South Africa has started to gradually loosen its strict coronavirus lockdown, 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 in on March 27 to contain the spread of infections.
The government has adopted a gradual and phased approach to reopen the country from May 1.
About 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.
Bans on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol will remain in effect.
Some outdoor 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 coronavirus pandemic began.
Last week, President Ramaphosa unveiled an unprecedented $26.9bn economic stimulus and social relief package, amounting to about 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said the country will seek coronavirus relief aid from the IMF and the World Bank, where it is eligible for up to $4.2bn.
The lockdown has had a devastating effect 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 the AFP news agency.
“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.”
The country’s number of confirmed infections has risen to 5,647 since the first case was detected on March 5. It has also recorded Africa’s highest COVID-19 death toll, with 103 fatalities.