BUSISIWE MAVUSO | Remaining COVID restrictions for business are self-defeating

POSTED ON: March 25, 2022 IN by Admin
restrictions restrictions

By Busisiwe Mavuso

We need all businesses to be able to operate at full efficiency for them to contribute to a broader economic recovery that is struggling to get going.

Government is right to deliberate on the extent of the powers to be granted to the health minister and other organs of state so that future waves of Covid-19 can be managed without the need to reimpose a national state of disaster.

Approving any legislation that gives the state powers to impose limitations on individual freedoms is a grave matter.

In the context of how important this issue is, perhaps the government was right to extend the state of disaster until the legislation is clarified. But it now runs to 16 April – will it have everything ready by then, bearing in mind that President Cyril Ramaphosa had stated that the previous extension to 15 March would be the last?

I was hoping President Cyril Ramaphosa would go further than he did in his address to the nation on Tuesday night, particularly with some of the restrictions that are still imposed on businesses.

The restrictions he did relax are welcome. Indoor and outdoor venues no longer have an upper capacity limit but may now take up to 50% of their capacity – but that’s only if there’s screening at entrances for vaccine certificates. Only the vaccinated and those able to produce a negative Covid-19 test taken in the previous 72 hours may be allowed in, otherwise the original limit remains imposed.

That condition is smart: it’ll encourage more people to get vaccinated which is still the best weapon against the coronavirus.

The looser restrictions on public gatherings will be particularly beneficial to the hospitality, entertainment and sporting industries but our beleaguered tourism & hospitality sector got another boost with a change to the requirement for international travellers and South Africans re-entering the country. Previously travellers needed to produce a recent negative PCR test regardless of whether or not they were vaccinated. Now the vaccinated can enter freely but those not vaccinated still need the negative test result.

BLSA believes this step could have been taken much earlier considering that all sectors of the economy were hit hard by the Covid lockdowns but none more so than hospitality & tourism, which is a significant employer of women (as high as 70%) and youth. It incorporates about 49,000 small and medium enterprises with high employment ratios of low- and semi-skilled people. By nature of its geographic distribution, it disproportionately (compared to other sectors) generates economic activity, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in remote areas of the country..

As other sectors were being released from onerous restrictions, new waves of the virus in the festive season periods of 2020 and 2021 restricted international travel, extinguishing hope that the normally busy holiday period would enable struggling small enterprises to recover.

The tragedy to the wider economy is that tourism & hospitality was identified as a potential high-growth sector long before the pandemic. The National Development Plan drafted in 2012 highlighted tourism as a labour‐intensive sector with the potential to stimulate economic growth and transformation. Boosting tourism directly benefits two of our most vulnerable groups in terms of unemployment: black youth and women.

This serves as a reminder of the economic damage that the pandemic has wrought, not only in pushing our unemployment rate from 29.1% pre-Covid to 34.8%, but also in terms of lost opportunity.

Government has recognised the crisis in the industry and instituted a tourism sector recovery plan. One of its “seven strategic interventions” is to strengthen the supply side through resource mobilisation and investment facilitation.

The remaining restrictions on business activities, however, are self-defeating. Most of them have seemed pointless since the last wave, driven by the Omicron variant, passed with such a mild impact. But to keep them in place after easing the restrictions in all other areas of society on Tuesday night is perplexing.

Businesses are still required to maintain registers of everyone on their premises and screen employees and visitors for symptoms, routinely deep clean premises, or put in place physical barriers between employees – who are still required to wear a mask even when distanced.

Given the critical state of our economy and our record unemployment levels, businesses need to be able to operate as efficiently as possible. This could have been an easy win for government. The restrictions curb business activity and impose compliance costs. For small businesses, many of which have been financially strained by the pandemic, small changes to business activity could be critical. It could mean the difference between retrenching or keeping an employee on because of improved prospects.

Every day makes a difference. We need all businesses to be able to operate at full efficiency for them to contribute to a broader economic recovery that is struggling to get going.

At the very least, government needs to spell out exactly what conditions need to be in place for these restrictions to be lifted.

*Mavuso is the CEO of Business Leadership South Africa. This article first appeared in Fin24.

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