of measures to be undertaken to contain the spread of the virus. These measures, detailed in figure 1 below, are continuously being reviewed by the government with the aim of responding as effectively as possible to the fast-evolving pandemic. For example, since the measures were first announced, the number of people allowed to gather in one location has been reduced from 100 to 50.

Several governance structures were quickly put in place to manage the spread of this disease, including an Inter-ministerial committee on COVID-19, an Emergency Operations Center, and a National Command Council chaired by the president himself. Still, by March 23, 2020, the number of infections had increased from 274 to 402. The president, in collaboration with the National Command Council, declared a 21-day national lockdown commencing on March 26, 2020 to help curb the spread of the disease and minimize its impact on South African society. As of April 16, 2020, South Africa had recorded 2,506 confirmed infections, 34 deaths, and 410 recoveries. Hence, restricting the movement of people, practicing social distancing, and tracing all those who have been in contact with an infected person (all of which are being practiced globally to varying degrees) appear to be effective ways of controlling the spread of the disease. Several coronavirus helplines have also been established for immediate response from the police, health service, rapid response to crime, fire service, and other service delivery needs of society.

The COVID-19 epidemic has several diverse implications and impacts on South African society including in the social, economic, health, environmental, and technological realms.