Health Minister Dr. Zweli Mkhize on Tuesday confirmed that the lockdown was being eased despite the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that the country should wait for a decline in Covid-19 cases and a lower rate of infections.
“We had to move on and re-open even though those situations have not arisen,” Mkhize said when briefing the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on the pandemic.
“There is a problem of hunger, income, economic recession, and social distress. The president announced the package of social relief to help with additional support in terms of social grants, as well as the assistance to those who are unemployed, opening up UIF for those who were working. But we are not able to continue with (our) work, support for small businesses, and huge businesses,” he said.
During the briefing, both Mkhize and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma defended the ban on cigarettes and tobacco products.
Mkhize said the dangers of tobacco were well established. “I don’t think people must come and argue here that there is any benefit you can get from smoking. There is none,” he said.
The minister said it was a different matter if some people just wanted to sell cigarettes.
“If people want to sell cigarettes, if people want to smoke, then let’s deal with it on that basis; but let’s not deal with it because we think there is something wrong if we say that tobacco is not good for anybody’s health,” he said.
Mkhize highlighted that it was also a different matter if people wanted to debate the question of smoking from the point of view of saying that they had businesses.
Responding to questions, Dlamini Zuma dismissed suggestions that she was friends with alleged cigarette smuggler Adriano Mazzotti.
“I must also put it on record. I am not Mazzotti’s friend,” Dlamini Zuma said.
She stuck to her guns in opposing the lifting of the ban on cigarettes.
“People who smoke do have problems with lungs. If they do get the infection, they are more likely than the non-smokers to get a more serious disease,” Dlamini Zuma said.
Mkhize told the MPs that Covid-19 still remained a reality and a danger, which was worse than when the first case was reported in the country.
The minister said early flattening of the curve was crucial and with the expected surge in infections, there was time to improve the level of health-care services above the usual level.
Mkhize said about 600000 tests had been conducted and 13 million people had been screened, with 44 000 contacts traced.
The Western Cape has the largest number of infections followed by Gauteng, while deaths were on an upward trend in both the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape.
Mkhize indicated that some of the test results were taking a while to be reported and he blamed the decline on the world shortage of testing kits.
“We run into the difficulty of suppliers not meeting our demand. It is not so much our capacity, more than it is about whether the global suppliers are able to respond to our requests and this is because everyone else in the world is actually looking for exactly the same thing,” he said.
He also dispelled suggestions that some provinces were testing less than others.
“There is no province that tests less than others. We are relatively testing what is possible. The number of tests per province are quite large. Because of the number of people infected, the positivity rate is different,” he said.