The Venn diagram, where public health imperatives and political needs intersect, is opaque, if not a mess. It is the meeting point between poor policies and arbitrary decisions.
South Africans found plenty to justly criticise about government overreach in the 16 months since the country was first placed under lockdown on March 26 2020.
The banning of slip-slops, cooked chicken and cigarette sales — the outer reaches of absurdity — jostled with bathing and beach restrictions for the top prize for official idiocy. None of this was helped when it was revealed that the minister of health, Zweli Mkhize, was front and centre of a corruption scandal, with his family and closest aides. Or that the police, which zealously arrested elderly citizens for such infractions as going to the pharmacy for medication without proof of prescription in Somerset West, stood by, months later, as violent looters ransacked shopping malls and distribution centres across KwaZulu-Natal.
So you might think better decision-making prowess and more appropriately calibrated policy execution was on offer further from our shores. Not so in my recent experience in Norfolk in the UK, from where I am tapping out this column in self-isolation.
Not seeing our closest family members for more than 18 months impelled my wife and me to hazard a journey overseas two weeks ago for a reunion with her son and his wife. That’s when the fun and expense really began.
SA is a red-zone country; we are back where we were with apartheid, when a South African passport was stamped with a long list of countries where South African travellers were not welcome. Now it is the coronavirus and our response to it (or lack thereof) that has excluded this country’s citizens from entering most countries.
Limitations on overseas travel might seem an elitist and esoteric concern given the daily miseries confronting people, and at one level it is. Yet with the collapse of our tourism and hospitality industry, the freezing of many flights and 40% reduction in foreign direct investment, SA’s decoupling and isolation from the world affects everyone. Jobs and our very economic survival depend on our engagement with the world.
And engaging, physically at least, in the world is no easy task for South Africans right now. The UK, for example, uses a traffic-light system to codify countries according to the risk of coronavirus contamination. Red is the worst ranking, green the best and amber in between. At the time of our departure, an alternative to being forced into a UK government-approved hotel for 10 days at a cost of more than R30,000 required a 10-day stayover in a third country. Since all so-called European “green” countries (those with low infection rates and from which admission to the UK is directly allowed) are closed to SA, the only “amber” country to admit South Africans without restriction was the Balkan state of Montenegro.
Ten days there convinced me the list must be dubious. There are no Covid-19-type restrictions to speak of or, at best, they exist theoretically. Few wear masks, precisely one restaurant asked us about our Covid-19 status and hundreds mingle without care on beaches and boulevards. Indeed, we had to undergo a mandatory PCR test before departing there for the UK, but I asked our hotel manager about the consequences if we tested positive. She assured me we would not. “It has never happened here,” she said. And so the test confirmed.
The next step was attaching the test result to a detailed travel locator form provided for travellers into the UK. And here the first absurdity and discrimination of the system reveals itself. The form asks whether you have received a vaccination in the EU or US. That my wife and I had received both Pfizer vaccinations, fully approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the EU’s European Medicines Agency (EMA), was irrelevant. If you receive the vaccinations in the “wrong” country, for the purposes of UK admission it is as good as never having been vaccinated at all.
On arrival in the UK yesterday we were required to proceed to our own selected address to isolate. But here comes the second breach in the system. There is no specification on how you get there, no requirement on travelling in some hermetically sealed carriage. So, great though the theoretical risk might be that two high-risk South Africans might be carriers of the dread plague, we proceeded for three hours in two fairly crowded trains to the site of our isolation.
This is meant to stretch to 10 days, but after two expensive tests (making it four to date) we can be released into the general population after five days if we test negative.
Yet while the restrictions on foreign travel and travellers are onerous and convoluted, the curbs in Britain have largely been lifted and, once released from lockdown, you can go to a football match or a play or mingle at leisure with the crowds.
Just how political the whole system is is that any arrival here from the US, for example, where a huge surge in cases is now reported, is allowed without any of the hoops we have to navigate, provided the traveller is doubly vaccinated. Not so for doubly vaccinated South Africans however.
Then there was the unnamed Conservative Party MP who was quoted in the Daily Telegraph on Monday demanding his government move countries in the Middle East from the red and amber lists to green: “We need to open up the Middle East,” he warned, and not for reasons of public health. Rather, as he stated: “The International Expo starts in Dubai in two months and we can’t have a situation where British people cannot go and showcase their businesses.”
Even though South African vaccination rates are ramping up significantly, it is sobering that not one country has moved from the UK red list to amber or green, yet. The restrictions here are officious and confusing, and in some basic ways self-defeating.
The large South African Embassy in London should be beating down the door of the Foreign Office and requesting that as our vaccination rates improve, the restrictions for South Africans ease. Because without that happening, the chances of daily flights from the UK to SA resuming remain slight. And without that resumption the red zone remains for our tourism sector. The knock-on effects of all this are numerous and negative.
In SA, few public officials pay much attention to press criticisms, for if they did, President Cyril Ramaphosa would have few serving members in his cabinet. In Britain it is a different story, where ministers resign days after being outed in the press in a scandal. And a government headed by a former journalist, such as Boris Johnson’s administration, is particularly sensitive to media attention.
Perhaps then, Johnson will pay attention to an editorial in The Times (his former employer) of Tuesday headlined “Holidays from Hell”. It calls for a more simple and comprehensible policy that stresses “vaccinations rather than trying to make nuanced distinctions between different categories of destination”.
Such a policy change would also end new discrimination against SA and its ever more vaccinated population.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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