President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE/SOWETAN
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE/SOWETAN

It’s almost a foregone conclusion that President Cyril Ramaphosa will further ease restrictions on people’s rights and economic activity when he addresses the nation later this week.

Since his last speech four weeks ago, when he announced the reopening of virtually every sector of the economy and allowed people to legally crack open a beer at a bar, travel between provinces and smoke a cigarette, almost every piece of important data has made the move to level one inevitable.  

For one thing, confirmed daily infections have hovered at about 1,000 compared with about 3,500 when last he made the speech about how SA’s battle against the pandemic was unfolding. If one looks further back, SA is on a sharp downward trend, because in July health minister Zweli Mkhize was tweeting almost daily about at least 10,000 new cases.

Even during the peak period in winter the feared overwhelming of hospitals did not happen. As Mkhize proclaimed two weeks ago, field hospitals built to prepare for the surge were no longer necessary and most were already being dismantled.

At the weekend, about 650,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases were recorded with more than 15,000 people having lost their lives. The recovery rate is nearly 90% — well above the global average of just more than 60%.

Perhaps the biggest piece of data that should compel Ramaphosa to roll back restrictions on the aviation and tourism industries is last week’s data laying bare the economic carnage from the lockdown restrictions.

With infection rates trending down and the economy stuck in its longest recession in almost three decades, Ramaphosa’s next big step should be the reopening of our borders to save the tourism and aviation industry

The contraction of more than 50% seasonally adjusted and annualised in the second-quarter GDP is not only a message for Ramaphosa to ease restrictions, but it should also show him the consequences of some of the arbitrary and nonsensical rules that throttled economic activity and threatened to undermine public compliance at the start of the lockdown.

Most would remember the initial ban on unrestrained commerce that ignored the role that online shopping can play in limiting the social and the economic impact of the lockdown, while allowing people to buy goods reasonably safely.

With infection rates trending down and the economy stuck in its longest recession in almost three decades, Ramaphosa’s next big step should be the reopening of our borders to save the tourism and aviation industry.

Tourism is one of the pillars of the economy, contributing nearly 9% to GDP in 2019, when more than 10-million international investors landed here and spent almost R120bn.

The industry has been running on fumes for much of the past five months, triggering a fight for survival even among heavyweight players such as Sun International and Tsogo Sun, and forcing smaller establishments such as bed-and-breakfast joints to shut their doors permanently.

It’s true that SA is among the riskiest countries to visit, ranking in the top 10 of countries with the largest Covid-19 caseload, while some countries in Europe, SA’s biggest source of tourists, are reporting a surge in new cases as the northern hemisphere heads for winter. It would therefore be wishful thinking for the tourism industry to pin its hope on a flood of visitors.   

But it would not be a bad idea for the president to open the skies to ensure SA does not completely fall off holidaymakers’ radars. This will come with its challenges. For example, what kind of quarantine regime will be appropriate to ensure safety while not discouraging visitors? A two-week period in isolation would probably cause most potential visitors to rule out SA as a destination. There will have to be some creativity and nimble thinking based on the trajectories of travellers’ home countries.

There’s also the issue of the 10pm curfew. While we understand the reasons for it, the country has to be careful not to fall into a slippery slope in which restrictions on people’s rights become semipermanent. Some ministers have already made their autocratic tendencies clear during the lockdown.

Until a vaccine or effective treatments are found, Covid-19 is something we will have to live with. As we open up, the message on individual behaviour and responsibility should be relentless, otherwise the sacrifices made so far will have been in vain.

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