Does South Africa still need certain Covid-19 restrictions, such as wearing a face mask? Some of the country’s health experts say we don’t.
The National Health Department said it will table recommendations on how to move forward with Covid-19 regulations before the National Coronavirus Command Council this week, reports The Citizen.
The department said this is because of the low infection rate, low mortality rate, high recovery rate and reduced pressure from healthcare staff who sacrificed their lives during the highest peak of the pandemic.
“The current situation allows for relaxed restrictions or regulations as part of efforts by the government to open the economy. However, this doesn’t replace vaccination because we continue to live with this deadly pandemic,” said spokesperson Foster Mohale.
“We urge people to vaccinate in numbers to boost their immunity against the Covid-19 virus, also for the country to achieve population immunity,” he added.
The department’s stance comes after epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist Professor Salim Abdool Karim said South Africa is ready to do away with public health measures – such as sanitising and outdoor mask-wearing.
During an interview with eNCA on Friday, Karim said, “We have reached a stage where we can change most of our public health measures at this point.
“We can get away from all of the sanitising and drop our outdoor mask mandate.”
But he warned there was still a risk of outbreaks in the future that needed to be mitigated.
“We are going to need to keep three things to avoid major outbreaks in mass gatherings like what we saw happen at the matric rages,” he said.
Indoor gatherings would have to be restricted to vaccinated people, and in certain indoor situations, mask-wearing would remain mandatory.
Karim, the former chairperson of the Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC), said the last two years have been long, and there should be a new strategy to deal with the pandemic at this stage.
“I don’t know what the government’s plans are on removing masks, but what we’ve seen from other countries is that we have reached a stage where we can change our overall strategy and remove most of our restrictions and public health measures at this point,” said Karim.
Masks are ‘obsolete’
Professor Shabir Madhi, one of the country’s top vaccinologists, said the state of disaster was “obsolete” considering the low trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa.
“I find it totally surprising that a country such as South Africa is still talking about the number of cases rather than the number of people that have been hospitalised and dying from Covid-19 which is at an all-time low since the start of the pandemic,” he said.
The professor said the state of disaster should have been lifted “months ago”. He also criticised the NCCC and the Department of Health “for being out of the loop”.
Speaking about the Soweto derby on Saturday, Madhi said the current regulations are “unfit for purpose”.
“[The state of disaster] is doing more harm than good because when soccer fans can’t go to those sort of events, there are livelihoods that are also being affected [as some people sell at these events].
“In South Africa, after the Omnicron wave, 80 to 85 percent of people, even if they haven’t been vaccinated, have developed protection against severe disease and death,” said Madhi.
“Pretending that we still need to get 70 percent of the nation vaccinated before we can lift the state of disaster is completely oblivious to the reality and oblivious to the science.”
In January, Madhi said that wearing a mask is South Africa is “obsolete”.
“There’s no point continuing with the mask mandate. Especially with how Omicron spreads. Most people are using the material masks, which don’t really prevent infection – even though it can stop the spread of droplets.”
“In that context, there’s little value for mask wearing in outdoor spaces. You could maybe make a case for face coverings indoors in poorly ventilated spaces, but not even throughout the year. If we want masks to work, we need the right types, and the cloth ones don’t protect us from infection. The days of mask wearing are now obsolete.”
Health department to make recommendations
Health Minister Joe Phaahla on Friday said his department will make recommendations to the NCCC, including whether face masks were still necessary in indoor and outdoor settings.
“If you look at [other countries] you’ll find different views, so we have to find a balance of all those views,” he said.
“Nothing is off the table,” he added.
Friday marked two years since the first case of Covid-19 was registered in South Africa.
The country has been in several levels of lockdown and restrictions since then.
Since 5 March 2020, South Africa has reported over 3.6 million cases of Covid-19 and nearly 100,000 deaths.
There is speculation that the next time President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation, the state of disaster will come to an end, with the government now expected to introduce more permanent long-term regulations to help manage Covid-19 in the country.