Is the Cape heading for a Covid-19 ‘firebreak’ lockdown?

A Covid-19 firebreak refers to an urgent, short-term intervention that could include increased curfew hours, restrictions on the movement of people, among other urgent measures.

Rapidly rising Covid-19 infection numbers in the Western and Eastern Cape have fuelled speculation about whether government will consider a so-called “firebreak” to help stop the spread of Covid-19.

In the UK, Wales entered a firebreak lockdown towards the end of November in a bid to halt a surge in Covid-19 infections.

A firebreak in this context refers to an urgent, short-term intervention that could include increased curfew hours, restrictions on the movement of people, among other urgent measures.

Locally, a hotspot alert has already been issued for the Garden Route, where the George and Knysna districts have more cases than at any point during the pandemic.

Theo Venter, a political analyst with the North-West University, said the political leadership of the country simply could not afford to lock down tourist hotspots over the festive season and could therefore opt for a firebreak of a week, early in December.

“Most people are thinking towards Christmas and having a lockdown then will kill the tourism industry,” he says.

“I think they will do a selective lockdown now and the advantage is you can focus your resources. For example, you can have police at the entry and exit roads instead of all over the country doing nothing.”

According to Venter, a differentiated strategy should have been used for the lockdown from the onset.

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“The Disaster Management Act allows for different areas to be at different lockdown levels, down to district level. From the beginning, we opted to put the whole country under lockdown and we should perhaps not opted for a different strategy from the beginning,” he said.

“In all probability, we will now see different districts under lockdown for a week or so.”

But globally, infections are getting out of hand and hospitals are filling up. A firebreak would therefore be a logical way to slow down transmissions and control bed usage, said South African Medical Research Council chief executive, Professor Glenda Gray.

“Curfew is also important because it will stop people from driving at night and having accidents filling hospital beds. Places which are susceptible to superspreader events like clubs and taverns – closing them down for many hours where people are not mixing will drive down transmissions.”

“I think it’s a logical intervention to try and manage the epidemic instead of a lockdown,” she said.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD)’s Adrian Purenwarns though that there is much debate over the effectiveness of Covid-19 firebreaks “given the criteria, which allows for greater contact for the upcoming holiday season. It is thought that there will likely be a third wave as a consequence.”

He adds: “The NICD does not have specific recommendations but the approach would be to understand what is contributing to the resurgence of cases e.g. superspreader event and determining what would be the best approach in managing such events.

“Critical will also be, in general, the communications on the non-pharmaceutical interventions such as wearing of masks, physical distancing, hand hygiene, ventilation.  Encouraging and engaging communities to be compliant is essential. The approaches are to work at the district and subdistrict level to try to intervene to limit the spread of the virus, testing strategies are essential and a track/tracking system in place.”

The State of National Disaster will probably be extended this festive season, despite Covid-19 testing data and the accuracy of the actual deaths and infections recorded in South Africa being questioned.

On Monday, the NICD acknowledged that testing data had not been made public.

Ahead of the Presidential Coordinating Council (PCC) meeting on Wednesday, one of the measures put forward by Western Cape Premier, Alan Winde, to halt the spread of Covid-19 is better management of localised interventions.

On Tuesday, Winde posted a statement on social media saying: “Provincial governments should be delegated more powers to implement interventions close to specific geographic hotspots so that we can get the best possible outcomes in those areas.”

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