JOHANNESBURG: South Africa has tightened the COVID-19 restrictions and moved to level 4 of lockdown procedures, including a longer curfew and ban on all gatherings, amid an exponential rise in infections and deaths attributed largely to the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
President Cyril Ramaphosa in a national broadcast on Sunday announced that the new measures would go into effect from midnight of June 27 for a fortnight, after which it will be reviewed.
Shortly before the president's address, the Health Ministry announced that in the preceding 24 hours, 15,036 new cases and 122 deaths were reported from complications caused by COVID-19.
The economic hub of Gauteng province will have additional restrictions as it is currently accounting for over 60 per cent of the infections.
Travel in and out of the province is now prohibited except for business purposes or for returning home to and from the province.
The Delta variant of COVID-19, identified in at least 85 countries and first detected in India, is likely responsible for the exponentially rising daily number of virus cases in Gauteng.
The Level Four restrictions include a ban on all gatherings, whether indoors or outdoors, including for political, cultural, social and religious purposes.
The only exceptions are funerals, which are restricted to 50 people subject to the health protocols of masks and social distancing.
A longer curfew will be in place from 9.00 pm to 4.00 am.
Alcohol sales are prohibited, restaurants will be allowed to sell food only for takeaway or delivery, and educational institutions will begin shutting down by Friday.
"We will assess the impact of these interventions and restrictions after these 14 days to determine whether they need to be maintained or adjusted," Ramaphosa said.
The measures that we are putting in place now are designed to allow as much economic activity as possible to continue while containing the spread of the virus.
Most businesses will continue to operate at full capacity and should not be affected as long as they observe all the health protocols in their workplaces.
"Our focus is on limiting social contacts while preserving the economy and preserving livelihoods," the President said, as he thanked the professionals and scientists who had earlier announced that the third wave in South Africa was being driven by the Delta variant, which was more transmissible than the Beta variant first found in the country.
Reacting to comments that the government should have acted more swiftly, he said they had been advised about the Delta variant issues just two days earlier and had decided to act swiftly.
Ramaphosa made an impassioned plea, including in indigenous languages, for an end to the rampant distribution of messages on social media discouraging people from being vaccinated.
There is still a lot of misinformation being circulated about the COVID-19 vaccine.
False stories are being spread on WhatsApp groups, on social media and by word of mouth (claiming that) the vaccine is not safe, that it can make you sick and that it does not work.
"Please consider the harm that you may be causing by spreading panic, fear and confusion at a time we can ill afford it," Ramaphosa said as he re-emphasised the importance of wearing masks and maintaining social distance as effective measures at no cost to counter the virus.
"Whatever inconvenience they may be to us, they are definitely better than becoming seriously ill and needing hospitalisation," he added.
"I know that people are bored with this President who continues to talk about wearing masks, but I have to continue talking about it because many of our people are simply not following the defence that we have always said can help us bring the rate of infection down," Ramaphosa concluded.
Shabir Madhi, director of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytical Research Unit at Wits University said the current third wave, which is causing more infections and deaths than the previous waves, had surprised him and many others.
All indications are that we are probably dealing with a spread of a new variant, the Delta variant in particular.
"The magnitude of this is completely unexpected and the worst part is that this is not yet the peak of these hospitalisations. In all likelihood, the peak of the hospitalisations will only occur in the next 2-3 weeks, including the number of people that are dying. That number is going to continue increasing, which is really concerning," he said.