South Africa lifts ban on international travel as coronavirus cases plummet



South Africa is to open its borders to international travellers from the beginning of next month as the country’s coronavirus cases continue to fall. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa lifted bans on international travel late on Wednesday and said the three main airports in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban will re-open on October 1. 

But he said that incoming international travellers would have to carry Covid-19 test results that were no more than 72 hours old.

In recent days South Africa has hit the threshold of low-level transmission of Covid-19 and there is now just one person infected per 100,000 people.  

This stands in stark contrast to the picture in July when South Africa’s government and private sector health officials jointly recorded more than 14,000 new infections daily.

The latest statistic for one day infections, released on Tuesday, was 772. In total there have been more than 650,000 cases in the country and 15,000 deaths.

“Now is the time to return our country, its people and our economy to a situation that is more normal, that more resembles the lives that we were living six months ago,” Mr Ramaphosa said.

“It is time to move to what will become our new normal for as long as the coronavirus is with us.”

As well as lifting the restrictions on international travel the country will move from a level two to level one alert from September 20. This will mean rules on gatherings will be eased and a national curfew will start at midnight rather than 10pm. 

The reopening of international borders will be a welcome boost to South Africa’s tourism industry, which employs one million people.  The only airline regularly flying in and out of South Africa at present is Ethiopian Airways, although Emirates will, by the end of the month be operating from Lusaka and Harare. 

So far, international airlines such as BA and Air France have not yet said when they will return to South Africa. South African Airways is in so much financial trouble it is not clear if it will ever operate again. 

The tourism lockdown in South Africa has had a broader impact on the whole region. Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport is the main hub for Southern Africa.

A safari tour operator in neighbouring Zimbabwe said it only business in the last month was local visitors: “We slashed costs to them so we could pay wages. All  international bookings we were moved to next year so we don’t know how we will survive.”

South Africa implemented one of the world’s strictest lockdowns 10 days after recording its first case of coronavirus in March.

It declared an official “state of disaster”, a seven-week lockdown that saw the outlawing of sales of all but food and pharmaceuticals, a travel ban within the country and the shutdown of all international airports. 

People were even banned from walking their dogs and sales of all alcohol and tobacco were prohibited for 16 weeks.

However, the effects on the economy were dire and, despite the implementation of a financial stimulus package and social relief programme, many South Africans were left destitute. 

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, who chairs the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Covid-19, said the country was still at a high risk of a resurgence of the disease.

“I think that is part of the reality we have to live with,” Professor Karim said ahead of the presidential announcement on Wednesday night. 

“We need to move on now and say this is the new normal. We need to continue our lives, get back to doing the things we do, provided we continue our prevention strategy, hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing.”

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