South Africa begins to gradually loosen its strict coronavirus lockdown on Friday, allowing some industries to reopen after five weeks of restrictions that plunged its struggling economy deeper into turmoil.
The economy of Africa’s most industrialised nation was already teetering when the lockdown kicked into gear on March 27 to contain the spread of infections.
To combat the economic destruction, the government has adopted a gradual and phased approach to reopen the country from May 1.
Around 1.5 million workers in selected industries return to work in the next phase under strict health conditions, according to Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel.
Winter clothing, textile and packaging manufacturing are among the industries permitted to reopen factories.
Restaurants will also open, but only for takeaway deliveries.
Controversial bans on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol will remain in effect.
Some outside activities such as cycling, walking and running will be allowed — but for just three hours in the morning.
Social distancing and wearing masks in public and at workplaces will be mandatory.
Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma warned “companies that breach regulations will be forced to close.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa took the decision to stagger the easing of the lockdown restrictions in a bid to strike a balance between protecting public health and the economy.
“Our people need to eat. They need to earn a living,” Ramaphosa said.
“Companies need to be able to produce and to trade, they need to generate revenue and keep their employees in employment.”
South Africa’s economy was in recession and reeling from low growth and high debts before the pandemic arrived.
On Wednesday S&P downgraded the country’s credit rating further into junk.
After shrinking in the second half of 2019 due partly to severe rolling power blackouts, “South Africa’s already contracting economy will face a further sharp COVID-19-related downturn in 2020,” the ratings agency said.
To help cushion companies and individuals, Ramaphosa last week unveiled an unprecedented half-a-trillion rand ($26.9 billion) economic stimulus and social relief package, amounting to about 10 percent of GDP.
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said the country will seek coronavirus relief aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, where it is eligible for up to $4.2 billion.
The lockdown has had a devastating impact on the economy, but a top government adviser on the pandemic said it has slowed transmissions.
“The lockdown has had quite an effect,” infectious disease epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim told AFP.
“We have got quite clear evidence that we have flattened the curve and that the number of cases we are seeing — and the number of infections probably occurring — has declined quite substantially,” he said.
The country’s number of confirmed infections has risen to 5,647 since March 5 when the first case was detected.
It also has recorded Africa’s highest COVID-19 death toll, with 103 fatalities.