Citizens walk along a street in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 22, 2020. (Xinhua/Chen Cheng)

Time to reopen S. African economy despite surge in COVID-19 cases: senior offical

A national lockdown in South Africa has served its purpose and that it is now time to reopen the economy despite a surge in COVID-19 cases, a senior government official told Parliament.

The government is finalizing consultations with different stakeholders on how to systematically reopen industries and get the economy back to work, Lionel October, director-general of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, said on Friday while briefing Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Trade and Industry on measures to reopen the economy.

A large part of the economy is expected to reopen as the country moves to level three of the lockdown next month, October said.

South Africa eased the lockdown, imposed on March 27, from level five to level four on May 1, allowing certain businesses to resume operations.

Despite the rapid spread of the pandemic, there have been growing calls for further easing the lockdown to level three, which will allow more businesses to reopen and greater movement of people.

On Thursday, South Africa reported 1,134 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, the highest daily record since the country recorded its first case in early March. With the newly-added cases, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa stood at 19,137, the highest on the African continent.

Although the lockdown has had devastating effects on the economy, it has achieved its objectives, allowing the country to prepare for an increase in cases of COVID-19, October said.

The World Health Organization has advised that the rate of infection must first fall before countries can start relaxing lockdown.

October said industries will be required to ensure worker safety and protection as a condition to return to business and companies which do not put safety measures in place will be forced to close.

South Africa’s economy, like many others across the globe, will no doubt contract quite seriously as a result of the impact of COVID-19, he said.

As part of interventions to keep industries afloat during this difficult period, October said, the government is assisting companies in distress through funding and has also made significant investments assisting companies manufacturing protective equipment.

“The procurement is done by the departments of health and education. Our role is to mobilize the industry to make sure it is able to produce and protect jobs,” he said.

Also on Friday, President Cyril Ramaphosa held a virtual engagement with stakeholders in tourism on plans to sustain the sector affected by lockdown restrictions on the movement of people and the closure of the country’s borders.

The meeting followed the president’s consultations in recent days with the National Economic Development and Labor Council, leaders of South Africa’s interfaith communities and leaders of political parties represented in Parliament, on the country’s move to level three of the lockdown.

These consultations enable the government to share its plans and outlook with stakeholders who are given the opportunity to table concerns and proposals that enable effective partnerships between the government and the social partners in efforts to protect lives and livelihoods alike, Ramaphosa’s office said.