Let’s rewind for a minute. We’ve been here before, speculating about how the easing of the lockdown-induced regulations are most likely to unfold.
For some industries, the more optimistic speculations turned out to be true in previous announcements. Others are still waiting, struggling to survive. Many have already become casualities.
The debate always boils down to the readiness of the health system to face a potential onslaught of Covid-19 cases versus the need for the economy to fully function in order to save jobs.
On Saturday, President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to address the nation on whether the country will be moving to Alert Level 2. This comes after the Forum of South African Directors-General (Fosad) recommended to the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) that South Africa’s lockdown regulations be eased.
Easing of restrictions so far
A lot of activity that would only have been allowed in Level 2 or even Level 1 was permitted in the various iterations of ‘advanced’ Level 3.
Government has allowed restaurants to open for sit-down operations, there has been a relaxation of the ban on leisure travel and accommodation within one’s own province, the curfew has been shortened to between 22:00 and 04:00, and business and other authorised air travel is allowed.
A move to Level 2 would indicate a moderate Covid-19 spread with high health system readiness.
Easing … with tougher restrictions
According to Professor Charles Parry, director of the alcohol, tobacco and other drug research unit at the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), most provincial hospitals will be able to withstand the eased regulations, if there are ‘tougher’ regulations on alcohol availability and advertising.
Parry says that data from 10 hospitals in Gauteng, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape show that in the four weeks following the second ban on liquor sales and the institution of a 21:00 curfew, there has been, on average, a 38% decrease in trauma presentations.
“I have heard parts of what the government is negotiating with industry, but I think the government should push for stronger regulations on [alcohol] container sizes,” Parry says.
He suggests that beer and cider bottles be limited to 500ml while wine and spirits should be no more than 750ml.
He emphasised that the risk of easing the regulations is huge and there is no guarantee that trauma units won’t again be congested with patients from alcohol-related accidents.
His SAMRC colleague, specialist scientist Dr Catherine Egbe, called for smokers to rethink their lifestyle choice in the midst of the pandemic, despite the decision government is widely expected to take.
“People are now more aware of the dangers smoking poses to their health and this should guide people’s actions and decisions about smoking going forward. People should be protected from exposure to second-hand smoke [or] stay smoke-free if [they] have already quit,” Egbe says.
Not so optimistic
The liquor and tobacco industries have been vocal about the ban on their operations, and with the speculation that the limitations will be lifted, are wary of celebrating before the actual announcement, saying: “We have been here before.”
Kurt Moore of the South African Liquor Brand Owners Association, which represents manufacturers and distributors of alcohol, says it has made recommendations to government to reconsider its ban, but has not yet received confirmation whether it will be lifted, saying that no official date has been given.
He says that even when the ban is lifted, the industry will never recover from the losses it has incurred.
“The wine industry has lost R5 billion. Every week the ban continues we lose R400 million,” Moore says.
Fair-trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita) chair Sinenhlanhla Mnguni shares his sentiments.
“At this point, we are cautiously monitoring the situation. There have been similar rumours circulating in the past, only for the government to continue with the ban, so we are not getting too excited just yet. A decision to lift the ban, however, would be welcomed.”
Mnguni points out that there hasn’t been any engagement between the industry and government in relation to the sale of cigarettes in Level 2.
“We have always stated that our door is open, and we accordingly wait for government to give us an audience.”
He points out that even though it isn’t clear what the new regulations will be, billions of rands have been lost not only by the industry along the value chain but also by the fiscus, as the SA Revenue Service has not been able to collect much revenue from the tobacco industry as a result of the ban.
“There has been ongoing speculation over the past five months that the ban could be lifted, however, we can only be sure of this once new regulations are issued,” said the corporate communications team at Philip Morris South Africa, which produces Marlboro and Chesterfield cigarettes.
“We are therefore unable to comment further on this, but remain hopeful that the government will soon lift the ban.”
British American Tobacco echoes these sentiments.
Tourism and inter-provincial travel
The tourism sector has been one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic globally and will continue to feel the impact of Covid-19 for the foreseeable future.
Every day the country has been and continues to be under lockdown around R740 million is lost to the sector – and it is expected that 600 000 jobs will be lost, according to Tourism Business Council of South Africa CEO Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa.
Tshivhengwa said that if Ramaphosa is going to open up the economy, and for the country to thrive, tourism employees must go back to work. This will only meaningfully happen if Ramaphosa lifts the ban on inter-provincial travel.
“People must cross the provinces because people in Gauteng are the ones who feed Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, Free State and the Drakensberg area with travel.”
“There’s no reason to open a hotel in Bela Bela if people cannot move [across provinces],” Tshivhengwa said.
Fighting to survive
FlySafair chief marketing officer Kirby Gordon says the aviation market is currently “operating between 6% and 8% of the seats that were available this time last year”.
The airline accounts for 60% of that domestic share, which it says it’s still modest with demand being restricted by the regulations.
“We have built up to a point where we are now operating between 22 and 26 flights a day, depending on the day of the week, but this is only a fraction of what we are capable of operating,” says Gordon, adding that FlySafair is staffed and fleeted to operate 84 flights a day, which was the norm before lockdown.
A lift of the ban on interprovincial travel won’t be a silver bullet that solves the problem of low demand, especially in the current economic environment, but Gordon says full domestic travel will provide “the first step up toward a point where we can actually start thinking about recovering”.
“Right now, we are just fighting to survive.”
Tshivhengwa said the discussion on when international travel will be allowed also “can’t be avoided any longer”, explaining that the government needs to give the sector a date when it will be allowed, even if it comes with restrictions.
All air travel will be permitted in Level 1, but Tshivhengwa said that could be next year and the country does not have the “luxury” of waiting until then, especially with spring and summer at our door.
“Tanzania is open and we know Kenya has put a date down to open [August 1] – and those are our competitors,” he said, adding that people in South Africa’s key source markets who want to go on ‘safari’ will go to those countries if SA does not open its borders.