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Free State Premier Sisi Ntombela says there should be no rush to move the entire province to alert Level 3 as this might jeopardise some of the gains made so far in the fight against COVID-19 and compromise people’s lives.

She said the disease, which is yet to reach its peak, is likely to be worsened by the incoming winter season as the coronavirus is said to thrive under cold conditions.

This means more people could contract the virus in the coming months, particularly in Mangaung.

“People (are) saying open up, the economy is going down. But what about the people?” Ntombela said during media briefing called by her Provincial Command Council on COVID-19 to give an update on the implementation of the risk-adjusted strategy to fight the disease this Tuesday.

“The Free State is one of the four most affected princes in the country and yet it’s one of the poorest. Our people are very poor. Winter is coming.

“The lives of our people matter. We should not rush to open the economy at the expense of people’s lives.”

The premier said the disease could wreak havoc across the world for at least two years before a vaccine or cure can be found, meaning people should change the way they live now and adjust to a new way of life with a lot of restrictions.

“We are going to live with this virus for a long time. It is not something that will go away soon. We must change the way we have always lived,” Ntombela said.

“The economy of the Free State is going to be affected but let’s not just do things for money. We must save people’s lives.”

She added that even if other districts in the province are allowed to move to Level 3, Mangaung, which is the provincial epicentre of the disease, might have to remain on Level 4.

The Free State economy has not performed well in recent years due to a marked slowdown in activity in the mining and agricultural sectors, the province’s traditional economic anchors.

It has struggled to recover from the 2008/9 recession, only achieving an average of 1.5 percent annual growth.

Although it exceeded a two percent growth rate in 2010 and 2012, growing unemployment has remained a major headache for the province.

The Free State has an official unemployment rate of 35 percent, which is only second to the Eastern Cape with a staggering 39.5 percent.

The expanded unemployment rate for the province, which includes those who have given up looking for work, is 42.3 percent.

South Africa’s official unemployment rate is 29.1 percent with the expanded rate standing at 38.7 percent.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt, the provincial treasury anticipated the Free State economy to improve by about 1.4 percent in 2020, and average only 0.9 percent over the next four years.

This might never be realised given the widespread disruptions brought by the pandemic which has put the whole world under virtual lockdown as countries try to manage the spread of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the premier has urged residents who may need assistance to avoid being conned and call the provincial COVID-19 hotline on 0800 535 554.

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