South Africa eases restrictions, opens borders as virus cases slow

Cyril Ramaphosa

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday announced South Africa would be moving to its lowest lockdown level, as Covid-19 cases fall.

“We have withstood the coronavirus storm,” the president said in a televised address. Two months ago, Ramaphosa said, South Africa was recording around 12,000 new Covid-19 cases a day. Now, fewer than 2,000 daily cases are being recorded.

South Africa ushered in one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in March, initially installing a night-time curfew and, controversially, banning alcohol and tobacco sales.

The country has been through five stages of lockdown, with level five being the tightest. That has been gradually downgraded until level one – which will begin at midnight on Sunday.

Level one means that most normal activity can resume, although health precautions like mask-wearing and physical distancing remain in place.

“Exactly half a year has passed since we declared a national state of disaster. In that time… our economy and our society have suffered great devastation,” Ramaphosa said in the national address.

However, “we have succeeded in overcoming the worst phase of this pandemic,” he added. When the global pandemic started, South Africa prepared for the worst. The government tried to free up hospital beds, as the World Health Organization warned the virus could cause as many as 10 million infections on the continent within six months.

But the worst-case scenario has not come to pass, though some experts question if this is simply a consequence of relatively little testing in the region.

South Africa has confirmed more than 650,000 cases and 15,000 deaths due to the virus, and remains the worst affected country on the continent.

The country is ramping up contact tracing and is currently taking part in three global vaccine trials.
Ramaphosa noted that South Africa has a high recovery rate of 89 per cent, and that demand for hospital beds, ventilators and oxygen has also steadily decreased.

However, he warned citizens to be vigilant to avoid a second wave.The months of restrictions have had a devastating effect on the country’s economy, with millions struggling to survive, and poverty and food insecurity worsening dramatically.

Commercial flights into and out of the country were banned, causing huge damage to the tourism industry.
Last week, the national statistics bureau announced the economy had contracted by a massive 51 per cent due to pandemic.

But even before Covid-19, Africa’s second-largest economy was struggling. With high unemployment and brutal social inequality, the country has grappled for years with structural economic problems and an unreliable electricity supply.

In April, the government announced plans to spend 500 billion rand (27 billion dollars) to support the economy and the country’s 58 million people.

The move to level one “removes many of the remaining restrictions on economic activity,” Ramaphosa said, announcing that South Africa will open its borders on October 1.

Business travellers and tourists would be able to come to the country, he said, but must provide Covid-19 test results not older than 72 hours.

Travel may be restricted to and from certain countries that have high infection rates, he added, saying a list of those nations would later be provided.

Under the new lockdown regulations, a curfew that originally ran from 10 pm to 5 am (2200 to 0500) has been adjusted to run from midnight to 4 am.

South Africans widely supported the lockdown at first, but there has been rising anger over allegations of misuse of funds intended for protective equipment, and other cases of corruption. Ramaphosa has promised an investigation.

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