Municipalities and COVID-19: A summary and perspective on the national disaster management directions

The coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, is wreaking havoc across the world and South Africa is no exception. On 15 March, President Cyril Rhamaphosa declared a national state of disaster and announced a raft of measures to contain the spread of the virus.

Three days later, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (the Minister) issued the COVID-19 Regulations, in terms of section 27(2) of the Disaster Management Act of 2002. Subsequently, the President announced a 21-Day National Lockdown, during which the unnecessary movement of people is prohibited and all business and manufacturing must end, save for a limited number of  essential services and the production of a limited number of essential goods. The announcement was followed by various regulations and directions targeting various sectors and institutions such as transport, immigration, business, provincial governments and local governments.

On 25 March, the Minister issued the COVID-19 Disaster Response Directions of 25 March 2020 (the Directions) targeting provinces, municipalities and traditional leaders. They were amended on 30 March 2020. On the same day, the Minister of Finance also issued a notice that exempts municipalities and municipal entities from complying with certain provisions of the Municipal Finance Management Act of 2003 (MFMA) and its Regulations. Ever since the first set of Regulations and Directions were issued there have been several changes to the Regulations and Directions. While such changes may be necessary to respond to practicalities on the ground the stability and predictability of the regulatory regime has become a concern. Based on the current trends it should not come as a surprise if more changes are rolled out in the future as the government tries to fine-tune its response to COVID-19.

In two articles we set out the various measures. What is the scope and content of these notices and directions? Who implements them? What do they mean for municipal governance? The first article focuses on the service delivery functions of municipalities. The second article focuses on how the directions and regulations impact on governance arrangements.

Who facilitates the implementation of the Directions at provincial and local levels?

The responsibility to implement the Directions under the Disaster Management Act is placed on all premiers, members of executive councils (MECs) responsible for local government in the provinces, the President of the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), all mayors (whether executive or non-executive) and institutions of traditional leadership. The role of the President of SALGA is quite distinct from the role of premiers, MECs and mayors. SALGA is an association of municipalities. Unlike Premiers, MECs and Mayors, it has no service delivery mandate, it has no power to regulate the public domain or power to supervise municipalities. However, SALGA plays a critical role in disseminating information, supporting its member municipalities and advocating for the interests of municipalities in government’s handling of the crisis.

The provision of water and sanitation services

The Directions instruct municipalities to help prevent the transmission of the virus by, among other things, providing water and sanitation services to their respective communities. The Directions specifically mention the delivery of potable water and proper sanitation to high population density suburbs, rural communities, and informal settlements. This is because people residing in these areas are particularly vulnerable to infection. In cases where there is no proper infrastructure for supplying piped water, municipalities, working with the Department of Water and Sanitation Services, must adopt appropriate mechanisms including the provision of water tankers, boreholes and storage tanks to ensure that everyone has access to water irrespective of where they reside and their personal circumstances.

The disaster has prompted many municipalities to rapidly expand water delivery. However, the legal obligation to ensure basic water provision was always there. Regulation 3 of the Compulsory National Water standards, issued in terms of the Water Services Act, states that the minimum standard for basic water services is a minimum quantity of potable water of 25 litres per person per day or 6 kilolitres per household per month -

  • at a minimum flow rate of not less than 10 litres per minute;
  • within 200 metres of a household; and
  • with an effectiveness such that no consumer is without a supply for more than seven full days in any year.

Municipalities, working with other stakeholders such the Department of Water and Sanitation Services, must also ensure that water and sanitation services are available at public facilities and public transport points.

Cleansing, sanitisation and waste management

The Directions require municipalities to cleanse and sanitise public facilities. They further require them to identify hotspot areas for COVID-19 and implement relevant mitigation measures. Such measures may include the establishment of capacitated and well-equipped response teams to cleanse and sanitise high risk places and facilities. The Directions instruct municipalities to inform local, provincial and national stakeholders where the hotspots are, so as to enable an integrated response. Furthermore, in conducting waste management, municipalities must ensure that relevant protocols are followed when disposing hazardous waste such as gloves and masks to reduce opportunities for further transmission of the virus.

Monitoring basic services in informal settlements

The challenge of containing the Coronavirus is most acute in informal settlements. Much will depend on how municipalities discharge the obligations mentioned above. A useful resource in this respect is Asivikelane, an initiative of IBP South Africa, Planact, the SASDI Alliance and Afesis-corplan. It gives voice to informal settlement residents in South Africa’s major cities who are faced with severe basic service shortages during the Covid-19 crisis. By responding to three questions weekly about their access to water, clean toilets and waste removal, residents offer us a window into their daily experiences. The detailed results are published weekly and shared with the relevant municipalities and national government departments.

Use of municipal public spaces, facilities and offices

Municipalities must close all non-essential public facilities and places such as swimming pools, public parks, libraries, museums etc. They may also no longer issue permits for marches, protests and the handing over of petitions. Municipalities are instructed to close all markets, including street vendors other than food markets. This provision is potentially confusing and contradicts the (amended) Lockdown Regulations, which allows spaza shops and informal food traders to continue operating. It is suggested that the terminology across the two sets of regulations must be aligned.

