One year of Covid-19

Hours before the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa kicked in on March 26 last year, 20 pastors from across Mitchell’s Plain gathered at Westridge Gardens to pray for the Mitchell’s Plain community, the country and a stop to the coronavirus.

Today marks day 370 of lockdown – just a little over a year since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Monday March 23 last year in the first of what would become regular “family meetings” that South Africa would be going into lockdown level 5 on March 26.

Since then the country had been hit hard by the fatal coronavirus on every front – from rising deaths among family, friends, neighbours and colleagues to adaptation in teaching and learning and the heavy financial impact the pandemic has had on the economy.

This week millions of South Africans of faith will join others across the world in important Christian and Jewish religious observances such as Easter and Passover, followed by Muslims commemorating the holy month of Ramadaan next month. With concerns that religious gatherings could be superspreader events of the coronavirus, it is expected that the president will host another “family meeting” with the country to share plans for dealing with the anticipated Covid-19 third wave under the current lockdown level 1 regulations. At the time of publishing, the National Coronavirus Command Council was meeting to discuss this.

As of Tuesday March 30, South Africa had a Covid-19 death toll of 52 710 and 548 new cases. At 1pm yesterday, Tuesday March 30, Mitchell’s Plain recorded 17 316 Covid-19 cases and the Western Cape has 279 805 active cases.

Mr Ramaphosa said faith-based organisations have been vital to the country’s national response to the disease, not only providing spiritual comfort and guidance, but also by caring for those most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, including through the provision of food, shelter and other social services.

“It is understandable that after more than a year of labouring under restrictions on religious gatherings that the faith community are keen for a return to a semblance of normality,” he said.

A number of religious organisations have asked that some of the existing restrictions on the size of congregations be eased, especially as the country prepares for Easter, Passover and Ramadaan.

Government is currently deliberating on these and other issues, and will make an announcement in the coming days, said the president.

Faith communities are encouraged to innovate in the holding of congregational worship over the upcoming religious commemorations and festivals as they did last year. “Large gatherings, whether religious or otherwise, have the potential to spread the virus, despite the application of measures around social distancing and sanitising,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

Schools were also heavily affected by the lockdown period and there was a lot of hesitancy and anxiety around the reopening schools when pupils had to return to class.

Schools reopened with a phased approach under lockdown on Monday June 1 last year but teachers took major strain in a climate of fear with some of them protesting for more substitute teachers and psychosocial support for pupils.

Western Cape Education Department (WCED) spokesperson, Bronagh Hammond, said education, as a sector, has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs since Thursday March 26, 2020. However, they are stronger and more determined than ever.

“Our low point is the lives we have lost to this virus, both within the education sector, and society in general,” said Ms Hammond.

Over the past year there has been much debate about whether they keep schools open or closed and the risks associated with pupils and teachers being back at school.

They have learnt a lot over the past year, they are confident that increases in teacher infections are not traditionally as a result of teachers and pupils being back at school. Instead, the rate of infections among WCED staff follows the same trends that are seen in terms of overall community transmissions across the province – as they naturally have teachers and parents who live in those communities, said Ms Hammond.

Over 50% of Covid-19 related deaths of teachers happened in December 2020 and January 2021, when teachers were not at school. This aligns with the data recorded by the province in terms of the peak of the second wave, she said.

“We have sadly lost 147 employees of the WCED to Covid-19 related illness. This represents 0.35% of our staff in the WCED. I would again like to extend my condolences to all the family, friends and school communities who are mourning the deaths of their loved ones, friends and teacher heroes,” said Ms Hammond.

As of Tuesday March 23, 66 WCED employees are reported to be currently Covid-positive cases – of these 52 cases are teachers.

“They are in our thoughts as they recover from the virus that has affected so many. We wish them, and our other colleagues, a fast recovery,” Ms Hammond said.