Due to a new surge in Covid-19 cases in South Africa, Johannesburg’s Rivers Church, a trendy Christian community for the city’s hip and spiritual, has suspended in-person services indefinitely. “We love and miss you, but please be safe,” the church’s senior pastor, Wilma Isabel Olivier, wrote on Instagram.
An event popular with teenagers graduating from high school was canceled at the last minute in the Western Cape, more than 1,000 miles south, with some partygoers already on the scene.
“Almost all schools set to attend Plett Rage have positive cases,” organizers announced on social media as they canceled the event. “We’ve been shattered. Our event site is complete, and our entire staff is eager to welcome you with open arms after months of inactivity.”
An interview with disgruntled matriculants went viral after they complained about driving six hours and spending hundreds of dollars to attend. “The boys came to party, and it was canceled right away,” a teenager named Josh told news channel eNCA. “We were bodysurfing while the jol (party) was still going on, and when we got out of the water, we heard from everyone in the parking lot that it was called off!”
The unfortunate closures and cancellations occur as the country enters the fourth wave of the pandemic. On Friday, the number of Covid-19 cases surpassed 3 million, as infections spread across the country, just days after health officials warned the world about the potentially more contagious Omicron variant. It now dominates daily infections, which have increased fivefold in just one week, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his weekly newsletter on Monday, adding that nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 tests were coming back positive.
Public health officials have been encouraging South Africans to get vaccinated, but there has been some reluctance.
As Ramaphosa’s government considers a nationwide vaccination mandate, some businesses are moving forward. MTN, the South African telecom conglomerate, announced on Monday that all employees must be fully vaccinated by January or face termination.
“As an employer, we have a responsibility to ensure that our workplaces adhere to the highest health and safety standards,” MTN Group President and Chief Executive Ralph Mupita said in a statement.
It adheres to the same standards as two other large companies headquartered in the city: the lender Standard Bank and the insurance company Old Mutual.
South Africans are bracing for another hard lockdown, with many pandemic-weary businesses expressing little appetite for the crippling economic consequences of potential new restrictions.
“It feels like I’m in prison,” Mulusi Gumbo, 38, told CNN as he handed out hand sanitizer to customers entering a Melville restaurant. “I’m sick of the waves and lockdowns.”
South African authorities have not indicated that another shutdown is being considered, but there is widespread speculation that Ramaphosa will announce one during his next Covid address.
The Restaurant Association of South Africa is so concerned about the possibility of an economic shutdown that it has written to Ramaphosa, pleading with him not to do so. “What we’re trying to do is avoid any threat of a lockdown on the restaurant sector,” said Wendy Alberts, CEO of the Restaurant Association, to SABC News.
“I don’t think we can afford another hard lockdown, especially for small businesses. That, I believe, will have a negative impact on the economy “Ndabenhle Ngulube, co-founder of an insurance startup, told CNN while having lunch with friends in Johannesburg.
Each wave of the outbreak has resulted in a slew of punitive measures, including a ban on the sale of alcohol, a sore point in a country with a sizable drinking population.
This time, the Beer Association of South Africa has gone to court in advance, attempting to persuade a judge that previous bans were “irrational, invalid, and set aside.”
Ndabenhle, 31, says he’s doing his best to be cautious while still having a good time over the holidays. “I’m trying to be safe and cautious while also having a little bit of fun.”
On November 30, people waited in line for a PCR Covid-19 test at the Lancet laboratory in Johannesburg.
Gauteng province, which includes the city of Johannesburg, appears to be the epicenter of the Omicron variant outbreak. However, the city has brushed off the latest scare.
The Johannesburg Metro Police Department and city administrators conducted a Friday night raid and discovered revelers partying as usual in parts of the Inner City. Mpho Phalatse, the city’s newly elected mayor and a medical doctor, tweeted that she was “disturbed by the level of lawlessness” she witnessed. “None of the nightclubs visited were screening patrons for Covid, keeping attendance records, managing numbers, and ensuring ventilation, among other Covid protocols. No longer!”
Despite public health officials’ efforts to encourage South Africans to get vaccinated, skepticism persists in some segments of society. Some are still not convinced despite the Omicron variant fueling a surge in cases across the country, and early research indicating that the variant is more likely to reinfect people.
“I think misinformation and conspiracy theories won and science lost in the last 18 to 24 months,” Ndabenhle’s friend Passmore Musungwa tells CNN.
Musungwa, a 33-year-old pharmacist, has seen the pandemic’s waves and the rise of anti-vaccine sentiment firsthand at the hospital where he works. “It just tells you that we need to rethink how we do science communication, because it’s not about learning but about understanding the scientific method so that people can have faith in science.”
Another tablemate had only recently decided to get vaccinated because she needed it to visit her sister. “I think everyone is tired of Covid and the new variant, Omicron right now,” 29-year-old Kgali Molefe tells CNN. She scoffs at friends and family who have sent her articles on why she should get the shot.
“I know how to do research myself… I just think that everyone should be treated fairly in terms of making a decision that they want to do when they are ready.”