Harare - After half a year of hunkering down and dealing with the initial fallout of COVID-19, Southern Africa is stirring back to life as the reality sets in that the pandemic is not going anywhere any time soon.
The virus made landfall in Southern Africa in March with the DRC, Zimbabwe and South Africa among the first in the region to record cases of the new coronavirus. Within a short time, South Africa became the pandemic epicentre in a region that is itself the hardest hit on the continent.
Countries swiftly imposed strict national lockdowns that many agree saved countless lives - but at a huge economic cost for a region that relies on tourism, agriculture and mining, in addition to having a huge informal sector.
In addition, the lockdowns came on the backdrop of climatic shocks and pre-existing structural fragilities that only served to further national economic bases.
While acknowledging that the region was far from being out of the woods, countries are progressively coming to grips with the reality that the world will never be the same again and economies have to find ways of reopening as soon as possible.
The past few weeks have seen an easing in lockdown restrictions, with this week being particularly pivotal in the region’s tentative embracing of the new normal.
As of September 16, the country had recorded 2,463 COVID-19 cases and 11 deaths.
Following the outbreak, the country was divided into nine containment zones that are being used to control movements and facilitate swift responses to COVID-19 confirmations.
Gaborone has lifted a ban on public meetings, workshops and conferences but placed an attendance limit of 75 people. Further, participation in public gatherings was restricted to people within their containment zones.
For purposes of contact tracing, registers containing the personal and contact details of all persons accessing premises must be maintained and open for inspection by health officials and law enforcement officers.
Public schools started to re-open in a phased manner from in June though private schools had resumed operations a month earlier.
Namibia declared a state of emergency on March 13 and lifted it this week.
Statistics from the Africa Centres for Disease Control on September 17, 2020 showed the country had 9,964 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 108 deaths.
In recent weeks, infections have been declining. What has been on the rise is a call to facilitate greater economic activity.
While announcing the end of the state of emergency on Thursday, President Hage Geingob said: “While we have observed positive outcomes from the response measures on public health, such as the declining rates of infection, however, our economy, income and job security have been adversely affected as we implemented these necessary measures. Yes, the virus is deadly, however we are aware that poverty also kills...
“Having assessed and weighed both the positive and negative impacts of the regulations; having considered the additional capacity created during the six-month period; and having listened to your extensive discussions and contributions, it was resolved that the state of emergency, upon expiry at midnight tonight, 17 September, will not be extended.”
President Geingob warned that lifting of some restrictions did not mean the threat was over, and indeed emphasise that this was “a defining moment” in the ongoing battle.
South Africa, which was recording around 12,000 new cases per day at the peak of the virus, is now registering less than 2,000 new patients a day. The recovery rate is at an impressive 89 percent.
The encouraging figures - and the discouraging economic statistics - prompted President Cyril Ramaphosa to ease lockdown restrictions to level one with effect from September 20.
“We have withstood the coronavirus storm, 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,” President Ramaphosa.
“While much economic activity resumed in June, it is now time to remove as many of the remaining restrictions on economic and social activities as it is reasonably safe to do so.”
With effect from October 1, 2020, South Africa will re-open its skies to international travellers, subject to COVID-19 containment measures; while also permitting social, political and religious gatherings provided that the number of people does not exceed 50 percent of the capacity of the venue. There is also good news for imbibers as almost-unrestricted alcohol sales return.
“Travel maybe restricted to and from certain countries that have high infection rates, a list of those countries will be published and it will be based on the latest scientific data that we will be able to get on those countries.”
President Ramaphosa said all public servants would return to work, and curfew hours were reduced to between midnight and 4am.
“Despite the unprecedented nature of the disease and the immense challenge of placing a country of 58 million people under lockdown, we have fared well,” he said.
Zambia has long been moving towards reopening its economy, with air access restored back in June.
President Edgar Lungu said this was a purely economic decision.
“We have to get back to work, including in the tourism sector. I am therefore announcing the immediate re-opening of all international airports,” he said at the time.
Then last Friday, President Lungu ordered a full re-opening of schools, colleges and universities after partial reopening for examination classes in July.
“I announce the re-opening of all schools, colleges and universities with caution between September 14 and 18 subject to adherence to public health guidelines. Since the re-opening of schools for examination classes. I have observed and confirmed that there have been an insignificant number of pupils who have contracted COVID-19,” he said.
Following the outbreak of the virus in March, Zambia shut down all entertainment activities, nightclubs and bars. These have now been reopened from Friday to Sunday.
Harare ordered a total lockdown in March, which initially saw only essential service providers going to work.
Subsequent reviews allowed increasingly more social and economic activity.
As of September 16, the country had 7,598 cases and 224 deaths.
But the economic fallout has ratcheted pressure to reopening the economy.
In the past week, government has allowed schools to reopen, and air travel in and out of the country had been given the green light. Air Zimbabwe resumes domestic flights on September 23 while service for regional routes returns on October 3.
Cabinet has approved businesses to operate from 6:30am to 6:30pm
In addition, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has lifted the suspension of political activities.