The briefing of the National Council of Provinces by the Minister of Co-operative Governance and the Minister of Health on Covid-19 marks the first ever parliamentary virtual plenary in South African history since the beginning of the pandemic.

In his opening remarks, the Chairperson of the NCOP, Mr Amos Masondo, stressed that this briefing was important given the role of the NCOP as a meeting point of three spheres of government with regard to oversight and accountability. As such, “we felt it was necessary to broaden and deepen our understanding of the spread of virus and efforts aimed at limiting its effects. Hence we invited the Ministers of Health and Co-operative Governance to brief us today.”

The Chairperson noted how the pandemic has “revealed sad fault line of inequality, poverty which is threatening to tear the fabric of our nation ... Going forward we must adjust to new norms of how to do things.”

 He commended government for its various interventions to ensure that “people know the virus thrives on mobility and density, and what preventative measures to be taken to avert its spread”.

The Minister of Cooperative Governance, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, explained the regulatory frame work that her department initiated to mitigate the impact of the spread of the pandemic. In her view, Covid-19 “made it necessary to have lockdowns to flatten the curve and ensure that our health system is in the position to deal with the surge of infections.”

We are now at a point where it was deemed necessary to ease the lockdown restrictions and move the country to level three. “But as President said, we must not have an abrupt easing of lockdown restrictions, because the massive surge of infections which are often predicted might not manageable.”

Reflecting on the implications of the virus on our social fabric, the minister emphasised that lockdown has “undermined people’s livelihood. Hence the economy has been slowly opened to salvage various sectors of the economy.”

The current situation has been exacerbated by the downgrading of South Africa’s investment rating, which has a negative effect on the economic outlook for a foreseeable future. This negative economic situation has “undermined municipalities’ service delivery mandate, while there is a huge demand for water supply and other sanitation demands that many municipalities find difficult to meet.”

Presenting his report – Progress on Covid-19: South Africa’s Public Health Response, the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, stated that the pandemic “remains more of a danger now than before … We have been able to flatten the curve for the first part. Going forward, it is an everyday struggle to avoid its spiral again.”

To date, the department has screened well over 30 million people and has identify 44 000 people for testing through contact tracikng. But this intervention is likely to be hampered by global suppliers that cannot meet the demand for laboratory kits, he said. “This means we have to go back to reorganise our strategy of testing. This is becoming a constraint not of our own fault, but of global suppliers, whose capacity is now under strain. Due to this challenge, we now rely on clinical judgement to detect cases on infection.”   

What worries him most currently is that the number of people requiring hospitalisation has increased, especially in the Western Cape. “There are more people in ICU, ventilators and others on oxygen in hospitals there than ever before. This could be a pattern that might spread to other provinces.”

The minister explained that hotspots are identified by conducting “individual inspections coupled with environmental health officers, social workers, psychologist, epidemiologists, and other experts, who will consult people in their homes, if possible, to avoid them flooding the hospitals.”

The minister conceded that the World Health Organisation advised that we “should wait for decline in number of cases before we ease lockdown and open up economic activity.” Government took this decision because “we wanted to cushion our economy against recession, loss of jobs, and social distress.” The minister emphasised the need for “testing, quarantine, social distancing, as a means to contain the spread of infections ... We are entering a new territory. Cooperation is the only way to make a difference in cutting the rate of infections.”

During the question and answer session, Dr Dlamini-Zuma was asked by the member of the NCOP if there a correlation between the ban on cigarettes and the spread of the pandemic. The minister responded that Covid-19 is a novel respiratory virus that affects the lungs and people who smoke may add to the already a burdened public health system. “We know this from the studies from China and now from the United States and papers from Oxford University [in the United Kingdom] that people who smoke do have problems with the lungs. Should they get infection, they might be an added burden on our public health system.”

The minister of health weigh in on the matter, stating that “it has to be said there are no health benefits from smoking. That is an established medical fact around the world”. If such a debate is advanced from a business point of view, “that is different and understandable and must be treated as such, not on health bases”.

 Asked about her department’s efforts to supply water to villages, the minister stated that “there is distribution of Jojo tanks to supply water where there is high demand. Other municipalities have started to dig boreholes to meet water demands in their areas.”  

She was also asked what her department was doing about municipal officials found to be involved in misappropriating food parcels. The minister replied: “As you know, our department is not involved in the distribution of food parcels. For those who have been found to have misappropriated food parcels there should be consequences.”

The Minister of Health was asked if he supports an independent investigation into China’s role in the spread of the pandemic. The Minster replied that there was no basis for a call for an action against China. “There is no suggestion that there should be a reason for investigation or wrongdoing from the point of view of the Chinese government. In fact, we got advice from the good work they did to arrest the spread of the virus and what we must avoid going forward.”

He was also asked if the monitoring mechanisms his department uses are the best at ensuring accurate and well informed interventions. The minister replied: “We are comfortable with the expert advice we are working with and it cannot be said that our interventions are not based on expert knowledge. Of course, there would be difference of opinions, but we must deal with misinformation when it arises,” said the minister.   

The minister emphasised the need for a media campaign to “keep people informed and fight the pandemic. Communication in this regard will never be enough”. He also warned that “we will have the pandemic for two years or so. Hence, we need to galvanise our interventions to arrest its spread over time.” 

Concluding the plenary, the Chief Whip of the NCOP, Mr Seiso Mohai, emphasised that the briefing was part of the NCOP’s oversight mandate to hold the executive accountable. This briefing “is not the first and will not be the last.”

Abel Mputing
26 May 2020