In a somber speech broadcast in prime time on Sunday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa painted a worrying picture as the new coronavirus spikes in the country.
"The storm is upon us," he said.
South Africa has now surpassed Italy, Pakistan, Spain and Iran in the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections, with more than 276,000 cases and more than 4,000 related deaths. Ramaphosa warned that the worst is yet to come, with some models predicting 40,000 to 50,000 deaths in the country before the end of the year.
He said some hospitals have begun turning away sick patients. So, he reimposed a ban on the sale and distribution of alcohol and rolled out a nighttime curfew. The hope is that alcohol-related incidents will plummet and open up emergency room beds for COVID-19 patients.
In March, South Africa imposed one of the earliest and most draconian lockdowns of any country and successfully flattened the curve of new infection numbers. Ramaphosa said that bought the country time to learn about COVID-19, expand testing and beef up hospital capabilities. He credited the social restrictions with bringing down the death rate to about 1%, among the lowest in the world.
Slowly, however, South Africa rolled back its confinement and, as it did, the virus began to spread faster. South Africa is now reporting more than 10,000 cases a day and a quarter of the total deaths have been recorded in the past week.
But the president said that at this point — with the economy in recession and the virus so prevalent — a new lockdown would cause more harm than good, so he pleaded with South Africans to take personal responsibility, wear masks, keep a distance from each other and stop gathering en masse.
"This is in our collective hands," he said. "Let us remember that every individual action that we undertake does and can make a big difference. ... Now more than ever we are responsible for the lives of those around us."
The Economic Freedom Fighters, one of the main opposition parties in South Africa, issued a statement condemning the president. If the country is not shut down, they warned, many more South Africans will die.
"Despite this, Ramaphosa continues to ignore pleas to prioritize life over profits," the statement read, "and keeps casinos, restaurants, hotels and domestic air-travel operational in the face of the death of the people of this country."