Picture: 123RF/BREIZ HATAO
Picture: 123RF/BREIZ HATAO

When SA emerged from the peak of its first wave of Covid-19 infections during the winter, the government considered the possibility of opening up the country at different speeds.

On the face of it, having localised restrictions or lockdowns makes sense, allowing for targeted interventions instead of using the sledgehammer of closing down the whole economy with disastrous consequences for the welfare of the population.

But it comes with its own problems, such as regulating the movement of people and managing supply chains that transcend city or provincial borders. In the end, the country moved at the same speed and now the whole of SA is at level 1, the least restrictive of the lockdown levels.

With an uptick in coronavirus numbers in recent weeks, the possibility of new restrictions, and how severe they should be, has re-entered the national debate. On Wednesday, the national coronavirus command council (NCCC) was said to have agreed to recommend new restrictions to the cabinet, focusing primarily on the Eastern Cape and Western Cape.

Hospitals in the Eastern Cape and along the Garden Route in the Western Cape are already struggling to cope with a rapid surge in admissions, and the government is growing increasingly worried that the mass migration that traditionally takes place during the festive season will reseed the epidemic in places where transmission is currently low.

So, it’s not really a great surprise that it is considering localised restrictions though it seems, thankfully, that these will fall far short of the full or partial lockdowns implemented in other parts of the world. Some of the proposed changes include the nighttime curfew kicking in earlier and limiting trading hours for restaurants, bars and taverns.

The pragmatic and measured approach proposed is the correct way to go and will avoid some of the unintended consequences and grievances that can result when draconian restrictions are implemented, especially if only in parts of the country. 

Developments in the UK illustrate those difficulties. Before instituting a one-month national lockdown for England that ended at the start of December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had tried a tiered system with the northern parts of the country forced into the most severe lockdowns. That immediately unleased a backlash in cities such as Manchester and Liverpool that felt they were being used as guinea pigs, while economic activity in London was allowed.

Those regional rivalries and the sense of unfairness become even more pronounced when the regions have different governing parties. If the national ANC government imposes restrictions that hurt the tourism market in the Western Cape just as the country goes into busy holiday period, very few will fail to notice that the region is governed by the opposition DA.

The restrictions being touted for Covid-19 hotspots are sensible in that they may help slow the spread of infections without imposing unbearable economic costs. The reality for SA is that, having exhausted its ability to support affected workers and businesses, it simply cannot afford to turn the economy on and off.

Restrictions have to be proportionate and cannot be allowed to be at the expense of the country’s tourism industry, one of the biggest victims of the earlier lockdown. As it is, the road to recovery is going to be a slow one as the deterioration in the health situation in
Europe discourages travel. With that in mind, even limited restrictions on hotels, restaurants and alcohol sales in the Western Cape may prove to be counterproductive.

Enforcement of current rules, such as those limiting numbers at restaurants, funerals and taverns, has to be the main tool, together with vigilance in enforcing the message about social distancing, wearing masks and hygiene. Until there is a vaccine, Covid-19 is going to be part of everyday life.

As the sacrifices made in March were supposedly to ensure we are able to live with and manage that reality, now is the time to show that we have, indeed, learnt the lessons and are prepared for it.

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