Public facilities, places and offices used to provide essential services may now only be used with stricter implementation of social distancing under the monitoring and control of municipalities and relevant authorities. All municipal events have been suspended for the duration of the Lockdown. In fact, the same applies to all types of community gatherings such as weddings and celebrations. Municipalities must work with SAPS, the SANDF and other law enforcement agencies to stop all social and public gatherings.

Funerals and cremations

Funerals and cremations are the only forms of gatherings that may still continue but under strict conditions. Municipalities, working with other stakeholders, must ensure that families limit the number of mourners to no more than 50, and that the relevant families adopt all safety hygiene measures. The movement of people between metropolitan areas, districts and provinces for the purposes of attending funerals is now limited to members of the immediate family. But the maximum number of people that may attend any funeral remains 50 and night vigils are not permitted. Further, people wishing to travel between metropolitan areas, districts and provinces to attend a funeral are now required to secure a permit from the nearest magistrate or station commander of a police station. There are several other restrictions that apply to funerals and cremations that municipalities and the general populace must take note of including those on the transportation, handling and disposal of human remains brought about as a result of COVID-19.

Hygiene awareness, monitoring and controlling social distancing

Municipalities and institutions of traditional leadership are directed to ensure consistent and wide-spread messaging and communication around hygiene education. Amongst other things, they must provide orientation and information to councillors, ward committees, community development workers, traditional leaders, religious leaders, Expanded Public Works Programme workers and Community Works Programme workers. The objective must be to enable “uniform, non-alarmist and consistent communication with the public”.

Municipalities are instructed to monitor and control social distancing. In collaboration with other stakeholders such as the police and the army, municipalities are required to monitor and control social distancing not only in public facilities but also in communities. Municipalities are the level of government that is physically the closest to communities and familiar with their respective local environments. Using councillors, law enforcement, community workers and working in partnership with community-based organisations, municipalities are well-placed to monitor and control social distancing.

Isolation and quarantine sites

Municipalities have been instructed to identify and manage areas suitable for the quarantine and isolation of people in high risk categories. When identifying these sites, municipalities must work with their respective provincial governments. The municipalities must implement the guidelines and protocols of the Department of Health relating to quarantine, self-quarantine and isolation on these respective sites.

Provincial and municipal command centres

In times like these, coordination within and across spheres of government is crucial. This is why the Directions instruct each province to establish a Provincial Command Council and coordinating structures to support the national institutional arrangements. They are also required to support the establishment of joint operation centres in every metro and district municipality.  Further, they are expected to make resources available to these centres or to the district disaster management centres. These provincial structures are required to monitor the impact of interventions and submit weekly reports to the national disaster management structures.

Municipalities are instructed to have command councils at district or metropolitan level to coordinate local efforts in support of the provincial and national efforts. The requirement for their participation in the joint district and provincial disaster management structures is meant to ensure.

Development of COVID-19 response plans

Provincial departments responsible for cooperative governance and offices of the premiers are required to develop and implement a COVID-19 Response Plan for their respective provinces. Further, they must monitor and coordinate the provincial department’s response to COVID-19 and are expected to obtain and analyse district or Metros COVID-19 risk profiles. They also have a duty to support the district disaster management centres to develop COVID-19 response plans with the involvement of the local municipalities. Lastly, they are required to monitor and report on the progress and impact of the interventions to the national Minister of COGTA once a week.

Municipalities are also required to develop and implement COVID-19 Response Plans and risk profiles. They must monitor progress and impact of interventions in their respective communities and submit weekly reports to the Minister. The utility of the submission of weekly reports to the Minister is very doubtful. Is it realistic to expect a municipality that is operating on a skeleton staff to submit a report every week to the national Minister? Given that municipalities participate in district and provincial disaster management structures and that the provincial government reports (weekly) to the Minister, what does a weekly municipal report add? Furthermore, what will national Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) do with 257 weekly municipal reports?

Prioritisation of employee health and safety issues

All national departments, provincial governments, municipalities and traditional leaders are required to adopt a variety of measures to mitigate employee health and safety risks. These measures include the provision of materials or equipment necessary to prevent the person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 such as sanitisers, facial masks and soaps. The electronic handling of documents should now be prioritised to prevent the transmission of the virus. Frontline and general staff must be trained on hygiene and sanitising of workspaces and on COVID-19 risk identification and response protocols. Municipalities are specifically directed to disinfect their floors and work surfaces at least two times a day during working hours. All the relevant institutions mentioned above must establish mechanisms of reporting identified cases of transmission and infection without raising public alarm and fear. It is also their obligation to ensure that they have sufficient stock needed to promote employee health and safety for the duration of the national state of disaster.

By Jaap de Visser & Tinashe Carlton Chigwata

The publication of the Bulletin is made possible with the support provided by the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Bavarian State Chancellery.

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