Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI
Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI

If there were any doubts about the dilemma that faces governments as they seek ways to open their economies and facilitate some kind of return to normality in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, events across the world this week will help to dispel them. And they demonstrate why President Cyril Ramaphosa’s emphasis on personal behaviour in the next stage of fighting the spread of the virus is the correct one.

Just as we were getting comfortable with the idea of societies across the world opening up, there were headlines that Beijing was closing schools again after a new outbreak linked to a wholesale food market. Restrictions on travelling in and out of the Chinese capital city were reintroduced and hundreds of flights were cancelled.

New Zealand, hailed as the model of how to respond after going for weeks without a single case, finds itself in the middle of a health and public relations mess based on two people who travelled from the UK. Just over a week after declaring itself “virus free”, the country was on Wednesday in a desperate search for more than 300 potential contacts of the pair who arrived with the virus and were allowed to leave quarantine without being tested.

These cases highlight the challenges SA is facing as it eases its lockdown conditions further, a move that comes as we are heading towards our peak in infections and fatalities.

It was clear from Ramaphosa’s address that there’s a limit to how long the country could keep industries key to people’s wellbeing closed.

Across the world, the pain of being closed is proving too hard to bear, and that’s not just about economics. The closure of schools is stunting children’s development while placing financial and psychological pressures on households. Children whose parents can afford private education and modern technological gadgets are leaving their poorer peers behind, reinforcing inequality.

While in SA we had already opened most of the economy, key sectors such as tourism were still left behind. They got some respite with some of the easing announced on sit-down restaurants, hotels and casinos, among others. The president still didn’t go far enough.

It was of course significant that there wasn’t much said about opening up travel, local and international, even at a time when the government has signalled a willingness to plough billions of rand more into SAA, a stance that is hard to support given the economic realities and competing demands on the stretched fiscus. If it is going to spend more money on the airline, it could at least set the conditions where it can operate and earn an income, and it’s hard to see it being viable without international traffic.

Venice, one of the key tourist destinations in the world, this week welcomed visitors for the first time in three months. Other places SA competes with have taken similar steps, while the country remains largely closed to the rest of the world.

Surprisingly, nothing was said about further easing on local travel either. If people aren’t able to travel, the casinos and hotels will remain largely empty.

We have had three months to get the health system ready for a surge in cases we always knew would come. This is where the government has to be held to account, and it needs to be more open about the level of readiness.

The consensus across the world is that the virus isn’t going to go away any time soon, and Ramaphosa’s speech, a large portion of which was dedicated to personal behaviour, recognised this. The strategy has moved from lockdown to how we manage the virus. This will involve reinforcing existing messages on implementing stringent safety protocols.

It’s not going to be an easy process and there’s no doubt that opening up will lead to more cases. Going back isn’t a viable option and SA should move further, emphasising the highest personal responsibility as we move towards getting the economy completely opened.

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