Ramaphosa steps up virus battle
Publish date: 31 March 2020
Issue Number: 4908
Diary: Legalbrief Today
Category: Covid-19 crisis
As the strong-arms tactics of the police and the army came into sharp focus yesterday (see separate reports below), including in one instance a home invasion, President Cyril Ramaphosa last night ramped up the fight against Covid-19, announcing 10 000 field workers are set to go door-to-door across the country to screen residents for symptoms, reports Legalbrief. By last night SA had 1 326 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and three people had died, said the President in a national address. According to a Daily Maverick report, Ramaphosa said field workers would soon start going to households to screen people for symptoms. Those who show symptoms will be referred for testing at clinics and mobile clinics. Those infected but showing no symptoms or moderate symptoms will be instructed to self-isolate, either at home or in a government facility, while those who have severe symptoms will be referred to hospital. He also noted a mobile technology system would soon be rolled out to help trace people’s contacts in real-time.
The virus is threatening to plunge SA’s already struggling economy into a deep recession, notes a Business Day report on the President's address. Friday’s credit rating downgrade by Moody’s meant that the ‘grave health crisis’ was taking place when the economy was under even greater strain, notes Ramaphosa. ‘This will significantly increase the cost of borrowing to fund government spending and will have a negative impact on the economy. This development will not diminish in any way our response to the coronavirus pandemic,’ Ramaphosa said. At the same time government would push ahead with structural economic reforms to address the weak economic growth, constrained public finances and struggling state-owned enterprises, he said. These have repeatedly been listed by ratings agencies as key vulnerabilities in the economy. Government was particularly concerned, he said, about the plight of the self-employed and of informal businesses and was ‘urgently’ developing additional measures for their support. Over half of SA’s population lives below the poverty line with 40% either unemployed or engaged in survivalist enterprises which have now been stopped from operating.
The country's miners are struggling, with Anglo American Platinum and Impala Platinum having to declare force majeure on some contracts, notes a Business Maverick report. In a generic letter to suppliers, Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) says: ‘We refer to the agreement between the parties. In light of the Covid-19 crisis and the measures imposed by the government … together with the announcement made on 23 March 2020 by the President … the company’s performance of its obligations under the agreement cannot be performed for reasons outside the reasonable control of the company and therefore the company is issuing this force majeure notice and all obligations are suspended for the duration of the force majeure period.’ Amplats spokesperson Jana Marais confirmed this was the case. The company also reiterated that it will ‘pay all employees their basic salaries and housing allowances and continue with company contributions to medical and pension funds throughout the 21-day lockdown period’. Rival Impala Platinum was in the same boat, saying in a statement: ‘Force majeure letters have been issued to all consultants and contractors for the duration of the lockdown, to legally suspend our obligations under these contracts. Force majeure letters have also been issued in respect of offtake agreements with both group companies and third parties, as well as customer supply contracts, to legally suspend our obligations under these contracts.’ The company has also put all of its SA mines on ‘care and maintenance’, so they are no longer producing but have a skeleton staff to maintain the integrity of the operations. A Business Day report notes Sibanye-Stillwater has also triggered a force majeure clause in its contracts.
The Constitutional Court was called into action yesterday, but quickly dismissed a little-known NGO’s application to have the lockdown declared unconstitutional, notes Legalbrief. The Hola Bon Renaissance Foundation urgently approached the court on Thursday last week – on the eve of the lockdown – asking it to declare the 21-day lockdown unconstitutional. A TimesLIVE report notes the NGO had wanted the court to declare that Covid-19 ‘poses no serious threat to the country and its people’. ‘HBR Foundation believes that Covid-19 cannot be harmful to Africans,’ it said. ‘The Constitutional Court has considered the application for direct access to this court on an urgent basis. It has concluded that the application should be dismissed as it bears no reasonable prospects of success,’ the court said.
After the papers were filed, the Constitutional Court judges only had to deal with one question – were they prepared to let the foundation come directly to the Constitutional Court with its application? The judges took virtually no time at all to reach their decision. Here’s what the court had to say in response to this question: ‘The Constitutional Court has considered the application for direct access to this court on an urgent basis. It has concluded that the application should be dismissed as it bears no reasonable prospects of success. The court has decided not to award costs.’ According to legal writer Carmel Rickard in The Witness, it is an elegant solution to the problem posed by the application, with its fake news and pseudo-science overlay. This application followed a similar attempt to have a case by the foundation heard by the Constitutional Court directly, rather than going through the normal channels. The judges in that matter were just as unanimous as on this occasion, that it was not appropriate to allow the case to start in the Constitutional Court, and the application was dismissed.
In another court matter, a Dutchman who leads a large Durban-based subsidiary of an international firm failed in his bid to get his son out of SA ahead of the lockdown, with a judge ruling that it was ‘akin to panic buying’, according to a Times Select report. The father, who is separated from his wife, launched an urgent KZN High Court (Durban) application to get an order allowing his teenage son to go back to the Netherlands, where, he argued, he would be safe from crime and have access to better health care during the Covid-19 pandemic. His estranged wife opposed the application, saying the 13-year-old child would be safe with her in a gated estate on the KZN North Coast. The father told the court the couple had separated last year and, from January this year, his son had been living with him. Judge Rob Mossop Mossop refused to grant the order, saying the child would be safe in SA, had access to private medical aid and the father was being ‘overly concerned, akin to panic buying’.
The cost of breaking lockdown laws will be fines of up to R5 000. And that's just the ‘admission of guilt’ fine for the first offence. For repeat offenders, no admission of guilt fines will be allowed. This is according to Chief Magistrate Yoliswa Sidlova, acting cluster head of the Gauteng region 5A. Her determination, signed yesterday, was confirmed by Nathi Mncube, spokesperson for the office of the Chief Justice. TimesLIVE says it is not immediately clear if this determination will be in place across the country. Mncube said it applied to all of Gauteng, except Pretoria. Here is a list of charges and the fines attached to them when one breaks the regulations:
* Publishing any statement to deceive any other person about measures taken by the government to address Covid-19 – R5 000.
* Failing to confine yourself to your place of residence – R1 500.
* Gathering illegally – R5 000.
* Failing to comply with the prohibition of movement between provinces – R2 000.
* Failing to comply with the prohibition of movement between metropolitan and district areas – R2 500.
Mncube added that in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act, a magistrate of the district may determine the amounts of admissions of guilt fines in respect of certain offences and may consult other stakeholders.
How laboratories will cope with ramped up testing is a concern. Since last week Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has been talking about how the country will ramp up testing for Covid-19, yet laboratories have a backlog of more than 5 000 tests. The impact of this has been confirmed by doctors in the private and public sector, who have reportedly told the Mail & Guardian that there is quite a backlog in getting results for Covid-19 tests. Between 10 February and Tuesday this week, more than 15 000 tests were conducted, with 3% of those tested confirmed as infected with Covid-19. One of the doctors in the public sector said the backlogs were due to the sector as a whole being unprepared for the virus. ‘Currently we are only confirming cases of those who show symptoms and the rest have to wait. This is the backlog. This is absurd as the virus incubates giving it time to spread. We can’t quarantine people who have not been confirmed yet because the tests are not available and that’s because they are not showing symptoms,’ said the doctor. The Department of Health’s spokesperson, Popo Maja did not respond to questions about the backlog. The report notes that in recent weeks, the department has taken to not answering questions, saying rather that it will address issues in press briefings.