Debate to reopen borders continues

The reluctance to open international borders for travel was criticised by Wits social security systems administration and management studies Professor Alex van den Heever during a panel discussion by the National Press Club (NPC) last Friday. 

Van den Heever raised concerns that a large part of South Africa’s lockdown protocols was based on modelling, with “actual data” now proving these models wrong. 

He revealed that the pandemic has reached immunity levels in high-risk communities, and this coupled with prevention measures has resulted in the pandemic receding “significantly”. 

He also questioned projections of a second wave of infections, saying the risk is “vertically zero”.

“Why keep the industry closed when it poses no additional risk from a pandemic perspective?” 

As such it served no purpose for South Africa to keep its borders closed, and that even if international tourists arrive with the virus, it would not make “that much of a difference” to infection rates in South Africa.

Van den Heever indicated tourists were more at risk than South Africans, which was why health protocols must consistently be put in place. 

“Why should the industry not be opened up tomorrow? There is no indicator suggesting the industry should remain closed for a day longer… I see no reason why all remaining sectors of the economy should not be opened tomorrow,” he noted. 

Tshwane University of Technology lecturer Unathi Henama, also a panellist during the NPC’s discussion, said he believed the borders “will be open very soon”. 

Henama enthused that South Africa was “one of the best success stories in Africa” in terms of the pandemic, much of which was thanks to the healthcare system supporting the country. 

But as the tourism industry opens, he emphasised that the messaging must be coherent. Numerous challenges plaguing the sector before lockdown must still be addressed. 

He added that the cost of travel in South Africa must be brought down, providing the example that tourists having to choose between South Africa and Bali before lockdown usually chose Bali, due to it being more affordable. 

Tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane responded to Van den Heever’s criticism by reporting that many countries still list South Africa as a high-risk destination due to Covid-19. 

South Africa was previously ranked number five in the world in terms of infections, but revealed that on Friday, it is now ranked seventh, and expects that as numbers continue to decline, she expects the country to be ranked outside the top 10 in the world. 

Kubayi-Ngubane’s consistent message throughout the pandemic was to take each challenge “one step at a time”. As such, she said the reopening of regional borders had to happen first, but that we remain a risk to other African countries. 

For tourism to resume and aspire to perform better than before lockdown, the country must be seen by international stakeholders as being low risk. This would assure prospective travellers that they would be looked after, and that health protocols would be adhered to starkly and consistently. 

This is made difficult by reports of up to 80% noncompliance rates within the industry. 

“This regresses our work. We don’t want to become the source of the spread. Once social media hits, it goes international.”

She said her ability to engage with international ministers and global partners was hampered by protocols not always being adhered to, both in the tourism industry and its sub-sectors. 

Van den Heever argued that it makes no sense to wait for 100% compliance, and that the main issue is to open up the industry fully again, enforce frameworks, and then deal with “outliers” to ensure compliance. 

“We’ve got to get out of the way of our own industry, which means opening borders first.” 

He pointed to the fact that despite data and information being made available, the level of specificity is weak, adding it was problematic that the only people that could advise international stakeholders were those in government. 

He said closing the borders meant not allowing international travellers to book in advance either, calling for those in charge of ensuring compliance to do so, and allow for the sector to return to its former glory. 

“The issue for me is I cannot see how we face any further risk… Anything closed that needs reopening should reopen.” 

“I would have long opened regional borders if it were up to me,” Kubayi-Ngubane responded, explaining that it was essential that government be exposed to different, often-opposing views from scientists. 

Kubayi-Ngubane also raised an interesting point that the tourism industry would do well to benefit by targeting those employed in government through campaigns. 

She said because no workers within government had been retrenched, it provided an entire market of people who can afford to travel with their families. -Citizen