Surge in the number of fatalities comes as restaurant owners protest against reinstated lockdown measures.
South Africa has announced 572 new coronavirus-related deaths, a record daily tally that brought its total number of fatalities to 5,940.
The announcement by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize on Wednesday came as the country – the worst-affected in Africa and among the top five in the world in terms of confirmed cases – saw its overall tally of infections rise to 394,948. Some 229,175 patients have so far recovered.
Almost half the total number of deaths have been reported in the Western Cape province, while the majority of positive cases are in Gauteng province – South Africa’s financial hub and epicentre of the outbreak.
The mortality rate has remained low, at approximately 1.5 percent. But late on Wednesday, the South African Medical Research Council reported a sharp rise in overall numbers of natural deaths, suggesting the actual toll of coronavirus-related fatalities might be higher than officially reported.
“In the past weeks, the numbers have shown a relentless increase – by the second week of July, there were 59 percent more deaths from natural causes than would have been expected based on historical data,” said a report by the council, which is a government-funded but independent body.
— Dr Zweli Mkhize (@DrZweliMkhize) July 22, 2020
President Cyril Ramaphosa imposed one of the world’s strictest lockdown in March, restricting movement and gatherings.
He loosened some of the measures in June, allowing restaurants to reopen, initially for take-out and then for dine-in service.
But last week, as the number of infections surged, the government brought back a night-time curfew and a ban on alcohol sales.
On Wednesday, restaurateurs protested against the lockdown measures, saying they were wrecking an industry that employs an estimated 800,000 people.
“What the government has put in place has been knee-capping,” Sean Barber, founder of the Rockets chain of restaurants, told AFP news agency.
“It has literally wiped out our dinner trade. It’s decimating our industry,” he said.
Waving a placard with the inscription “#JobsSaveLives”, 32-year-old waiter Divine Moyo remarked: “Open we are, but normal is not the case”.
“It’s just been quiet,” said Moyo. “I’m going to bed hungry, my family is struggling.”
In Cape Town, a popular tourist destination, restaurant owners laid out rows of empty tables and chairs along pavements or in the middle of streets in what they dubbed a “One Million Seats on the Streets” demonstration.
Restaurant Association of South Africa CEO Wendy Alberts said nearly a third of restaurants had already shuttered since the onset of lockdown, and more closures were looming.
She said businesses want the government to urgently consider lifting the liquor ban and curfew, among other demands.
“We want them [the government] to consider just giving us a glass or two of wine with a main meal ordered. We want them to take the curfew away, [and] to allow us to just let our businesses to survive this,” said Jo-Ann Hinis, co-owner of Espresso cafe and bistro in Johannesburg.
Many employees have not received any money yet from the government’s Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), which has been disbursing COVID-19 relief payments to people who cannot work as a result of the restrictions.
The Department of Employment and Labour has said the delays in payments have been due to a lengthy vetting process and adapting its systems to cope with a ten-fold increase in benefit payments.